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Single-Room Occupancy Could Be One Answer To Housing Affordability, But It Must Overcome Its Image Problem First

Almost as soon as the pandemic’s initial economic shutdown eased, rents began rising all over the country — sharp hikes that haven’t stopped since, making the nation's longstanding lack of affordable housing an even more urgent problem.

That urgency has led to a groundswell of support for a form of deeply affordable housing that fell out of favor years, if not decades, ago.

A resident stands in one of Houston-based New Hope Housing's studio efficiency apartments.

Single-room occupancy housing peaked in the early part of the 20th century, most commonly serving migrant and transient workers in what were once called boarding houses. But as they gained a reputation for being unsafe and unhygienic neighborhood eyesores, many of the buildings aged, fell into disrepair or were zoned out of existence. 

Now, as housing affordability has grown more desperate in the past two years, SRO and similar concepts such as micro-units and tiny homes have again entered the housing policy conversation for cities that did away with them in the past, multiple experts told Bisnow

Anecdotes extolling individual success stories with SRO have come out of Portland, Oregon and New York's Harlem neighborhood. City council in Chicago, a city that held onto hundreds of SRO properties until relatively recently, approved a loan program to preserve and maintain what remains in April. In several cities, advocates have campaigned for temporary programs repurposing hotels to house those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic to be made permanent.

But for SRO to fully regain its place as a viable method of housing low-income tenants, especially those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, old ideas need to be updated and lingering negativity dispelled. 

“We’re hearing lots of people talk about it as one of the things that should be put back into the mix when we need to think creatively about what local zoning looks like,” National Alliance to End Homelessness CEO Ann Oliva said. “It’s one of a number of innovations or changes that folks want to pursue as the affordable housing crisis gets harder and harder to address.” 

In 2019, Minnesota’s Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, introduced a Supportive Housing Strategy that included providing capital assistance for deeply affordable projects, including SRO, with a $5M annual budget. In Philadelphia, City Councilmember-at-Large Derek Green has introduced a bill that would make SRO a permitted use for all commercial and residential zoning designations larger than single-family across the city.

When council recessed for the summer, Green’s bill had yet to be referred to committee, and he views the bill’s introduction as a “starting point for a conversation” rather than a firm proposal, he told Bisnow. But part of the reason for starting with a strictly zoning-based proposal is to address the proliferation of unlicensed rooms for rent, which likely far outnumber the handful of legal SROs in the city. 

Philadelphia City Councilmember-at-Large Derek Green

Under-the-table rentals can create dangerous living situations, out of the view of regulators and inspectors, and have been a more public concern in the city since a January fire at the overcrowded Fairmount duplex owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority that claimed the lives of 12 people, including eight children.

“The cost of goods, the cost of housing, everything is going up,” Green said. “That will create more incentives for people doing this under the radar, and those who can’t afford housing will go into these under-the-radar housing situations, which opens the possibility of more tragedy as we saw in Fairmount.”

Flipping a metaphorical switch to turn an SRO property from illegal to legal can improve visibility for regulators, but would likely do little to improve the affordable housing situation for a city without funding to maintain what is in place, build new units and support their residents.

"We need to offer support for those in need, so that if something happens, a person doesn’t lose housing because of it," Oliva said. "For whatever issue, addiction, disability, etc., there need to be supportive services. So while I wouldn’t say that lacking supportive services on-site is a dealbreaker, it is one of the things that we need [in order] to have a holistic solution to the homelessness and affordable housing crisis.”

In cities like San Francisco and Vancouver, Canada, metros where SRO has persisted since it lost favor elsewhere, areas in which it is allowed shrank over time. That has concentrated a certain type of poverty into properties that, even with government subsidies, have been riddled with complaints about poor living conditions of every sort.

In both Vancouver and San Francisco, SRO operators are subsidized by local and state governments, but often still fail to effectively maintain units and serve residents. One such property in Vancouver was vacated this spring over safety concerns, and the local city council denied a grant application by the owner to repair and reopen it. 

Vancouver City Councillor Pete Fry, who voted to deny the application, called the property in question a relic of the early 20th century, one of several in the eastern part of Downtown Vancouver, the only place SROs are still allowed in the city. Fry's issue is not with what he calls micro-units, which offer their own bathroom and kitchenettes, but shoddy housing that has historically been passed as SRO.

“It’s a pretty persistent and chronic problem with SROs in general, which is why collectively, we’re looking toward a future where they’re a thing of the past, which they kind of are,” Fry said.

Ward Rooming House in Miami's Overtown neighborhood, built in 1925 at the height of rooming houses' popularity among those who could not afford or were not allowed other accommodations. Pictured in 2019, it has been historically preserved and now houses an art gallery.

In Vancouver, SROs are not required to provide any sort of on-site supportive services for things like physical and mental health, which when combined with geographic restrictions, creates unsightly nodes of concentrated poverty and its associated problems.

“We eroded the support for those who may not need that level of support, who may be just poor, and we funneled them into this one area with a lot of poverty and misery, where there’s a lot of predation,” Fry said. “We set them up for failure.”

In Houston, which is unique in having no zoning regulations, New Hope Housing is the most prolific of a handful of developers focused on deeply affordable housing. New Hope started with SRO units before expanding to micro-units and housing for families. Eight of its 10 open properties are new construction, and all offer intensive support services and case workers to residents, most of whom have either previously experienced homelessness or are at immediate risk of becoming homeless due to lack of income and, often, substance abuse disorders or other mental health issues.

“There must be rental assistance and there must be supportive services” for SRO to be effective, New Hope President and CEO Joy Horak-Brown said.

New Hope’s units have their own bathrooms, and Horak-Brown prefers to call them studio efficiencies to distance their image from SRO’s history. The city of Houston, Harris County and the Houston Housing Authority have offered subsidies to operators like New Hope on the condition they collaborate with other service providers to offer support to SRO residents, Horak-Brown said.

Aside from the need for funding, one of the biggest barriers facing an expansion of SRO is the NIMBY mentality of neighbors, often fed by the image of the previous generation of boarding houses and catered to by elected officials. 

“We have a long history of racist housing policy in the country, and one of the manifestations is that we have these very concentrated housing areas for poverty," Oliva said. 

Due to the virtually unilateral control that district council members exert over zoning and land use in their territories, Green's bill in Philadelphia is reportedly at risk of having some council districts opt out, which Horak-Brown and Fry said would risk repeating the mistakes of the past.

Green said he faced similar opposition as a district council member's staffer working to get an addiction treatment-focused residential property built. His response to opposition then is the same as his response to opponents of his bill now.

"People may say they don’t want this in their backyard, but they are in your backyard already," Green said. "Would you rather this thing already in your backyard is regulated and overseen so it doesn’t impact quality of life, or would you rather have it unregulated and cause future problems to your community?"