Single Room Occupancy: A Relic Best Left to the Past or a Way to Make Cities More Affordable?

Knoxville Skyline from the South Knoxville Bridge, June 2017

Single Room Occupancy (SRO) was once a norm in cities in the United States. Its demise was fed by a number of variables, but that it has nearly disappeared is of little dispute. Is that a good thing? City Lab recently took a look in a visual article, “When America’s Basic Housing Unit Was a Bed, Not a House,” by Ariel Aberg-Riger. As we talk about affordable housing, it is at least instructive to see what we’ve lost. Or as they put it, “The same cities that struggle to provide affordable housing today eliminated their critical-but-maligned flexible housing stock after World War II.”

Today when we think of housing, we tend to think about families in “single family homes.” But it hasn’t always been that way. Not everyone is part of a family unit. Not everyone may need, benefit from or be able to afford a home. A hundred years ago, with cities booming, the need for a safe, warm place to sleep was seen as the issue, and that need was answered with a number of housing forms that offered less space and often offered it in communal conditions.

Boarding houses, rooming houses, lodging houses and flop houses provided that single need – a bed – to many people. The range, Aberg-Riger reports, of accommodations ran a a fairly large gamut including, “a ‘hot bed’ you shift-shared with others, a bed to yourself without a room, a room without a bathroom or a room with a bathroom, but no kitchen.” Obviously, the cost went up with each improvement in amenities.

Knoxville Skyline, October 2016

Whether in boarding houses or hotels a person could, “rent by the night, the week, the month, the season.” According to the article, such renters were so common in San Francisco that it was proclaimed, “hotel city,” and massive numbers of its residents took every meal in restaurants. An 1892 guide to New York City proclaimed, “Every individual caprice and purse can find something to suit.” You’d be hard-pressed to make such a claim today.

Sociologist Albert Wolfe, writing in 1906 of Boston’s south end rooming house residents, described them as, “A great army of clerks, salesmen, bookkeepers, shop girls, stenographers, dressmakers, milliners, barbers, restaurant keepers, black railroad porters and stewards, policemen, nurses, journeymen, carpenters, mechanics and electricians.” Have you considered where our stenographers and milliners live today? Seriously, these were all people needed to make the city work and they had a place to live. Is that true today?

One estimate stated that a third to a half of Americans boarded or took boarders at one time or another. Of course, housing was segregated in ways a hundred years ago that would not necessarily be the case today, whether by gender, ethnicity, and, of course, the entire range of financial means. Some boarding houses were considered quite exclusive, while others were the last stop before homelessness.

Alberg-Riger describes the situation and its advantages,

Living with the bed as the basic unit meant that housewives renting out rooms often had more reliable income than their husbands, single workers (especially women) could work without the crushing burden of housework, the Great Depression’s ‘newly poor,’ could keep a roof over their head as they tried to claw their way back up, and everyone who wanted (or needed) could shed personal living rooms and even kitchens and bathrooms, in order to live closer to the downtown and adopt it as an outflow outflow of their ‘home.’

Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Knoxville Skyline, 2014

While considered very functional until World War II, afterward, with an aspiring middle class, this type of housing began to be seen as housing for the poor and cities began eliminating it. SRO housing was demolished or was converted to upscale apartments. “Between the mid 1970s and 1990s, one million SROs were destroyed. Chicago lost 80% of its units between 1960 and 1980. New York lost 60% of its units between 1975 and 1981.” Sixty percent in six years! Of a housing stock that was once a staple. Other cities also reflected the trend.

The results, no doubt, contributed to the surge in homelessness during the same period. As legally regulated SROs became less available, illegal and dangerous SROs filled the void. Recently, a form of SROs has emerged for the luxury market in large cities.

Some cities are looking to similar models to solve multiple concerns and Alberg-Riger ends with a hopeful example of a city’s innovative approach to SROs:

There is some truly supportive single-room housing like Capitol Hall on west 87th Street – an SRO that was bought by neighbors in the 1980s and recently underwent an extensive renovation. Its 200 tenants pay no more than 30% of their income on rent, and have access to weekly visits from social workers and nurse practitioners. But even though the cost of providing a supportive housing unit is 1/3 less than the cost of a shelter, 2/3 less than jail, and a fraction of the cost of a hospital, cities are still lagging in providing adequate options for residents who need them. The number of people living alone is rising.

Knoxville Skyline

While the article veers at the end toward a view of Single Room Occupancy as a supportive housing solution – which is certainly one facet of its potential usefulness – the possibilities might be more broadly applicable – as they once were a hundred years ago.

While I can’t imagine myself being happy in a “hot bed,” I can imagine having a room in the city and taking my meals out, or in a common dining hall. It’s certainly an affordable option we’ve lost and while we may be short on stenographers to fill the rooms, we have many, many downtown workers for whom affordable housing is a struggle.

So, what do you think – housing that’s best left as a relic of the past, or a sensible lower-cost solution for our escalating return to cities?

Ed. Note: Special thanks to an alert reader who first sent this article my way. It also popped up on my twitter feed via StrongTowns, I believe it was. If you see articles on urban topics that you think readers of this blog might find helpful or provocative, don’t hesitate to send them my way.

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