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.


  1. Makes sense as our populations ages as well to provide a community within a community with safe living and near neighbors to keep an eye on each other for health and safety’s sake!

  2. Keith Richardson says:

    Knoxville today offers SRO units in the form of older motels that no longer attract tourists. These housing units often serve as transitional housing for homeless individe also who hold jobs but cannot afford the rent, damage deposit, and utility deposit required for more conventional housing units… plus they come furnished. But if you tally the weekly rent, it often approaches that of an efficiency unit. The YWCA still offers SRO units, but the YMCA shuttered theirs just prior to the World’s Fair. I beliece that all of the other downtown SROs (former hotels) have been demolished or converted into upscale condos.

  3. I think the boarding house model is a great one for many kinds of people at various stages in their lives: people in transition, older people, busy professionals who don’t want to do housework, people who don’t want to live totally alone. I researched them for my historical novels and found that they could be organized in many ways: by cost of course, but also by gender, profession, ethnicity, religion, or even interest. Not everybody needs a kitchen and the city needs affordable housing.

  4. Beth Nelson says:

    I also believe more communal living can be a cure for the rampant loneliness and isolation that is crippling our society.

  5. Love this. In my reading, always loved the idea of the London flat and sitting room. When I returned from D.C. area in ’93, I swiftly moved back into my romantic hard wood floor, windows that cranked open, cedar lined closets and vintage tile bathroom- The Swann Building in Maplehurst. There was always Maplehurst. Can’t afford that gentrified spot now, but landed safely in a sweet G. Monday property and another artist is just now moving in to the sweetest one room space a few windows down. We both have occupied many dwellings through the years when the neighborhood was a best kept secret artsy enclave. Affordable housing is a terrible problem these days. These small spaces offer flexibility and a certain freedom that is often essential to the creative flow. Ultimately I plan to buy that motor lodge in hot springs with that sweet little pool and make it an artist retirement community. Just kidding of course but I thought I could always rely on a minimalist housing scheme to support the way I have lived my life hoping to never find I had painted myself into a corner. 🙂

  6. Oren Yarbrough says:

    It would be nice to see some creative thinking to try and tackle the growing homeless population that most cities across the US are now facing. Imagine if we went to a solution that was a hybrid of the old boarding house model with some newer concepts borrowed from European hostels and communal housing neighborhoods. Affordable housing is a necessity in this city, but sadly so many developers have to run through a million hoops to even get a project off the ground and there is a very widely accepted stigma against affordable housing being confused as “student housing”, aka loud and messy party dorms for youths; This stigma is probably one of the biggest impediments to creating more affordable housing in this city….or any other college town for that matter.

  7. Maybe if we could go back to the more simple time, some of the homeless would be able to afford a warm bed to sleep in. We need to get away from the mentality that we need the best of the best, NO WE DO NOT. Growing up on N. Central, we had a boarding house next door to us, and I always thought it was so fascinating at the different lifestyles there. Time to start thinking intelligently.

  8. gregory austin says:


    • Bruh you left your caps lock on. And these things are all extremely more useful than pools and tennis courts. Especially when they can save you hours on unclogging a sink, hand washing dishes, and sitting at a laundromat for two hours that you could spend cleaning the apartment. Trust me. I’ve been there.

  9. Christopher Eaker says:

    Interesting that there is interest in single-room occupancy units, but at the same time, the City of Knoxville and many others are cracking down on Airbnbs. Short term rentals are a form of SRO that the City doesn’t like, neither do the neighbors. If SROs are the wave of the future (or blast from the past), then the City will need to stop hindering folks from giving people what they want and the neighbors will need to stop being NIMBYs.

  10. Indya Kincannon says:

    My great grandmother, a widow with 4 children, ran a boarding house in Augusta, Georgia, to make ends meet. As her children grew up and left home, she made a career of owning and managing rental properties.

    Our Knoxville home was built as a single-family home, later became a ‘flop-house’ with lots of different residents, and now contains our home and an apartment. Habits and preferences evolve, along with the economy.

  11. I did the SRO in the 60’s b/4 I got married. Liked it very much. Down the hall from me was a WI State Trooper who I never saw.

  12. Oops. Forgot to include the link to the NYT article about dorm living in San Francisco.

  13. I think smaller, simpler, and less expensive ways to create a home are urgent needs–not just economically but as part of the need to break the bigger, better, and always-more disease that infects American life.

    Here is a link to an article in the NYT, March 4, about professionals in San Francisco living in dorms. Have not read it yet, but such articles are popping up often.

    Of course, in SF, communal living never went out of style. When I lived there (mid- and late-’80s, a big percentage of persons lived in large homes that housed 3, 4 or more non-family persons.

    As for Knoxville, I hope the need for more housing for downtown brings some creative solutions and not just the same ole, same ole. For example, many vacant and declining houses near downtown are going to waste and damaging neighborhoods, while developers swamp downtown with condos and thousand-dollar one bedroom apartments. Where do you think the $$ for creating more housing will go?

  14. Honestly I think the best way to create affordable housing is to build units that give tenants what they NEED rather than what they WANT. Not every complex needs granite countertops and fancy appliances. I bet if more complexes didn’t have pools, fitness centers, clubhouses, and used basic appliances with cheaper interior materials, but still provided necessities such as dishwashers, disposals, and washer/dryer hookups, that would bring some more affordable options to the area. Right now you can either live in a dump built in the 40’s with no amenities whatsoever or one step down from a vacation resort with no in between whatsoever.

    • Boy, have you nailed it, Jeremy, speaking from personal experience. I’ll leave it at that, here.

      • I feel like me and you must have lived in the same place. But seriously. If someone creates this “middle ground” of apartments, they could easily charge close to what the low end apartments do now, driving down the total cost of rent and making housing more affordable all around.

  15. Robert Maddox says:

    You need look no further than communities with universities to see both the demand for and benefits of SROs. On a large scale, both universities and private investors offer SROs in the form of dormitories. On a smaller scale rooming houses abound in neighborhoods surrounding campuses. Both of these give students low-cost living accommodations within walking distance of restaurants, stores and school. At the same time, both large-scale and small-scale renters benefit from the demand for their units.

  16. Robert Maddox says:

    As mentioned in the article, SRO’s offer much more affordable housing for individuals (or couples) than do apartments, especially in urban areas. At the same time, I would imagine that landlords (or rental unit owners) would find a far greater monetary return on a square foot rental basis for SRO rentals than for apartment rentals. SRO living arrangements seems like a win-win situation for both tenants and landlords.

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