SROs: The Wave of the Past

 Hotel Chelsea, a classic SRO (vanityfair)

Hotel Chelsea, a classic SRO (vanityfair)

I wanted to continue the conversation on micro-living and shared-living and include an old idea that city officials should consider: the reintroduction of single room occupancy (SROs).  SRO buildings came in many shapes and forms, but generally consisted of small rooms with a single bed and a shared bathroom and kitchen for each floor (there is no single definition of SROs in New York housing law.)  Though Mayor de Blasio's housing plan, now backed by the City Council, does not contain any proposals about SROs, the successful if limited introduction of micro-units does open a door to discuss this type of affordable housing option.  

We forget, but for much of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century SROs, "rooming houses" and "lodging houses" provided a large portion of housing for workers flooding American cities from New York to San Francisco during the transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial one.  The diversity of housing allowed for single men and single women to find short term or long term housing that met their financial needs. I highly recommend reading this SRO report from CUNY Law Review by two lawyers from MFY Legal Services about the history of SROs in NYC and their current legal gray zone. 

The same factors that created the demand for SROs historically still exist with today's working population, perhaps more so given demographic changes. Just for some perspective, there were 185,000 single-person households in NYC in 1960; today, there are 1.8 million.

This blog has previously discussed some of these dramatic demographic changes. For younger workers, it speaks to lower marriage rates, higher debt levels, and social preferences; the numbers also speak to immigrants (many of them illegal) who live alone and send remittances home to support their families; it also accounts for the high level of seniors living on their own in the city.    (We will devote future blog posts to immigrant housing issues and senior housing issues.) Whatever the cause, NYC and other cities have been slow to recognize the dramatically shifting profile of renters and have not created more housing diversity to accommodate them. SROs would be an impactful and easy policy pool to include.

Why aren't they? Because most cities made SROs illegal (NYC banned new SRO construction in 1955) and severely cracked down on them in the following decades. This happened slowly over time as suburbanization and deindustrialization made SROs a highly-stigmatized form of living in the American consciousness - they became the last resort for the poor, the addicted, the disabled, or the marginalized.

By 1987, the city went further and made it illegal for an apartment to be smaller than 400 sq feet and not contain a bathroom or kitchen (Mayor Bloomberg created a waver for Carmel Place, the first micro-unit building in NYC, to have smaller units).  Though only about 30,000 SRO units are still registered in the city, according to multiple sources, potentially 100,000 exist illegally, which means many people live in substandard and dangerous conditions.  The fact that so many people would still take that chance shows the depths of the housing crisis and the need for more housing diversity.

It would be simple to reintroduce SROs legally, as far as it goes, by removing the law from 1987 that requires all units to be 400ft and contain a bathroom and kitchen.  But we should go further.  First, the city should offer amnesty for registering (and inspecting) the thousands of illegal SROs already in existence, many in private homes. Second, the city should offer incentives for developers to remodel existing buildings - whether tapping into the idle or underused warehouse stock in some of the boroughs or older Class B or C office buildings, particularly around transit. Finally, with new developments, allow developers to include SROs set to targeted AMI levels as an additional option for set-aside affordable units.  This would be a much lower cost option for developers and a higher output of affordable units.

The sum of banning SROs and other policy changes (such as height restrictions, historical districts, density limits, parking requirements) that have had local support and reasonable-enough intentions going back to the Bad Old Days, has stripped NYC of the housing diversity that it so desperately needs and used to have in abundance. It has warped the market to such an extent that developers are only building luxury high rises while 60,000 people are applying for a handful of units in a single micro-building.  Even Mayor de Blasio's compromised micro-housing plan reflects a disappointing resistance to a potentially transformative idea.

I am encouraged to see micro-apartments in NYC, even if the current models are on the top end of the market.  If they can create a framework to consider more housing diversity (and encourage a growing call for housing resiliency) that goes beyond even micro-apartments and SROs, then we should all welcome them.  Rather than trying to force a percentage of affordable units into every project, if we expand the types of projects at a developer's disposal, and expand the housing options for tenants across age and income groups, we can finally start adding a truly impactful amount of units to the market that will lower the costs for everyone.  We've seen this before in NYC and we can see it again.  Sometimes the most radical ideas are the old tried and true ones.