Single room occupancy

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An abandoned single-room hotel (Hugo Hotel) at 6th and Howard in San Francisco, California

Single room occupancy (more commonly abbreviated to SRO) is a form of housing that is typically aimed at residents with low or minimal incomes. They usually rent small single rooms without amenities such as kitchens, toilets or bathrooms, which are rented out as permanent residence to individuals, within a multi-tenant building with shared kitchens, toilets or bathrooms. While roommates sharing an apartment may also have a bedroom and share a bathroom and kitchen, an SRO tenant leases the SRO unit individually.[1] SRO units are the least expensive form of non-subsidized rental housing, with median rents even in New York City ranging from $450 to $705 per month.[2]

SROs may constitute a form of affordable housing, in some cases for formerly or otherwise homeless individuals.[3] The term is primarily used in Canada and US. Since the 1970s and 1980s, there has been an increasing displacement of SRO units aimed at low-income earners due to gentrification, with SRO facilities being sold and turned into condos.[4] Between 1955 and 2013, almost one million SRO units were eliminated in the US due to regulation, conversion or demolition.[5]

The term refers to the fact that the tenant rents a single room, as opposed to a full flat (apartment). SRO units may be provided in a rooming house, apartment building, or in illegal conversions of private homes into many small SRO rooms. There is a variety of levels of quality, ranging from a "cubicle with a wire mesh ceiling", at the lowest end, to small hotel rooms or small studio apartments without bathrooms, at the higher end.[6] They may also be referred to as "SRO hotels", which acknowledges that many of the buildings are old hotels that are in a poor state of repair and maintenance.[7] The acronym SRO has also been stated to mean "single resident only".[8]

History[edit]

The refurbished single room Ambassador Hotel at 55 Mason Street in San Francisco

The term originated in New York City, probably in the 1930s (the Oxford English Dictionary provides an earliest citation of 1941), but the institutions date back at least fifty years before the nickname was applied to them. SROs exist in many American cities, and are most common in larger cities. In many cases, the buildings themselves were formerly hotels in or near a city's central business district. Many of these buildings were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the 1880s, urban reformers began working on modernizing cities; their efforts to create "uniformity within areas, less mixture of social classes, maximum privacy for each family, much lower density for many activities, buildings set back from the street, and a permanently built order" all meant that SRO hotels had to be cut back. [9] By the 1890s, SRO hotels became "forbidden housing; their residents, forbidden citizens."[10] New York City police inspector Thomas Byrnes stated that rather than give SRO hotels "palliative" care, they should be dealt with using a "knife, the blister, the amputating instruments."[11]

Reformers used moral codes, building codes, fire codes, zoning, planning committees and inspections to limit or remove SRO hotels.[12] An example of moral critiques is Simon Lubin's claims that "unregulated hotels" were "spreading venereal diseases among the soldiers".[13] Other reformers tried to ban men and boys from rooming in the same hotels, due to concerns about homosexuality.[14] The building and safety codes criticized SRO hotel problems such as "firetraps, dark rooms, inadequate plumbing, an insufficient ventilation."[15] In San Francisco, building code inspections and restrictions were often used to racially harass Chinese labourers and the places they lived.[16] In 1917, California passed a new hotel act that prevented the building of new hotels with small cubicle rooms. [17] In addition to banning or restricting SRO hotels, land use reformers also passed zoning rules that indirectly reduced SROs: banning mixed residential and commercial use in neighbourhoods, an approach which meant that any remaining SRO hotel's residents would find it hard to eat at a local cafe or walk to a nearby corner grocery to buy food.[18] Non-residential uses such as religious institutions (churches) and professional offices (doctors, lawyers) were still permitted under these new zoning rules, but working class people (plumbers, mechanics) were not allowed to operate businesses such as garages or plumbing businesses.[19]

The United States saw a decrease in single room occupancy housing during the period of 1960s and 1970s urban decay. For example, in Chicago 81% of the SRO housing stock disappeared between 1960 and 1980.[20] Since the early 1970s, the supply of SRO spaces did not meet the demand in US cities.[21] In 1970, newspapers in the US wrote about an "SRO [supply] crisis". [22] Downtown SRO hotels offer few and possibly no rooms to rent to tourists.[23] Indeed, since the end of WWII, the inexpensive hotels that became SROs were lost and not replaced, with the losses coming from conversion to office space, demolition, or upgrading to tourist rental.[24] For example, in San Francisco from 1975 and 1980, 6,085 SRO rooms were lost; in Chicago, from 1973 and 1984, more than 23,000 SRO units were lost.[25] Some viewed the removal of SRO hotels as a good thing, as it meant the "removal of substandard housing and unwanted neighbors" and their "public nuisance"; on the other hand, it was also viewed as causing more homelessness.[26]

Paul Groth states that some downtown "residents literally cannot exist without them [SROs]" as they have "[f]ew, if any, housing alternatives."[27] There are "myths about today's [SRO] hotel residents", claiming that they are all "isolated, needy, and disabled; all elderly; all on welfare; all elderly men; or all welfare mothers with three young children...[,]socially marginal, all mildly psychotic, all alcoholics or drug addicts, all drifters and transients", with some journalists using the derogatory term "welfare hotel". [28] A 1985 study in Chicago revealed "a large minority of impoverished workers."[29] In New York City, about one third of SRO dwellers are black and one quarter are Hispanic.[30] Most SRO residents do not move more often than apartment renters, contrary to media references to "transients". [31]

In the mid-1990s, many "city health officials, architects, city planners, and politicians still argue that no one should live in [SRO] hotels", which are viewed as leading to "severe social and physical maladjustment" and "public nuisance".[32] Apart from media criticism, SRO residents are typically "unseen" and "invisible" in housing reform policies and reforms. [33] SRO residents are typically not referred to explicitly in legislation, considered by city housing communities and urban development efforts, which means that SRO residents often have to move from district to district according to changes in real estate planning.[34]

San Francisco architect John Liu called SRO hotels the "most controversial, the most neglected, and the least understood of all housing types."[35] The invisibility of SRO residents is caused by a lack of interest in the lives of the poor and in their lack of a "political constituency", as most housing policy focuses on the family.[36]

SRO hotels may be literally invisible to higher-income passers-by when they are discreetly located on the upper floors of a restaurant or retail store.[37] There is a debate as to whether SRO hotel residents are "homeless."[38] Paul Groth states that SRO residents are "not homeless. They are living in admittedly minimal and unusual dwelling units, often in hideous repair and under woefully inadequate management but dwelling units nonetheless."[39] SROs were considered socially acceptable even as late as the late 1950s: the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo depicted young administrative staff living in downtown SRO hotels[40].

New York City[edit]

For much of New York City's early history, housing was provided in shared accommodations that would probably be described as SROs today. [41] These units provided housing for single, low-income men, and to a lesser degree, single low-income women.[42] In New York City, the number of SRO units increased a great deal during the Great Depression, but with the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people, SRO units became filled with tenants with mental health diagnoses, which led to bans on the building of new SRO units in the 1950s and taxation benefits for landlords to convert SROs into regular apartments.[43] The anti-SRO policies of 1955 were introduced when the demographics of SRO residents changed towards immigrant families; in an environment influenced by "varying degrees of xenophobia and racism", the city took steps to ban new SRO unit construction, prevent families from living in SROs, and change building codes and zoning to discourage SROs.[44] In the 1970s, the city introduced tax incentives for landlords to encourage them to convert SROs into regular apartments, a program which from 1976 to 1981 eliminated two thirds of the SRO stock in the city.[45]

While the city realized by the 1980s that SRO units needed to be preserved, due to their role in housing homeless people, and introduced policies to encourage SRO retention, the number of SRO units had fallen by one half (from its Depression-era highest number). [46] In 1985, the city tried to stop the loss of the remaining SRO units by banning the "conversion, alteration, or demolition" of SRO buildings, but by 1989, this law was struck down by an appeals court. [47]The huge loss of SRO units in New York City is "not the inevitable result" of "market forces"; it was caused by an interaction between city housing policies and market forces. [48]

Paul Tyrrell states that when New York City housing prices rose in the early 2000s (decade), SRO landlords tried to remove longtime SRO tenants to use their real estate for more lucrative uses (one of these being Airbnb-style short-term rental).[49] The owners of the Ace Hotel, a former SRO facility, converted their building to a luxury hotel, with only a few long-term, low-income SRO tenants using their leases to stay in the hotel. [50] There are about 100,000 illegal SRO units in New York City, many of which are "unsafe, with too many people" for the space and a lack of proper fire exits and ventilation.[51] Some landlords who wish to convert their old SRO hotel into a luxury boutique hotel may harass the renters or bribe the low-income tenants so they will leave.[52] NYC residents of illegal SROs are reluctant to complain to housing authorities about the condition of their units or rent regulation violations, as doing so could lead to their eviction. [53]

San Francisco[edit]

San Francisco is an example of a city that took over particularly squalid SROs, and renovated them for the disadvantaged. Landlords who intend to convert SROs may try to convince their tenants to sign releases, which may require relocation by the landlord and/or compensating the tenant. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidizes SRO rehabilitation to combat homelessness, under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.[54] San Francisco passed an SRO Hotel Conversion Ordinance in 1980, which restricts the conversion of SRO hotels to tourist use. SROs are prominent in the Tenderloin, Mission District and Chinatown communities.

In 2001, San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly sponsored legislation making it illegal for SRO landlords to charge "visitor fees"—a practice long run in order for hotel managers to get a "cut" on drug-dealing or prostitution activities in the building. After a rash of fires destroyed many SROs in San Francisco and left nearly one thousand tenants homeless, a new program to reduce fire risk in SRO hotels was initiated.[55] In 2015, there were reports that San Francisco's Hotel EPIK would turn the New Pacific Hotel, a former SRO hotel, into a luxury boutique hotel.[56] A 1980 city ordinance prohibits SRO landlords from renting SRO units to tourists for short term stays (which will result in a fine unless the landlord creates a replacement SRO unit). [57]Jerry Threet, San Fransisco' deputy city attorney, says that SROs are "often the last barrier between SF’s poorest population and the streets". [58]Threet says some SRO owners do the "bare minimum to maintain their buildings", leading to unsafe SRO units.[59] In 2016, The Guardian reported that the average SRO rents in San Francisco's Chinatown are increasing from from $610 in 2013, to $970 in 2015 (the average rent for all rental housing was $3,907).[60] The increase in SRO rents is due to the shift away from renting to Chinese immigrants towards "college graduates, single adults and white people".[61]

Seattle[edit]

In the early 1900s (decade), Asian immigrants from Japan and China who settled in Seattle were typically the men from the family, who moved to the city's Chinatown and Nihonmachi districts and lived in SROs.[62] These SRO residents used the restaurants, bath-houses, and barbershops to meet their living needs while they worked in Seattle-area industries.[63] Some SROs aimed at Asian residents had a bath-house in the basement to serve Japanese clients.[64]

From 2009 to 2014, Seattle had a big increase in the building and creation of new SRO units designed to be rented at market rates, which had an average monthly rent of $660; In 2013, for example, 1,800 SRO units and microapartment units were built.[65]

With the increasing popularity of Airbnb, an online room and house-renting service, housing activists were concerned that this could decrease the availability of SRO units, as landlords may find they can make more money from renting the rooms to tourists. In March 2016, affordable housing advocates in New York City were pleased when a judge ruled that an Upper West Side SRO facility (the Imperial Court Hotel) could not rent out rooms for less than 30 days, a short-term tenure that would favour tourist rentals over lower-income long-term renters.[66]

Uses[edit]

A small room at the Whitehouse Hotel in New York City.

SROs are a viable housing option for students, single tenants, seasonal or other traveling workers, empty nester widows/widowers, or others who do not want or need large dwellings or private domestic appliances. The smaller size and limited amenities in SROs generally make them a more affordable housing option, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods or urban areas with high land values and high rents.

The rents of many poor tenants may be paid in full or in part by charitable, state, or federal programs, giving incentive to landlords to accept such tenants. Some SRO buildings are renovated with the benefit of a tax abatement, with the condition that the rooms be rented to tenants with low incomes, and sometimes specific low-income groups, such as homeless people, people with mental illness, people with HIV/AIDS, and so on. A 1991 study stated that SROs can be successfully used to provide housing for people with chronic mental illness, as SROs give residents "personal freedom and privacy" while also giving a sense of community.[67] Some SROs are operated or funded by charities, non-profit organizations, and/or governments as a way to provide supportive housing to "special needs populations", which include people facing drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, or disabilities.[68]

While SRO units are mostly associated with low-income renters, in cities where dwellings are expensive and scarce, there may be "middle class SROs" aimed at middle class renters. In 2017 in New York City, Matthew and Seth Weissman, who operate Weissman Equities, renovated a partly empty apartment building in Harlem, creating furnished SRO units with 180 to 280 square feet, which rent for $1,200 to $1,600 per month (this includes utilities and cleaning).[69] Luxury, "amenity-laden" SRO units are available for $2,150 from Common Baltic in Boerum Hill and for $3,050 per month from WeLive (the residential version of co-working company Wework).[70]

Conditions[edit]

Depending on the sensibilities of the landlords and the quality of the properties, SRO conditions can range from squalor to something like an extended-stay hotel. Some have been designed and run in a dormitory fashion. Others have been "cage" hotels, in which a large room is split into many smaller ones with corrugated steel or sheetrock dividers or cubicles, which do not reach the height of the original ceiling. To prevent tenants from climbing over the walls into each other's spaces, the tops of the rooms are covered in chicken wire, making the rooms look something like cages.[71] At a Vancouver protest calling for more affordable housing, singer and actor Dalannah Gail Bowen stated that SRO units are "'horrible' places to live" that have "...squalor, like Third World countries" that "[n]o one deserves to live in".[72] Illegal, unlicensed SRO units that are created in homes and apartment buildings may be overcrowded and lack fire exits and ventilation.[73] In 2013, SROs were described as a "poorly regulated last resort for the most desperate populations".[74]

The construction of new SROs or conversion of existing homes to multiple SRO units was banned in New York City in 1955 due to concerns that they provided "substandard housing conditions" that were "improper and unsafe".[75] Renters of illegal SRO units typically live in units that do not meet health and safety standards; as well, since the units are unregulated, the renters do not have protection against eviction or rent increases. Many SRO buildings, particularly in major cities, face strong development pressure for conversion to more profitable uses as condos, luxury apartments or high-end hotels. Some cities have regulated the conversion of SROs to other uses in order to prevent landlords from forcibly evicting SRO tenants, while conversely many others conversely limit the conversion of other uses into SROs and restrict them via zoning. Some cities do both simultaneously, protecting existing SROs while making it virtually impossible to create new ones.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  73. ^ Ionova, Mariana (3 June 2013). "The $80-a-Week, 60-Square-Foot Housing Solution That's Also Totally Illegal: It's Time to Bring Back the SRO". nextcity.org. Next City. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  74. ^ Ionova, Mariana (3 June 2013). "The $80-a-Week, 60-Square-Foot Housing Solution That's Also Totally Illegal: It's Time to Bring Back the SRO". nextcity.org. Next City. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  75. ^ Ionova, Mariana (3 June 2013). "The $80-a-Week, 60-Square-Foot Housing Solution That's Also Totally Illegal: It's Time to Bring Back the SRO". nextcity.org. Next City. Retrieved 8 December 2018.

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