SRO: When America’s Basic Housing Unit Was a Bed, Not a House

Can the SRO Once Again Fill the Housing Gap in America?

The intentional loss of SRO housing for the most low-income households in our country and across New Jersey has aggravated the affordable housing crisis.

The funding for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs will help stop the affordable housing crisis from getting any worse. But we all must work to ensure that fiscal year (FY) 2019 budget continues to invest in affordable housing.

In February, CityLab visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger took a look back at the critical role Single Room Occupancy housing played in early 20th century urban life.

Today, cities struggle to provide enough affordable housing. Could the hundreds of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing units built but then demolished after World War II have filled the affordable housing gap today?

Aberg-Riger points out that today most Americans think of the suburban single-family home as the typical housing unit but there was a time when single room occupancy housing was commonplace, especially in American cities.

Single room occupancy housing, in the form of a rented bed or a hotel room, housed the workers and gave these workers opportunities to move to where there was economic opportunity.

“Living with the bed as the 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 or even kitchens and bathrooms, in order to live closer to the downtown and adopt it as an outflow of their ‘home.’”

“By the 1950’s, there were 200,000 SROs in New York City – over 10% of the city’s rental stock at the time – making them a very visible part of the city.”

But when SRO’s came to be seen as “poor people’s housing”, they fell out of favor. In fact, new construction of SROs was outlawed in New York City in 1955. By the 1980’s America began to see “modern homelessness.”

And today, as part of the work to end homelessness, SRO’s are making a comeback. “But even though the daily cost of operating a supportive housing unit is 1/3 less than the cost of a shelter, 2/3 less than jail, and the fraction of the cost of a hospital, cities are still lagging.”

Aberg-Riger, writes of the people that make up the growing homeless population, “How will we make room for them?”

City Lab SRO Article

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