On Wednesday, Slate ran a story, excerpted from a new book by Sightline Institute founder Alan Durning, on the state of single room occupancy housing in U.S. cities.
Single room occupancies, or SROs, are multi-tenant residences where people take up in a solitary room. They emerged in the early 20th century, when a population boom led to overcrowding in poorer areas of cities all over the country. At the time, tenants could stay in an SRO for as little as 35 cents a night — that’s $8 today, accounting for inflation.
But these often-dangerous units fell out of favor as the century wore on, and for decades many cities have had laws on the books forbidding or strictly regulating SROs.
The stigma is wearing off though. Cities such as New York and Seattle are building a new breed of small apartment that shares more with the SRO than the boxy luxury units that have dominated market efforts over the last decade. Early this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled plans to allow the construction of “micro units.” In Seattle, the firm Calhoun Properties is building an even more SRO-like apartment called — forgive the heinous capitalization — aPodments:
These buildings are updated rooming houses. Each unit is lightly furnished and has a microwave and a minifridge plus a petite bathroom, compactly arranged in 150 to 200 square feet. Off-street parking is minimal and is rented separately, but the buildings have shared kitchens and laundry facilities. In early 2013, rents commonly began around $550 per month, including Internet and all utilities.
Journalist Mariana Ionova examined this trend and the illegal SROs that are (unfortunately) far more common in a June Forefront story. In New York, thousands live in these unregulated boarding houses where blocked fire exits and other unsafe features are common. Ionova tells the story of Boubacar Balde, an immigrant from Guinea, whose efforts to find affordable housing led him to an aging SRO in the Bronx.
He finally found a room in an old, narrow brownstone on Bruckner Boulevard, on a block lined with the crumbling facades of dozens of converted houses brimming with tenants. Once a single-family home, the building has since been dissected into single room occupancy (SRO) units offered at a fraction of the cost of a full apartment. Each of the three floors had four rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom for shared use. At a modest $80 per week, the room was Balde’s most affordable option.
“I don’t have another choice,” Balde said. “That’s why I’m here.”
In its current incarnation, Bloomberg’s micro-units will not be the choice Balde is seeking. The first round of micro-units come at a price point out of reach for him and the thousands of others who must find housing while living on poverty wages.
“The building will contain 55 units,” Ionova writes of the intial micro-unit building, “40 percent of which will be rented below the standard market rate, according to officials. Eleven will be rented for approximately $940 per month to families that earn at least 20 percent less than the area’s median income.” The rest will be far more expensive, with some units topping $1,800.
At $550 a month, Seattle’s aPodments come off as a comparative steal.