Whatever Happened to Rooming Houses and SROs?


There was a time in America when most big cities (and most small and medium-sized cities as well) had a robust, or at least adequate, market for places with rooms for rent. Not hotels, exactly, these residences generally didn't have private bathrooms (though some did), nor maid service (again, there were exceptions), nor any means of cooking beyond the odd hot plate brought in by the tenant. In some areas, mostly smaller cities and towns, they were called Rooming Houses, or Boarding Houses, and these tended to be single-family homes that had been converted into housing for single men, or single women (one or the other, never both) who would share bathrooms and eat meals together, and maybe have access to a communal area like a living room or a parlor, especially for the women, in order to receive visitors, but everyone had their own private bedroom. Like a Bed and Breakfast, but for long-term tenants, and with dinner thrown in as well, prepared by the hostess/landlord, and eaten together with other housemates.

History of Rooming Houses

In places with larger populations, particularly urban areas where single, often young, men and women would arrive looking for work or having already secured a job and would need a place to live until they could afford a "regular" apartment or, perhaps, fall in love and get married. These larger buildings where such people set up a home became know as Single Room Occupancy housing, or SROs, a term that emerged in New York City in the 1930s to describe this sort of living arrangement, though the practice was widespread at the time, and had been going on in one form or another all over the country since at least the late 19th century. There was another sort of customer seeking rooms for rent in the seedier sort of SRO (and, to a lesser extant, in Rooming Houses), the down-on-his-luck older fellow, who, attracted by low rents and a certain air of anonymity, treated his home as a way station, hoping to reside there only until his prospects brightened. Of course, things didn't always work out, and many of the shabbier SROs would have the same tenants for years, and even decades. Today the whole concept of long-term, individual rooms for rent, whether in an SRO or Boarding House, for those seeking a home has become extremely limited in most cities and towns. And this despite an exploding roommate market, covering all demographics, which would seem to indicate that there are large number of people willing to trade privacy and space in exchange for affordable rental housing.

The Disappearance of SROs

The reasons for the steep decline, if not outright extinction, are several, but the two primary drivers of the SROs near-demise are, first, that during the period of general urban decay in America during the 1960s and '70s, these sorts of low-rent housing options were among the hardest hit by, for example, crime, neglect, and disrepair, and the housing form went from being seen as a respectable option to one more associated with transients, and skid row. There was also that not-inconsiderable problem of illegal SRO's, apartments and private homes that, ignoring housing and fire codes, had been divided into tiny cubicles, and were potentially (and, in some tragic cases, actually) dangerous places to live. The second reason for today's sparse SRO options in most major American cities is that, with many urban areas on the rebound in the past few decades, and thus once again appealing to wealthier tenants, developers saw that, for obvious reasons, luxury rental housing and condos would be far more profitable than places that cater to people on the lower end of the scale. Former SROs were gut renovated, converted or destroyed, and turned into homes for young professionals and the families who more and more decided to stay and raise their children in the city rather than flee to the suburbs as the previous couple of generations had done.

The Future of Rooms for Rent

But the urban housing option of finding a single room for rent, using the classic SRO as a model, isn't quite dead yet! In fact, even as city governments refuse to lift bans of new SRO construction--as in New York City, where such a restriction has been in place since 1955--there is also the growing recognition that the population growth seen in many areas demands that a greater number of less expensive housing options be either constructed or converted, because right now many of these SRO buildings are illegal, dangerous firetraps, with basements full of illegal subdivisions, or so-called "cage hotels" that are little more than what used to be called flophouses. To use New York City as the example again, there was a recent architecture competition for micro-apartments, and the winner, which uses a pre-fab design, is being constructed right now. Despite their small size--usually about 300 square feet or less, or smaller than what is currently legal as being a "studio"--these apartments would be market-rate, and the common areas of the building would include amenities usually associated with luxury housing, such as gyms, game rooms, screening rooms, and roof terraces, all but ensuring that rents will be high. In the meantime, a few developers are experimenting with renovated SROs--they're calling them "starter apartments"--that feature gleaming new kitchenettes, built-in murphy beds, and a shared bathroom in the hallway. Again, though, the rents on these rooms are not cheap, so the future of the housing style remains up in the air at this point. Somewhat surprisingly, the seemingly quaint notion of the woman's boarding house is actually still a viable option, if you can find a space. These rooms for rent are in older buildings, and offer below-market prices because of their not-for-profit or even tax-exempt status, most often conferred upon them for their ties to the Catholic Church, or the YWCA.
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