COVID-19, the cause of hardship and misery and more than 33,000 deaths in New York City, may have solved the homelessness crisis that’s been an inescapable part of urban life for half a century. That solution began to take shape temporarily last year, as New York City transferred about 12,000 people from crowded homeless shelters to unused, empty rooms in idled hotels. (As of January, some 200 of the city’s 700 hotels were completely closed down.) Since then, federal and state money has been appropriated to help nonprofits buy vacant hotels for conversion into permanent residences, with a priority on housing the formerly homeless. The idea is that vacant hotel rooms could easily be turned into modest apartments with private baths and kitchenettes, and, for the first time in half a century, we could refresh the inventory of low-end housing, in particular the single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs) that used to be a fixture in New York and other U.S. cities. As Ted Houghton, president of Gateway Housing, a nonprofit that advises on affordable housing and shelters, frames it: “In the middle of the 20th century, we screwed up by letting so many SROs disappear. The distress of the pandemic gives us a chance to fix that mistake.”
Of course, if you lived in New York in the 1970s or 1980s, chances are you wouldn’t regard the demise of the SRO as a bad thing. The city had a lot of demons back then, but the single-room-occupancy hotel was a special favorite of local media. Nightmarish news stories about SROs were a regular feature of city life. One 1973 headline screamed: “The Pierrepont: A Brooklyn Horror House.” There, according to the story, “whores shout down from the windows to their pimps on the sidewalk and the pimps shout back. Sometimes the girls hang out the windows stark naked.” Or there was this 1974 story: “Single-Room-Occupancy Hotels Were Home to 16 Slain in Year.”
And those are New York Times headlines. You can imagine what the reports were like in the Post.
SROs, where people could rent a small, cheap private room (often with a shared bathroom), no questions asked, used to be commonplace. New York City and most other American cities were once full of options for people without much money, places where they could easily live from night to night or week to week. (Other possibilities were flophouses, which offered beds but little privacy, or boardinghouses — private homes with rooms for rent.) While we’ve long been told that homelessness became a problem because mental institutions were shut down and the patients had no place to go but the streets, Houghton points out that SROs initially absorbed the deinstitutionalized population and the migration of troubled people to the sidewalks and subways really began when the SROs started to shut down.
SROs were largely an outgrowth of the Depression. Circa 1950, the number of single-room-occupancy beds in New York peaked at around 200,000. The conventional wisdom by the 1970s was that they were bad news, a root cause of crime and blight. Or, as an unnamed officer at the 20th Precinct — on the Upper West Side, then home to many SROs — told a Times reporter: “What should happen is to just close them down.” And, indeed, most of them were shuttered, not by the police but by real-estate values and tax incentives that made it attractive to demolish them or convert them to another use.
“We knocked out a couple of rungs of the housing ladder,” explains Roseanne Haggerty, the MacArthur-winning housing activist who, in 1990, founded the nonprofit Common Ground, now known as Breaking Ground. “I think they were victims of the quality-housing movement that said everyone should have X amount of square footage and private this and private that …” She adds, “I used to be part of that crowd.” Reformers like her inadvertently gave cover to the real-estate interests that wanted the buildings. Indeed, a 2013 report in the City University of New York’s Law Review titled “Single-Room Occupancy Housing in New York City: The Origins and Dimensions of a Crisis,” features a scathing assessment: “While animated by a desire to do good, their actions reflected the Progressive conception of the ‘housing problem,’ informed by class biases, social prejudices, and varying degrees of xenophobia and racism.”
Part of that misunderstanding was that a housing type that met the needs of a lot of people on society’s margins was responsible for a set of problems that existed on those same margins. Some combination of social services, law enforcement, and enhanced management skills on the part of the SRO owners might have helped. (Typical nightmare stories about the bad old days of SROs didn’t just involve violent — or naked — tenants, there were also baseball-bat-wielding landlords evicting people in the dead of the night.) The notion took hold that if you eliminated the housing, the marginal people would simply vanish. Arguably, the opposite happened.
From 1955 onward, the city made laws to restrict the construction of new SROs, and in the 1970s began offering tax breaks to landlords to demolish them or convert them into almost anything else, especially upscale apartments or boutique hotels for tourists. Between 1976 and 1981 those incentives resulted in the loss of “nearly two-thirds of all remaining SRO units” according to the CUNY report.
In recent years, well before COVID, experts in real estate, housing policy, and architecture began searching for a way to generate smaller, less expensive apartments. In a 2018 report, NYU’s Furman Center made an argument for “21st century SROs.” It called for changes in housing codes and zoning laws to allow units smaller than 400 square feet — everything from modest 300-square-foot micro-studios to genuinely tiny 160-square-foot “efficiency” units with a shared kitchen and bath. Furman’s research, however, revealed that the city’s remaining SROs charged rents comparable to studio apartments, a monthly median of $1,148 (in 2017 dollars) for an SRO versus $1,308 for a studio. They were no longer within reach of low-income tenants.
And for nearly a decade, there have been efforts to insert stylish, upscale “micro-units” into the mix. The city has made exceptions to the 400-square-foot minimum apartment size for several prototype buildings, including Carmel Place in Kips Bay, the outgrowth of a well-publicized architectural competition for tiny apartments. (Market rate units there are currently listed for $2,300 a month.) Also, in many cities with tight housing markets, the young and affluent, have long been living in complexes that resemble SROs. In suburban Seattle, for instance, tech workers sometimes reside in “apodments,” 140-square-foot rooms with communal kitchens. And in Lower Manhattan, WeLive, a lifestyle concept from the tragically ambitious co-working giant WeWork, promised a high-priced, refined, corporatized version of the SRO.
Most of the affordable housing that New York City has worked with private developers to build, including about 160,000 units for a range of income levels since Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014, is beyond the reach of those who need it most. Prospective tenants usually have to enter a lottery and then, if selected, go through a vetting process that includes a credit check and a thorough inspection of one’s “rental history.” Also required: luck. As of 2020, there were some “25 million applications submitted for roughly 40,000 units.”
If you’ve lost track of your paper trail — as many who live on the streets have — those affordable apartments are not for you. Early on, Haggerty’s team at Common Ground conducted in-depth interviews with more than 100 homeless people. “We started speaking deeply with people on the street. And they’re like, ‘no one’s listening to us. We’re saying we don’t want to be here, but we don’t actually have the capacity to meet the threshold criteria that have been set for a higher standard of housing.’ What they wanted was something more like the old YMCA model. Like ‘why isn’t there just someplace I could rent for a night? I just need a room, you know?’”
Haggerty’s Common Ground established its reputation in 1991 by converting the run down Times Square Hotel into 652 units of “supportive housing.” Residents including the recently homeless, the mentally ill and those living with AIDS would be given social services and psychiatric care on premises. The organization followed up with the 1999 conversion of a notorious welfare hotel called the Prince George into 415 rooms, each with its own bathroom and kitchenette, for the formerly homeless and other low-income tenants.
Today the Prince George offers a range of health and social services, plus a rooftop garden tended by residents, yoga and knitting classes, and its own art gallery. Low-income tenants there usually pay between $490 to $765 monthly, for about 225 square feet (with a private bathroom and a rudimentary kitchen) and the formerly homeless pay a third of their adjusted income with the rest covered by a subsidy from a federal, state, or city program.
As the economic impact of COVID recedes, those committed to solving the problem of homelessness find themselves in a strange, gold-rush moment. On one hand, there’s generous funding from the federal government — approximately $5 billion in this year’s American Rescue Plan — for getting people off the streets.. Nearly 300 million of that money is earmarked for New York. The federal mandate encourages “acquisition and development of non-congregate shelter units.” The state of California has been using that money to snap up properties including former SRO hotels that were converted into boutique hotels in past decades, and are now being used once again as permanent housing. Ninety-four hotels have been purchased, over 6,000 rooms.
In Albany, the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act, introduced by Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris and Bronx assemblymember Karines Reyes, passed in early June. It sets aside $100 million in new state funds to spend on conversions of hotel rooms and offices to permanently affordable housing. Like most supportive housing the properties acquired would be owned and operated by nonprofits.”
Meanwhile, Breaking Ground is continuing the work it started under Haggerty, operating some 4,000 units of housing across New York, ranging from SRO-size rooms to family-size apartments. Some of its buildings are surprisingly elegant, built from the ground up and designed by leading architects like CookFox, a firm better known for high end projects like One South First in Williamsburg or the Bank of America Tower on 42nd Street. But Breaking Ground is also turning buildings like 90 Sands, a former Jehovah’s Witness hotel on the edge of DUMBO, into permanent supportive housing. Brenda Rosen, the current president and CEO of Breaking Ground, says this former hotel wouldn’t be considered an SRO because the rooms will have kitchenettes.
Rosen calls the post-pandemic moment a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” She’s particularly excited about the possibility of creating new low-cost housing in midtown Manhattan, a part of the city where Breaking Ground has been priced out for decades. “We are in the process of negotiating with an owner for a large hotel in the theater district and that would create 500-plus units of SRO housing and it would really allow us to do the renovations at about 60 percent of the price of new construction,” Rosen explains. (What Rosen means by “SRO housing” is a room of roughly 250 square feet with its own bathroom, a mini fridge, a microwave or convection oven, and some sort of cooktop.) A nondisclosure agreement prevents her from naming the hotel, but, she adds, “We’re in conversations with probably half a dozen hotel owners.” Ideally, she says, the organization hopes to acquire and convert another three empty hotels in addition to the one in the theater district. “It is an incredible way to bring on sorely needed affordable housing without the stigma that unfortunately was attached for many years as many SROs fell into disarray.”
She also stresses the need to move fast. “It’s a very time limited opportunity because New York is going to come back and there are not going to be a lot of these old legacy hotels left.” Houghton concurs. In a recent op-ed in Crain’s New York Business, he wrote: “There is no time to waste. The window to obtain distressed hotels is closing quickly as tourism returns …”
New York City’s hotels hit 60 percent occupancy rate in late May, although (according to hospitality-industry analyst STR’s Market Recovery Monitor) hotels with more than 300 rooms were doing less well than smaller properties. In short, housing activists, community developers, and local governments will need to identify available properties and secure funding before these buildings go back to their previous lives.
One thing they will probably be leaving behind is the term “SRO” itself, with its seedy 1970s redolence. Rosen often substitutes the more stylish “micro-unit,” and it’s easy to imagine the adoption of a new, tech-culture neologism like “apodment.” But Haggerty suggests a different strategy to “change the conversation.” Her idea is to look backward, “summoning the image of a YMCA. Most people are familiar with that and are like, ‘oh, that wasn’t so bad, you know’?”