In a recent article for Governing, “SRO Housing, Nearly Zoned Out of Existence, Could Re-Emerge,” author Jake Blumgart explores the history and future of single-room occupancy (SRO) units. SRO units are an important form of affordable housing for low-income people. However, beginning in the early 1960s, policymakers across the nation began to reduce the number of single-room residences. One estimate puts the number of SRO units lost between the 1970s and the 1990s at 1 million. Researchers argue that the decline in SRO stock led to the dramatic increase in homelessness seen in the 1980s.
In cities that still do have a notable number of SRO units, they are largely only allowed in districts with high-density zoning, such as areas around universities and downtowns. These can also be rooming houses in a dormitory-style building with shared bathrooms and kitchens. They have a significant impact on reducing homelessness because they are relatively inexpensive and provide a roof over one’s head and a bathroom. In many cases, these rooming houses can also be deemed illegal.
Ongoing zoning reforms in cities like Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon are attempting to revive single-room occupancy units. For example, a member of the Philadelphia City Council introduced legislation to respond to concerns by legalizing single-room residences in all multifamily and commercial zoning districts (they’re currently only allowed in the high-density categories). Researchers see the legalization, regulation, and increase in the number of SRO units in major cities as an innovative solution to addressing today’s homelessness crisis.