The war on rooming houses and SROs was a mistake
I used to work for a homeless shelter in Cleveland and know the population well. A lot of people were really just down on their luck and in need of a room. One of my projects was helping with a new transition house we were opening down the block, where men could graduate from the shelter to paying their own rent. It was an old boarding house that had sat vacant for what must have been decades and was set up perfectly for our needs. The city was enthusiastic about the plan, and for whatever reason the structure was grandfathered in to house multiple unrelated men, despite the fact that a new structure in that location would not be permitted, by zoning law, to do so. The advice the city gave us though was not to tell anyone, especially people in the neighborhood, that we had purchased the building and were renovating it. The city feared that if the neighbors knew then the project would be dead. Thankfully the project ended up succeeding and to this day is a huge success for getting men out of the homelessness trap. I even lived in one of the rooms during the renovation so that someone was on site before the men came, and honestly it was totally fine. It saddens me that other nonprofits can't easily follow the same model because they happen to not be on the same block as an abandoned boarding house that is grandfathered in past zoning laws.
From my experience living in SF for 5 years, I just don’t think that the most visible and problematic homeless individuals could be moved from a tent on the street to an SRO to address their problems. These individuals with severe mental health or drug addiction issues aren’t going to be cured just by moving off the street. Further, they’ll still need to panhandler or steal to continue to make ends meet; particularly funding their drug use. And that is the behavior that everyone wants to see addressed.
I believe that any plan to address homelessness needs to make a clear differentiation between these two different groups of people since the socially disruptive group is the one that most residents have in mind when discussing homelessness. SROs can certainly help the people that are just downtrodden and need a cheap place to live. The individuals with severe mental health or addiction issues need another plan. A plan that likely involves coercion into treatment and in some cases institutionalization. I think making a strong distinction between the two populations of homeless individuals will be helpful in pushing for zoning changes that help the individuals that are just downtrodden.
How easily can you kick people out if they threaten other residents or engage in illegal or unsafe behavior? What if they don't pay rent? The cities with the biggest housing shortages are probably also cities that are super landlord unfriendly. I think that when SROs thrived was before those changes.
There's a startup that's running into communal living problems now and they didn't even try to house a difficult group. https://www.thedailybeast.com/commons-tenants-say-its-a-nightmare-at-dollar100m-co-living-startup
Obviously there are other issues there as well. But this is hard.
There are a few other arguments for allowing boarding houses and getting rid of family-only zoning:
1. In typical roommate situations, all people on the lease are responsible for the entire rent amount. So if you're splitting a $1500 3-bedroom, and two of your roommates decide to bail on rent, you'll be on the hook for the entire $1500. A person may prefer to rent just a room in a 3-bedroom house (especially if he's not picky about who his roommates are) and only be on the hook for his portion of the rent, but current regulations often prevent this kind of leasing.
2. The current roommate laws prohibiting more than a certain number of unrelated persons from living together discriminate against non-traditional families, including couples who choose not to get married, those in polyamorous relationships, and LGBTQ people who live with "chosen families."
3. Roommate laws (like in NYC preventing more than 3 unrelated persons from living together) are often laxly enforced until someone makes a complaint. But that means that if you're living in an illegal group situation, your housing may be at the whim of a cranky neighbor.
4. Family-only zoning creates a lot of barriers to create intentional living communities, which creates a problem for people who want a communal aspect to their living, whether they are single or not. I think there's demand for this kind of living setup that is being unmet.
It's absolutely boggles my mind that NYC requires 680 sqft per unit. When I moved to Cleveland, OH for my first job put of college, I rented a 320 sqft studio apartment. I even had my girlfriend move in and live there with me for about six months before we moved to a bigger place. Our current 2BR is only about 700 sqft.
I am a casual follower of housing policies (one of the reasons I subscribed to this newsletter) and this is probably the first article I have read that addresses housing expectations. In other words, I read/hear a lot about the need for more housing but not much discussion about a general definition of what we expect the basic standard of living to be.
I think it may be a more productive (and informative) conversation to start with laying out what are the bare min. standard of living conditions for a family of four/single/etc. Instead, the public just hears about laws that require new builds to contain a certain percentage of “affordable housing” without really getting a sense of what that housing looks like.
In my line of work, I represent a lot of homeless people. When it comes to housing, their expectations are understandably low. One of the main benefits of housing for them (besides shelter from the elements) is security. A place to put their things and lay their head at night without fear of being assaulted and robbed. One client recently, who used meth, said she used because she needed to stay up and guard her things. It also provides dignity, which can provide tremendous benefit to one’s outlook on life and motivation for positive change.
As it stands now, for me at least, the “affordable housing” debate is ambiguous as to what an affordable unit looks like. I’m sure the definitions are spelled out somewhere but part of my point is why isn’t it very clear what we are voting on? For example, an article regarding a city council code may say: “The new code will require all new builds to include 15% of affordable units.” The article will not explain exactly what an “affordable unit” is and why it’s defined that way. If this aspect of the debate was put into sharper focus, I think we would be having different conversations, as I assume, some homeless would say “I don’t need all that, I just need xyz.” This guess about what a homeless persons housing expectations comes from my experience having them as clients but also two anecdotal examples (helping build fencing around a tiny home community for the homeless and seeing 10s of homeless being “evicted” from climate controlled storage units they were living in).
I don't know exactly how these laws work, but I and young people I know have lived in group housing situations in various west coast cities. I think there's actually huge relatively normie young people demand for these kinds of places. Lots of young people working crappy jobs, figuring stuff out, who would love cheap housing, so the "undesirable" framing kind of caught me off guard. I can see that as a factor, but... we have homeless shelters and methodone clinics, and yet SROs are a bridge too far?
The proposition of SROs looks pretty good and may work for many people - but with a huge caveat- the mental health status of potential residents sharing kitchens and bathrooms. SROs would probably require supervision to manage problems that are frequently found in close living in poverty: Hygiene issues ( particularly) the gross kind), food theft, smoking indoors (fire hazard), squatting (often an incarcerated tenants apartment used as a crack house). To be clear- mental health can mean depression, addiction, psychotic or developmental disorders.
Private, non-resident landlords deal with these problems by non-lease at-will arrangements to ease evictions. That’s currently how many people have become homeless. I think your concept would require very robust social services and public or NGO ownership for viability. It’s hard to see how a real estate investor seeking cash flow and capital appreciation would tolerate frequent agency involvement and non-evict-able tenants.
Micro unit models were all the rage briefly before the pandemic in the Boston area. These were all designed for young post student types so the explicit amenities were nicer than the typical old school flop house/SRO. But most of those weren't built to be flop houses originally, but aged into it as their original use became no longer viable.
So, of course, my thought for each one was, "ah, building the flop house of the next generation today. "
Pretty sure you are misunderstanding dwelling unit factors in NYC zoning. 680 square feet not the minimum size of an apartment (most studios and 1 Brs are less). I believe it’s an average unit size when calculating the maximum number of units on a given zoning lot.
Thanks for the Denver shout out, Matt. Note that the official Denver Democratic party line is that the urban camping ban is unethical and they supported large protests against the ban’s 10th anniversary last month---even though an initiative to end the ban was only supported by 20 percent of voters in a D+20 city. The fecklessness of the Republicans in Colorado has left a gaping hole where most of the electorate lives.
I am beside myself with envy that Harvard allowed microwaves in the dorms. Dang #elites!
I have not even read this post yet but am liking and commenting based on the title alone. YES!
(going back to actually read it now)
EDIT: This is great and makes total sense to me in my experience as a planner in NYC who used to live in DC. As a person who was alive in the 70s and 80s, I worry a lot that if cities don't get some kind of grip on this problem, people with choices won't want to live in them.
I also strongly recommend Nolan Gray's work generally (he's at UCLA now and did some research at GMU) to readers of this newsletter. I worked with Nolan for a while and he is a thoughtful and engaging writer.
Nitpick - but this article had a bunch of typos and I normally don't notice any.
This is exactly what I work to achieve every day, and it is refreshing to see such well-reasoned points in favor of more housing. My company, Brownstone Shared Housing, makes sleeping pods which transform existing spaces into shared living arrangements without the need for construction. We currently operate two houses in California: One in Palo Alto, and another in Bakersfield.
Brownstone has been in the news a lot lately, most recently on Good Morning America this morning, and the polarizing response to our sleeping pods has been baffling to me. Many people love that we're taking an innovative approach to increasing the density of single family homes so people can share cost and space more efficiently while preserving privacy. However, a loud minority acts as if we are committing crimes more serious than robbery or assault by providing people with an alternative to having to rent their own $2,000 bedroom. What's perhaps most shocking is that it is people in my (millennial) generation who are leading the charge in the Twitter comments, acting as if we are forcing people into the sleeping pods.
This is all to say, irrespective of laws and NIMBY activism, there is a nontrivial culture on the internet of otherwise progressive young people effectively arguing against the type of innovation that will relieve pressure on the housing market and the environment. In my experience, that has been the most counterproductive force as we've grown in California.