The Return of Rooming Houses

Popular in the early 20th century, the single-room occupancy rooming house fell out of favor, with the type now banned in many cities. With no end to the housing crisis in sight, cities are rethinking their regulation of this affordable housing optio

2 minute read

June 14, 2022, 10:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Broadway Hotel, four-story single-room occupancy hotel in Portland, Oregon

The Broadway Hotel in Portland, Oregon currently serves as a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel. | Ian Poellet / Broadway Hotel, Portland, Oregon

Single-room occupancy housing (SROs), which in the 1950s made up 10 percent of New York’s housing stock, could make a comeback as the housing crisis forces Americans to reconsider housing options that have fallen out of favor, writes Jake Blumgart for Governing.

Blumgart provides some background: “In 1955, New York City banned the new construction of SROs in the city. Zoning codes everywhere were tweaked to discourage anything but single-family residences. By one estimate, 1 million SRO units were lost between the 1970s and the 1990s.”

With the city receiving 500 complaints about illegal single-room occupancies each year, the demand for rooming houses is palpable in Philadelphia. One city councilmember wants to reverse that trend, calling on the city to “legalize single-room residences in all multifamily and commercial zoning districts.” 

The bill isn’t without its critics in the council. “Multiple council sources have told Governing that three district councilmembers planned to introduce amendments to Green’s bill that would carve their neighborhoods out of his legislation. The bill still hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing, and council will soon break for the summer.”

Former head of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I), Dave Perri, has been advocating for zoning reform since 2018, when a fire in an illegal rooming house killed three people. Perri wants to see rooming houses allowed in all neighborhoods, arguing that single-family zoning no longer fits people’s needs. “He points to more single people living alone than in the past, overcrowded multi-generational households, and non-traditional family formation as pressures on the existing legal paradigm.” Single-room occupancy can fill a gap in the affordable housing supply and provide a lifeline for low-income renters.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in Governing

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