The SRO, single-room occupancy, style of lodging was disreputable even during its heyday at the end of the 19th century, but as stigmatized as it is, it may just be ready to come back…and to help solve the "missing middle" housing crisis. As with many old trends made new, one of the main strategies behind its rise is a thorough rebranding.
What is an SRO?
An SRO is an inexpensive, bare-bones, furnished room available to individuals for short-term and medium-term rent. Larger blocks of them have often historically been converted from cheap hotels, and in fact, they're hardly different from a cheap hotel. Perhaps the average length of stay is longer, and likely an SRO will have even fewer services and staff.
Boarding houses of previous generations were also SROs. And today, you might well be able to call micro apartments and co-living units SROs. That's the rebranding, and we'll get more into it a bit later. But first…
SROs enjoyed their best reputation ever back in the late 1800s, when young, single working women emigrated from Europe or transplanted from the Western states to New York in search of work, prospects, and a better life. These SROs were boarding houses, where dozens or hundreds of lodgers would each have a small room or studio but have meals served and curfew set.
At the same time, men on the hustle were living in all-male SROs, which always had a rougher reputation and were supposedly housing transient and criminal elements from the get-go. Only the YMCA -- an early SRO-developer/manager juggernaut -- managed for a time to escape a sordid reputation.
By the 1950s, though, the SRO building as a concept was seen as unsavory and even dangerous. Cities wanted them to go away.
Why are they controversial/disreputable historically?
Any housing situation where lower-income single people are living in close quarters is prone to being flagged as disreputable. SROs have always served a population too impoverished or unsteady to settle into more expensive long-term lodgings. Over time, it went from being young workers to the underemployed and newly released prisoners.
Providing such people an inexpensive place to get back on their feet is a smart solution to homelessness, but as cities gentrify, the idea of high-density, low-income lodgings becomes undesirable for most neighborhoods. Especially when the parcels of land could be used for a luxury hotel or office tower with the same footprint and turn a much higher profit.
Essentially, although SROs help solve the homeless issue, they also provide unattached lower income people a way to live in an urban center semipermanently and on the cheap. So, many people feel they don't contribute to quality of life for other residents. This is debatable though, with the counter-argument that you can't necessarily have quality of life if most people can't afford to live in a place. And this is where we are right now in many U.S. cities.
What are the names for SROs now?
As mentioned, the modern rebrand of the SRO is the micro apartment -- essentially one-room multifamily towers with each unit having a minimal kitchen and bathroom space. Another modern take on the SRO is -- and this may surprise you -- co-living. Just like the boarding houses of old, a co-living space might provide shared kitchen and dining areas, though sleeping quarters are private. And they serve a very similar population of young, single workers who are happy to exchange space for proximity to the urban center.
Can the SRO ever come back?
Housing crises continue to intensify in many urban centers, and if SROs provide a solution, then they'll continue to re-emerge, albeit with their shiny new branding and labels. And this is not by any means a bad thing. If they provide a city and a population with something necessary to solve a crisis -- and provide investors with a solid bet in the multifamily space -- then they could be fine with the proper regulations.