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SRO Housing, Nearly Zoned Out of Existence, Could Re-Emerge

Single-room occupancy units have largely disappeared from American cities. But a Philadelphia councilmember has introduced legislation to legalize one of the most affordable forms of housing for low-income people.

Philadelphia, Pa., skyline
Philadelphia. City Councilmember Derek Green has introduced legislation that would legalize single-room residences in all multifamily and commercial zoning districts.
Single-room residences used to be a prominent feature of city life in America.

Many of the Founding Fathers resided in congregate living setups for their stays in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, between one-third and one-fourth of urban households took in boarders. In the 1950s, single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) comprised 10 percent of New York’s housing stock.

But in the postwar years, American norms began to shift and policymakers turned on single-room residences. 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.

“Many people attribute the growth of street homelessness in the ’80s to the loss of this SRO stock that began in the ’60s,” says Dennis Culhane, professor of social policy and homelessness at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a necessary option. If we could get a few thousand of those units in [Philadelphia], it could have a really significant impact on homelessness.”

During the pandemic street homelessness became even more apparent in cities like Philadelphia, where it had been relatively subdued before. Outdoor living became such a prominent issue in more expensive areas — especially on the West Coast— that it is driving a more conservative electoral backlash in cities like San Francisco.

That’s part of what inspired Philadelphia City Councilmember Derek Green to introduce legislation that would legalize single-room residences in all multifamily and commercial zoning districts. (They are currently only allowed in the highest density categories, which are mostly concentrated around universities and downtown.) Other cities have been considering similar options: legislation to encourage more SROs was part of Minneapolis’s big zoning reform push while cities like San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have fought to protect their remaining units.

“I think it would help to provide more affordable housing units,” says Green, who is an at-large member of Philadelphia’s City Council. “We’re looking at this legislation as a way to provide more housing for those with a marginal income, not just more student housing.”

Green is referencing the fact that while single-room residences have fallen from grace in urban America, there is still one area where it is seen as socially acceptable. Rooms for rent with shared bathrooms and kitchens are still embraced when it comes to dormitories and other forms of student housing.

But the necessity of this market niche is seen beyond the confines of University City, home to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Take a walk through Philadelphia’s lower income neighborhoods, and a flourishing gray market of “rooms for rent” is evident. In 2017, one community development corporation in West Philadelphia mapped 40 illegal rooming houses on four commercial corridors in their neighborhood. (The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has not issued violations to any of them.)

By contrast, in the last decade permits have been issued for fewer than 50 legal rooming houses across the whole city. For landlord Victor Pinckney, who owns one of the city’s few legal boarding houses, the need for more such units is evident in a country where only a fourth of those eligible for housing assistance receive it.

“Rooms are a great thing,” says Pinckney. “You’ve got people on these little pensions, $1,600 or $1,800 a month. They can’t pass a credit check. A room costs $400 to $500 a month. It puts a roof over their head, gives them a bathroom. I’m pleasantly surprised to see this bill.”

Pinckney’s building in North Philadelphia does not fit with middle-class American norms. During a 2019 visit, the walls were scuffed up and a whiff of marijuana smoke lingered in the air. The older men who lived there shared a bathroom between four residents and took most of their meals at neighborhood restaurants.

But where else could they go? What else could they afford? In the absence of legal options run by responsible landlords like Pinckney, most people in their position turn to illegal dwellings or the street. The city reports receiving 500 complaints about illegal single-room occupancies annually.

Illegal accommodations occasionally end in tragedy. In 2018, a rooming house in North Philadelphia was consumed by fire and a family of three died. That led to a brief push for reforms, including legislation that required hardwired smoke detectors in all rooming houses. In actuality, this law did next to nothing: the overwhelming majority of rooming houses and SROs in the city are illegal, so a regulation means nothing for them.

The head of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) at the time, Dave Perri, pushed for zoning reforms to make single-room residences legal throughout Philadelphia with the provision that they not be allowed within 500 feet of each other in single-family neighborhoods. He argued that legalizing them would allow the city to better understand where these residences are and make them easier to regulate.

His attempt at policymaking, however, won no political allies and it quietly died — until this year.

Green’s legislation would not allow single-room residences in neighborhoods zoned for single family, however, and it includes the proviso that they cannot be within 500 feet of each other in any part of the city.

“You don’t want to have certain parts of the city oversaturated,” says Green. “We’ve tried to use this legislation as a starting point, knowing that people are going to have some concerns. We want to address those concerns while finding ways to provide desperately needed housing.”

Green’s colleagues do appear to have concerns about his legislation. District councilmembers represent specific swathes of the city and tend to be most responsive to neighborhood associations and homeowner groups. In a city like Philadelphia, owning a home and car doesn’t mean you are rich by any means, but you have more than many of your neighbors, you are more likely to vote, and more likely to have your voice heard.

That voice is likely to express a desire for other single-family neighbors, not rooming houses.

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.

For Perri, the retired head of L&I, the bill’s introduction is at least a step in the right direction. He would have preferred legislation that allowed SROs and rooming houses in all residential and commercial areas, and only instituted the 500-foot rule in single-family zones. But he’s also not surprised to hear that Green’s colleagues do not appear to be on board.

“The city will have a hard time making progress unless these folks get together and see that problems such as lack of affordable housing, substance use disorders, and the need for additional homeless shelters affect every neighborhood,” said Perri. “Carving out parts of the city to disallow rooming houses is self-defeating. It needs to be a city-wide solution.”

Perri argues that aggressive defense of single-family zoning is outdated and doesn’t reflect American life today. 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. Legalizing single-room occupancies should be seen as part of an effort to adapt to today’s world.

“The idea of a nuclear family has evolved over time because of mass incarceration, substance abuse disorders, the shrinking middle class,” says Perri. “The idea of what constitutes a nuclear family, which directly influenced the definition of single-family zoning, is evolving and changing. Our laws need to change too.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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