‘Single room occupancy units are one of the earliest forms of affordable housing, allowing hundreds of thousands of working-class residents to live here. And yet, New York City has limited their construction for 65 years, supposedly in the name of progress.

David Brand

A shuttered hotel in Sunset Park, which mayoral candidate Eric Adams has proposed to convert to housing units.

It is hard to remember a time when housing affordability was not a problem in New York City. As early as 1969, Mayor Lindsay’s City Planning Commission had highlighted the “severe shortage” of housing stock. The latest data suggest little has improved. Median home prices have risen 30 percent in the 12 months leading up to August, while the number of single adults in shelters —18,653 in July—nears record highs. We have seen many more on the streets thanks to the economic fallout from COVID-19.

This sobering news comes amidst the ambitious proposal by Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams to convert 25,000 vacant hotel rooms into supportive housing. While there is no lack of promising ideas, city leaders have given too little attention to the diversity of housing we need. One good example of this is private SROs, or single room occupancy units.

SROs cover a wide array of housing arrangements by definition, but a common kind provides a private room with shared bath and/or kitchen amenities. SROs are one of the earliest forms of affordable housing, allowing hundreds of thousands of working-class residents to live here. And yet, New York City has limited their construction for 65 years, supposedly in the name of progress. More than three decades have passed since city officials realized their mistake, but this has not translated into changes to the law itself. It is far past time for our legislators to remove these outdated provisions and reintroduce a new generation to history’s housing solutions.

Why were SROs nearly regulated out of existence in the first place? To reformers in the mid-1950s, these housing units represented all the worst qualities of city life. SROs became associated with poverty and crime, a symbol of urban decay and blight. They recalled the bygone era of the tenement, with all its raucous living, overcrowded quarters, and squalid conditions. The tragedy of good intentions led to disastrous consequences. In the years following the ban on new for-profit SROs in 1955, policymakers created incentives that steered developers upmarket toward studios and apartments. As a result, more than 100,000 residents were forced out of the remaining, often intentionally neglected, SROs. Many ended up on the streets.

If New York City made such SROs legal again, the immediate benefits are undisputable. Single low-income New Yorkers can once again get access to real affordable housing. But it is not enough for the city to reverse course on private SROs. In the long-term, tax incentives and regulatory changes can support the expansion of new developments, just as they have been used in the past to eliminate SROs. A prescient 2018 paper from NYU’s Furman Center has already identified reforms that can accelerate the creation of new units at scale, which can serve as a model of “21st century SROs” for the world’s major cities. Both the data and the tools are available for policymakers to meet the demand for more types of housing.

Those who oppose new SROs may contend that this too is well-intentioned but misguided. Some neighborhoods fear that quality of life will go down with an influx of new residents. Others worry that developers will take advantage of the rules in order to extract maximum profit. But neither is an inevitable consequence of SROs. The legalization of private SROs can reduce the transience associated with dwelling in illegal units. The regulation of private SROs under existing city laws can guard against shoddy development. Both bolster the long-term quality of life in New York City by keeping our low-income single neighbors housed and off the streets.

Almost 10 years have passed since the Bloomberg administration explored new, albeit upscale, SRO models. It is a shame that the departing de Blasio administration did not give much consideration to these ideas. Instead, the mayor has actively opposed state proposals to assist owners with the conversion of hotels and offices to residential units. Eric Adams has expressed support for modern SROs, an encouraging development, but without specifics it remains only a soundbite promise for the future. COVID-19 has opened a unique and limited window of opportunity to address this issue with existing vacant spaces. And with the $1.7 billion 421-A tax abatement up for renewal next June, a push for private SROs as part of the larger housing solution can catalyze additional development.

New York’s new state and local leaders have a fresh opportunity to examine how SROs can help combat the housing crisis. The current patchwork of emergency rent assistance and eviction moratoriums can only sustain vulnerable New Yorkers for so long: while necessary, they do not fully address the fundamental need for more variety in housing. SROs are a past solution to the present problem, a crisis not only of availability but also of diversity and accessibility. We need vibrant neighborhoods with all kinds of housing options for single people and families alike. This is one equitable step towards that possibility—not just for New York City, but for low-income residents in cities around the world.

Samuel Tran is an EMPA student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He previously served on the steering committee for Don’t Walk By, a yearly outreach to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness.