New Report Examines the Need for Single-Room Occupancy Housing

Randolph controversy spurs PCHTF research

New Report Examines the Need for Single-Room Occupancy Housing

While rehousing the residents of the Hotel Randolph poses many unique challenges to the community’s housing system, Des Moines is not the only community to have faced this issue.  To learn from other cities that have lost single-room occupancy (SRO) housing units like the rooms found in the Randolph, PCHTF Research Intern Josh Hellyer wrote a report offering suggestions for rehousing current hotel residents and preserving a dwindling stock of SRO units.  The report chronicles the turbulent history of SROs, describes programs to support the needy residents who live in them, and outlines strategies to protect Des Moines’ affordable housing units.

Once a high-end hotel, the Randolph, like SRO buildings across the country, has become a de facto form of “housing of last resort” for many people facing substantial barriers to housing.  Many of its residents are mentally or physically disabled, have poor rental histories, and/or have limited income, all of which can preclude them from accessing rental housing.  These residents may not be able to pay a deposit, or to pass typical background checks, leaving them with few options except the SRO, where they may pay by the night.

One key finding of this report is that these hard-to-house residents may be best served by permanent supportive housing.  Programs that combine housing with supportive services in Portland and San Francisco have produced measurable results in keeping the formerly homeless stably housed, and even helping them end addiction and attain employment.  Both programs operate on the “Housing First” model, providing the formerly homeless with a place to live on a permanent basis and offering, but not mandating, supportive services like case management, addiction treatment, and life skills training.

Other cities have addressed the loss of SRO units by promoting new SRO construction, or by mandating the preservation of existing units.  In San Diego, building codes and zoning restrictions for SROs were loosened, so as to allow developers to more cheaply build SRO buildings on cheaper land in commercial districts surrounding the downtown core.  In San Francisco, any developer seeking to redevelop an SRO building must replace lost units one-for-one or pay for the city to do so.  Though the Randolph is one of the last remaining SRO buildings in Des Moines, these principles could apply to policies protecting all affordable housing from redevelopment.

The SRO may not be the ideal housing unit, but it has provided the hardest-to-house population with a place to live, however small and simple.  As such, its role in the continuum of housing options cannot be ignored.  Losing housing options like the SRO may make it difficult for those facing exceptional barriers to find housing. The conversion of the Randolph and the history of SROs illustrate that cities must develop policies to protect their stock of affordable housing before it is too late.

The complete report is available, along with other research, on the PCHTF’s Community Housing Policy microsite.  It can also be found HERE.