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SROs, a housing staple from the last century, poised for comeback

Crains, NICK GARBER, C. J. HUGHES, October 21.2023

Ray Ray Soto’s apartment on the Upper West Side has hardwood floors, ceramic counters and city views. At first blush, it’s not so different from many other units in newly built towers.

“This is a beautiful building,” said Soto, 66, who moved there in March after a years-long search. “I love the place I’m living in. I really do.”

Soto’s studio, however, is not inside a conventional rental development. It’s actually located in a single-room occupancy hotel, commonly referred to as an SRO, one of the few remaining examples of a once-common type of dwelling that served as a lifeline to generations of New Yorkers without much money. But their often dark, drecky and dangerous conditions led to a ban on SROs decades ago and prompted officials to allow most of the remaining ones to be razed.

But as homelessness and housing costs hit record levels, Mayor Eric Adams is considering allowing the controversial properties, with their unusually small unit sizes and shared kitchens or bathrooms, to be built for the first time since the Eisenhower era. Soto’s digs could be a glimpse of things to come.

“We have to try something new, and that’s when old ideas become new again,” said Muzzy Rosenblatt, chief executive officer of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a nonprofit housing provider that operates a handful of the city’s few surviving SROs.

But several housing providers who support the mayor’s SRO push said they would tweak a few details this time around, such as getting more buy-in from nonprofits and insisting on regular inspections to make sure living conditions stay up to code. “When SROs were run by private landlords, it was very hard to make them a successful business, because their customers were the poorest of the poor,” Rosenblatt said.

The set of pro-housing zoning changes that Adams proposed in September includes measures that would eliminate rules that have long prevented the construction of new SROs.

Specifically, the mayor would amend zoning laws that set a minimum average size for apartments in new developments to encourage more studios and, the thinking goes, more small-unit apartment buildings.

In the push to get more shared housing in general, City Hall would also loosen rules that prevent developers from adding rooming-house-style units in low-density areas and converting offices into the properties.

Although the City Council would have to approve these zoning changes and likely pass additional legislation for SROs to make a full-fledged return, the need for cheap housing options no longer seems as controversial as it had been for decades. Gale Brewer, a City Council member whose Upper West Side district was the epicenter of the SRO fight in the middle of the last century, told Crain’s she “absolutely” supports the mayor’s idea.

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