Starting the conversation about SRO housing in Olympia

Angelus tenants told to move by new owner

The Angelus building in downtown Olympia was sold in April for $1.9 million. Less than two weeks later, the new owners gave notices to vacate to 11 of the 29 units. The city is considering an assistance program to help tenants find somewhere else.
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The Angelus building in downtown Olympia was sold in April for $1.9 million. Less than two weeks later, the new owners gave notices to vacate to 11 of the 29 units. The city is considering an assistance program to help tenants find somewhere else.

If you’re a theater buff, you probably think SRO means “standing room only.” But if you’re interested in how to create more affordable housing, SRO means “Single Room Occupancy.” It’s a term that describes places where people rent bedrooms and share bathrooms and kitchen facilities. Usually it refers to buildings built for that purpose, such as cheap hotels with bathrooms at the end of the hall, but it can also include boarding houses and rooming houses.

This kind of housing hales from an era when, the website CityLab reports, “the bed, not the home, was the basic unit” of housing.

There was a time in our history when SRO housing served people of many income levels. There were fancy residential hotels for wealthy single people, and less expensive versions, sometimes catering to specific immigrant or racial groups, and really cheap ones for the lowest-wage workers and the near-destitute. Some even rented “hot beds,” which meant that one bed was occupied around the clock by people who worked different shifts.

Over time, though, SROs became housing for poor people – which in our part of the country meant out-of-work loggers and fishermen, migrant workers, old people, and people with disabilities. When psychiatric hospitals started to empty out, people with mental illnesses lived in them too.

Seattle used to have a lot of SROs – primarily older hotels. In the late 1960s, they rented rooms for as little as 50 cents a night. But after a couple of tragic fires in the early 1970s, they gradually got regulated out of existence. Unsafe and unsavory as they may have been, they had kept thousands of poor and marginalized people from being homeless. According to CityLab, Seattle lost 15,000 of these housing units between 1960 and 1981.

Olympia used to have more SROs too, though no one seems to have kept track of how many. The Angelus, a downtown SRO on Fourth and Columbia, was probably the last, and it’s now being remodeled into apartments that are sure to have higher rents.

In many cities, though, SROs are making a comeback, for the very poor, for low-wage workers, and for people who want to live simply and who don’t spend much time at home. There also are more upscale SROs that cater to relatively affluent young professionals. Some of these include amenities like exercise rooms, pool tables, and even climbing walls.

At the recent Olympia City Council retreat, the idea of creating a local SRO was suggested by Mike Reid, the city’s Economic Development Director. Council members were friendly to the idea of pursuing a “proof of concept” project to reintroduce this form of housing locally. Reid thinks it’s possible that a local developer might be persuaded to undertake such a project on land owned by the city.

Much more discussion is needed before the council takes any action, but it’s encouraging that the conversation has started.

We hope this idea moves to the top of the agenda soon. Our population is growing fast, and we are already years behind on matching the number of new housing units to the number of new residents. We also are years behind in matching the price of new housing units with the income of city residents in the bottom two-thirds of the earnings ladder.

Our first impulse is to push for a new SRO building to create housing for people who are homeless or on the brink of becoming homeless. But Reid has another point of view: He thinks that to attract a private developer, the city will need to offer maximum flexibility, even if that means the first SRO project won’t be affordable to the poorest among us.

That’s a hard choice. On the one hand, we urgently need to get people who are homeless housed, and stem the growth of homelessness. On the other hand, we need to recruit private developers to build any and all housing that’s more affordable than single-family houses or high-rent apartments. And the lower the rent, and the more tenants it accommodates with disabilities and special requirements, the more likely it is that an SRO would be more expensive to manage and maintain.

So we are reluctantly encouraging a civic conversation about what is possible, and what is most likely to spur more construction of SROs that serve people with a variety of incomes and needs. We just don’t want this conversation to leave behind the already left behind – the people who need housing the most, and can afford it the least.