New York Wants to Pay Landlords to Fix and Rent Single-Room Apartments

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New York State is planning to pay landlords who rent out single room occupancy units, commonly known as S.R.O.s, in an attempt to fight homelessness by slowing the decades-long decline in the number of small, cheap rental homes.

Through the program, which is being announced on Tuesday, the state will spend about $50 million to help landlords repair and renovate about 500 S.R.O.s and keep them livable and on the market. It is the first time the state has funded such an effort, and is something of a reversal in attitudes toward S.R.O.s, which for many years were targeted for elimination by government policies.

A single room occupancy hotel in Brooklyn in 1984. Credit…Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

Background: S.R.O.s were once a big part of New York City’s housing stock.

S.R.O.s are typically small apartments with a private room but shared kitchen, bathrooms and other amenities. They are more affordable than conventional apartments, making them attractive to people struggling with homelessness or those who have limited incomes.

While there used to be as many as 100,000 S.R.O.s in New York City, according to the New York University Furman Center, the number began to decline in the mid-20th century, when they became associated with poverty, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

The city passed laws preventing the construction of new units and encouraged the conversion of S.R.O.s to other types of apartments. In many cases, S.R.O.s were combined with other units to form bigger homes for wealthier people.

State officials say they do not know how many still exist. A 2018 paper from the Furman Center estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 remained.

Why It Matters: S.R.O.s are seen as one answer to the housing crisis.

Housing experts and politicians increasingly seem to be eyeing S.R.O.s. as a solution to a nationwide housing crisis.

In New York State — and most visibly in New York City — housing costs have risen because there have not been enough homes built in recent decades, creating an enormous housing shortage. The affordability problems have contributed to record levels of homelessness, a crisis that has been underscored by the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants in the past couple of years.

S.R.O.s could help better match the city’s housing stock with the needs of the population: The Furman Center paper pointed out that there were about 210,000 “small” units in the city — including S.R.O.s and studio apartments — yet there were almost 1.2 million single adult renters living alone or with roommates.

Facts to Keep in Mind: Alone, S.R.O.s won’t fix the broader problem.

The S.R.O. program is small. Many of the units are in very bad condition and need extensive renovations; state officials think the $50 million might help preserve only about 500 units, illustrating how costly these types of efforts can be. The state housing shortage is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of units.

In the city, leaders are attempting to change zoning rules to encourage the construction of smaller apartments, as part of a broader effort to make way for 100,000 additional homes over the next 15 years. That would require the approval of the City Council, which is still months away.

State legislators and Gov. Kathy Hochul failed last year to agree on other big initiatives many housing experts believe are necessary to address the crisis, including a new tax incentive program for affordable housing developments, stronger tenant protections and mandates that suburbs allow more homes to be built.

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