San Diego looks to revive SRO housing

Facing a worsening shortage of inexpensive housing, officials in San Diego are devising a plan aimed at spurring construction of tiny, single-room occupancy units known as SROs. Susan Tinsky of the San Diego Housing Commission says development of SROs surged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Probably 30 to 40 developments” containing a total of 3,000 units were built, she says. The best of them became exemplars of walkable, mixed-use urban design. Though the units are small and austere, without full kitchens, and in some instances with bathrooms down the hall, the typical downtown SRO building “really fits with the historic architectural designs that already existed,” Tinsky says. “It doesn’t stand out.” Participants in the February CNU Council in San Diego were especially impressed by a little mixed-use building at 222 Island Avenue downtown, designed in the early 1990s by Rob Wellington Quigley. The building’s ground floor is enlivened by Café 222, a popular eating place. Above are SRO units. “In downtown, the SROs exist across from multimillion-dollar condos, have uses on the ground floor that cater to upscale customers, and generally coexist without problems,” says Michael Stepner, who was a city planner when the SRO initiatives were under way. The city encouraged SRO construction partly by adopting zoning allowing such housing anywhere in the downtown and by classifying it as a commercial use like a hotel, thereby relieving it from school fees, according to Tinsky. Because the unit density was high, some developers were able to build profitable SROs with no government subsidy. Kitchens, no; microwaves, yes Kitchens were, and are, prohibited. Tenants initially resorted to using illegal hot plates, which caused fires. Cooking frequently clogged the in-room sinks. To alleviate those problems, the city later permitted microwave ovens and allowed sinks that were equipped with garbage disposals — improving safety and reducing maintenance costs, Stepner says. “Allowing toilets in the room without having to build out a bathroom, according to code, reduced ongoing plumbing problems, although there was a high first-time cost,” he adds. San Diego welcomed SRO housing in the 1980s to revive what was then a blighted downtown. By 1997, however, developers were eager to build more elaborate housing and other kinds of buildings. Centre City Development Corporation, San Diego’s downtown redevelopment agency, pushed for regulatory changes to discourage further SRO production. Since then, some of the SRO housing has been eliminated , while housing prices, according to Tinsky, “are increasing by 20 to 25 percent a year.” Central San Diego has become an increasingly alluring place for the affluent. New market-rate housing with good urban traits, such as individual units’ doors opening onto the sidewalks, has proliferated in the city’s core. But prices are out of sight. The median price of used single-family houses in San Diego County reached $409,000, it was recently reported. The median price of used condos attained a new high of $294,000. Consequently, SROs have come to be inhabited by “a lot of working people, students, disabled people, seniors, and people down on their luck,” according to Tinsky. SRO rents vary from $360 to $1,100 a month, says Bill Luksic of the Housing Commission. “Generally, they run between $400 and $700 a month, with the average falling around $550.” The Housing Commission has responded by assembling a plan that would restart SRO construction, which largely ended by the late 1990s. “We’re trying to develop an approach that will incentivize the market,” Tinsky says. She says ideas proposed by the Commission include: • Zoning changes to allow SROs in more areas. • Reductions in required parking. • Reductions in water and sewer fees. • Targeted subsidies for rehabilitation and new construction. Tinsky expects the proposed ordinances to be presented to the Council by summer. u