The same cities that struggle to provide affordable housing today eliminated their critical-but-maligned flexible housing stock after World War II.

This month, CityLab visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger takes a look back at the critical role Single Room Occupancy housing played in early 20th century urban life.

What is a home and who does it hold?
In the afterglow of the American suburban blast,
We tend to see the home as a house
And its hold as a family. "Singly family home"
That's the unit. But it wasn't always that way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries housing was much more flexible,
fluid, and communal - especially in America's booming cities.
The ravenous, metastasizing downtowns needed people so many people to fuel them
single people, foreign people, day laborers, seafarers, migrant workers, factory workers, newly minted women workers
and every worker, no matter how industrious, had to sleep somewhere.
Boarding houses, rooming houses, lodging houses, flop houses. The bed - not the home - was the most basic unit.
You could have a "hot bed" you shift-shared with others, a bed to yourself without a room.
A room without a bathroom, a bathroom without a kitchen. You could live in a hotel,
board in a house, rent by the night, the week, the month, the season.
At the turn of the century, San Francisco was known as "Hotel City" because "vast numbers" lived in hotels and ate only in restaurants.
In New York, an 1892 guide to the city claimed that when it came to housing, every individual caprice and purse can find something to suit.
In Boston's South End, rooming-house residents were: "A great army of clerks, salesmen, bookeepers, shop girls, stenographers, dressmakers, milliners, barbers, restaurant keepers, black railroad porters and stewards, policemen, nurses, journeymen, carpenters, painters, machinists and electricians." - Sociologist Albert Wolfe, 1906
Chicago had different districts known for different types of residential hotels: Near North Side "the city's most extensive roominghouse district." Main stem area "nationally famous for cheap lodging houses."
In his seminal work on the subject, living downtown, Paul Groth wrote: "Boarding and lodging so pervaded American family life... in a conservative estimate for those years, 1/3-1/2 of all urban Americans either boarded or took boarders at some time in their lives."
Where you lept was of course defined by what you could pay (as well as your skin color and country of birth) conferring both social status and social life.
Just as residence clubs like NYC's Barbizon provided an exclusive platform for ambitious wealthy white women, the International Hotel in San Francisco provided an affordable haven and shared culture for poor Filipino families,
and the Chicago Beach Hotel provided its Jewish residents (80% of tenants) a chance to socially mix with gentiles in a way they couldn't have otherwise.
Living with the bed as the unit meant that housewives renting out rooms often had more reliable income than their husbands, single workers (especially women) could work without the crushing burden of housework, the great depression's "newly poor" could keep a roof over their head as they tried to claw their way back up, and everyone who wanted (or needed) could shed personal living rooms and even kitchens and bathrooms, in order to live closer to the downtown and adopt it as an outflow of their "home."
In the 1930s, the term SRO - single room occupancy - bubbled up,
scooping up all styles of flexible housing in its definition. Throughout World War II, loads of wartime workers flowed into SROs and when they ebbed out, wounded soliders washed in.
The elderly, disabled, the mentally ill being booted out of pyschiatric hospitals in droves, all sought out their single rooms. By the 1950s, there were 200,000 SROs in NYC - over 10% of the city's rental stock at the time -
making them a very visible part of the city. As postwar middle class norms became established, there was increasingly little acceptance for a place where all kinds of people would stream in and out, room by room, bed by bed.
SROs became branded as "poor people housing" and cities started strangling them out.
In 1955, NYC banned new construction of SROs and made it illegal to chop up houses. By the mid- to late-1970s, reporters were writing about the "SRO crisis" as NYC gave landords tax breaks to convert SROs to higher-priced apartments, and San Francisco was battling protesters protecting long-term SRO residents.
and modern homelessness was in full bloom.
Cities quickly realized they had razed rooms that had been integral to their citizens' survival with no backup plan. What's worse, by uprooting legal SROs, the city seeded illegal SROs.
In 2013, half a million New Yorkers were thought to live in potentially dangerous and illegal SRO-esuqe units (a year later investor interest continued to "surge" in SROs because they flipped so nicely into condos). Today, cooperative living is big business again,
with everyone Airbnb-ing and We-Living. Single-room living is coming back too, but it's mainly of the luxury micro-apartment set - like Ollie's Carmel Place in NYC which will rent you a 300 sq. ft. white closet life for
$3,000/month. There is some truly supportive single-room housing,
like Capitol Hall on west 87th street - an SRO that was bought by neighbors in the 1980s and recently underwent an extensive renovation. Its 200 tenants
pay no more than 30% of their income on rent, and have access to weekly visits from social workers and nurse practicioners. But even though the daily cost of operating
A supportive housing unit is 1/3 less than the cost of a shelter, 2/3 less than jail, and a fraction of the cost of a hospital. Cities are still lagging in providing adequate options for residents who need them.
The number of people living alone is rising. The number of people over 65 is rising. The number of people who don't have access to affordable housing is rising.
the number of people without a home at all is rising. How will we make room for them?

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