Minneapolis was already experiencing housing and homelessness crises when the pandemic hit and made the need for affordable housing that much more acute — and apparent. Now, as policymakers consider solutions, some are turning to an old type of housing: the rooming house.
Officially known as Single Room Occupancy, in this type of housing a tenant rents a small room usually no larger than an average bedroom. The bathroom and kitchen are shared with other tenants. SRO buildings can vary in size and layout: some have a bathroom and kitchen on each floor, some have a large kitchen on the main floor shared by everyone. Some SROs come with a bathroom in each room but a communal kitchen. A typical feature of many SROs is that the room is fully furnished.
There used to be many rooming house units in Minneapolis and cities across the country until they were deemed undesirable “blight” that were demolished during the latter half of the 20th century. But as homelessness worsened around the nation, the SRO model has resurfaced as a low-barrier way to offer housing.
Now, Minneapolis City Council Members Cam Gordon, Lisa Goodman and Jeremy Schroeder have co-authored an ordinance in an attempt to make it easier to build Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing in the city. The ordinance is moving through various city committees and will soon enter a public-comment phase. The three council members believe the model of renting just a room while sharing a bathroom and kitchen with other tenants will make for an affordable option for Minneapolis’ homeless population.
SRO is making a comeback
In the 1920s and 1930s, through the 1960s, Minneapolis had thousands of rooming house units. It was a period in which an SRO unit could easily be found in any major city in America.
As the 1970s came, the congregate housing — which sometimes fell into uninhabitable disrepair — was demolished in place of other kinds of housing, and, really, anything else.
By the 1980s, Minneapolis put a freeze on SRO permits, grandfathering the SRO units already in place and blocking any more from being built.
“My time on the City Council, 50 years ago now, we were dealing with getting rid of SROs,” said Planning Commission Member Keith Ford during a June 14 meeting of the planning commission when the proposed ordinance was under discussion. He offered a mea culpa and said he is happy to see them return. He’s also happy to see the city take steps “to provide for a well-regulated and well-operated SRO system.”
Under the proposed ordinance, only nonprofit entities, like government agencies and nonprofit organizations, would be allowed to operate new SRO housing. Backers of the ordinance hope this will help a new wave of SRO housing avoid the issues that led to the decline of SROs in the past.
“The history of a lot of the issues [with SRO housing] came because of the management and not so much the housing type,” said Schroeder.
Gordon said he fears for-profit SRO operators would worry less about stable, low-barrier housing options for Minneapolis residents and more about making a buck. “I tend to think of the worst-case scenario sometimes,” said Gordon. “I represent all around the University of Minnesota and I could just see some developer deciding that they are going to make a luxury, state-of-the-art rooming house and make a fortune and charge $2,000 a room and put a rooftop garden on it and put a pool somewhere.”
New SRO housing would be limited to certain parts of the city. Details of the exact locations have yet to be nailed down, but the proposal places SRO zoning primarily in the city’s high density and medium density areas.
“What we are trying to do is get the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent,” said Goodman. “Which is: open it up, make it possible, show that it can work.”
Minneapolis’ existing rooming houses
Despite the current ban on new permits for SROs, there are still some examples of this type of housing in the city. Minneapolis-based nonprofit housing organization Alliance Housing currently owns multiple rooming houses in the city. Their largest SRO is on Pillsbury Avenue south of Franklin Avenue.
Rooms are rented fully furnished and overnight guests are prohibited. “We do that just because, a) it’s a small room, it doesn’t have a bathroom and a kitchen,” said Alliance Housing Executive Director Barbara Jeanetta. “And it helps keep the peace.” She said it took a couple of years to find out which tenants were “troublemakers” and which “wanted to live in peace.” Rents are on average $350 a month.
There are all kinds of people who might find the SRO model appealing, said Jeanetta. Alliance has tenants that simply do not want to deal with obtaining furniture or the upkeep involved in a bathroom or kitchen. An SRO unit is seen as a downsizing opportunity. Some SRO tenants are people who are alone and don’t need much — others, from families that can be demanding, relish the small space, said Jeanetta.
Ordinance moving forward quickly
The proposed ordinance is moving quickly through city commissions — Schroeder said there may be a version of an SRO ordinance on the books as early as August. The city will spend the rest of the summer notifying residents and neighborhood associations of the ordinance and requesting feedback.
So far, the council members supporting the ordinance say they haven’t heard much opposition.
“I’m actually getting more comments that [SRO] be allowed in more places,” said Gordon, adding that he believes the ordinance may be enacted before the end of the summer because city officials and residents, especially after the pandemic, are more open to more housing options.
Because Gordon pushed for more SRO when finalizing the 2040 plan, city staff had already spent time researching SRO housing. Gordon, Schroeder and Goodman jumpstarted the idea of an SRO ordinance last fall. It was approved by the city’s Planning Commission and is now on its way to the Business, Inspections, Housing & Zoning Committee.
The City Council could be discussing the ordinance as soon as this month and adopting it in August.