single room occupancies

Seneca Square
Photo courtesy of DePaul
Single Room Occupancies (SROs), also called efficiency apartments and residential studio units, provide a low-cost housing option for single-person households. Traditionally residents share kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities, but have a private room for living and sleeping. Modern single room occupancies, however, may offer full-service efficiency apartments that include a kitchenette, private bathroom and some storage space. These small rental homes provide an affordable housing option for individuals who want to be located near their work and urban amenities but may not be able to afford a larger unit.

Addressing community concerns: Popular perceptions of SROs are closely associated with "skid row" and flophouses catering to
homeless men. While many SRO developments serve individuals at risk of homelessness, particularly those linked with supportive services, small efficiency apartments also provide an affordable housing option for students, recent graduates and single professionals. In high-cost urban areas single-room occupancy and efficiency units may be very common; however, community acceptance of SROs in lower-density and suburban areas can be more difficult to achieve. An early outreach and public education campaign can help developers respond to and overcome "not in my back yard" (NIMBY) resistance from neighbors.

Obstacles to Development

A Fairfax County, Virginia task force charged with studying single-room occupancies found that the County's zoning code variously characterizes SROs as (1) multifamily buildings that may be built in certain residential districts if they are efficiency units with private bathrooms and kitchens, or (2) hotels that may be built in certain commercial districts if units do not have kitchens or bathrooms. [1]

Developments that offer both types of units may be difficult to classify and site. In addition, some zoning ordinances establish the number of residential units allowed on a site on the basis of the size of the parcel. Because SROs are smaller than typical apartments, this methodology may not allow an adequate number of units to be developed, and an alternative system based on floor area ratio may be more appropriate. A recommendation to amend the current zoning policy to identify SROs as a single use allowed in specified districts is currently being considered by Fairfax County's Department of Planning and Zoning so that SROs can potentially be incorporated into areas designated for other residential or non-residential areas.

Solutions in Action

Coan Pond residences in the high-cost community of Fairfax County, VA provide an affordable home to low- and moderate-income individuals earning between $14,500 and $43,500 a year -- between 20 and 60 percent of area median income. (Income limits as of May 2010.)

The 20-unit development is located in a mixed-use office park and shares a building with County Redevelopment Housing and Authority offices. Each unit comes furnished and includes a private kitchenette and bathroom. [2]

Click on the links below to learn more about other types of housing that can help communities meet the needs of households with a range of preferences and budgets:

Multifamily/attached homes, which may include apartment buildings, condominiums, town homes, row houses and duplexes.

"Factory-built" homes, from manufactured homes built entirely in production facilities to modular housing that is assembled on-site.

Accessory dwelling units within or attached to a larger single-family home, or on the same lot.

Mixed-use housing, where residential units co-exist with commercial and retail enterprises.

Single-room occupancies, also called efficiency apartments and residential studio units.

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Revise zoning policies to allow development of a range of housing types "as of right"
Greater housing diversity and affordability may be achieved by revising zoning policies to eliminate both direct and "back door" prohibitions and explicitly allow a range of housing types, rather than requiring a special review process or disallowing certain types of structures entirely.

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Providence WalkConsider other innovative land use regulations that facilitate delivery of lower-cost homes
Local officials can implement an array of land use tools to create a regulatory environment that is hospitable to the development of homes affordable to working families.

Click here to view other resources on policies that allow housing diversity.

[1] See An Affordable Housing Solution for Low Income Single Residents: Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) Housing in Fairfax County, Virginia. [PDF] 2005. Fairfax County SRO Task Force Final Report, p. 16.
[2] Fairfax County Rental Program website