Would you share a hallway bathroom with a bunch of your neighbors in exchange for cheaper rent?
Mayor Eric Adams’ latest effort to address the city’s housing crisis means more New Yorkers could soon face that question. As part of an ambitious housing package unveiled last week, Adams is proposing rules that allow for new single-room occupancy (SRO) housing, a type of dorm-style apartment complex where tenants have their own private studios but typically share kitchens and bathrooms.
SROs were once ubiquitous across New York City before officials banned most new SRO construction over six decades ago, when the low-cost accommodations were linked to perceptions of rising crime, disorder, and “urban blight.”
Now Adams says it’s time to reverse course and lift “limitations on small and shared units.”
“Our rules should not limit the development of buildings with shared kitchens and bathrooms or studio apartments,” he said last week. “This kind of housing used to be all over New York City. It allowed so many people to move here and make a brand new start of it.”
Adams’ latest proposal wouldn’t immediately lead to a free-for-all on dorm-style development, but the Department of City Planning said it’s trying to remove restrictions on so-called “rooming units” with shared kitchens and bathrooms in lower density areas outside Manhattan and lift rules that prevent developers from converting hotels or offices into new SROs.
The entire package of proposed rules requires public review and City Council approval.
“Shared housing models can be an important solution for New Yorkers from all walks of life, and for too long zoning and other rules have presented an obstacle to even our own government’s programs,” said DCP Director Dan Garodnick. “We’re moving to lift these outdated and often arbitrary rules so that more people can find housing that fits their needs.”
Already the city’s housing agency has kicked off a program to develop about 300 “modern” dormitory units, including a 10-story residence in East Harlem intended to house young LGBTQ+ adults who have experienced homelessness.
Adams’ latest proposals would make those places easier to build, a proposition that excites some homeless rights advocates who say the model could provide an avenue out of shelters.
“This is a no-brainer,” said Bowery Residents’ Committee Executive Director Muzzy Rosenblatt, who has long advocated for reviving SROs.
But Rosenblatt cautioned the city should prevent the exploitation of low-income or homeless New Yorkers who have no other options. He said nonprofit housing organizations should be building and maintaining new SROs, not private developers incentivized to pack as many people as possible into substandard housing. “I think in the past, profit has created a vulnerable situation for people,” he said.
As for Adams, it’s not the first time he’s pitched new dorm-style housing rules.
His remarks last Thursday echoed comments he made on the campaign trail, and also during a March interview at the Greene Space, WNYC’s live events venue, where he name-checked WeWork’s failed WeLive shared housing experiment and specifically referred to SROs — though his ensuing comments about windowless bedrooms drew more attention.
“There’s some great models of SRO growth across the globe,” Adams said at the time. “It’s affordable. We could tie in real affordable prices to it.”
New York City had roughly 200,000 dorm-style units housing mostly low-income tenants, especially veterans and recently arrived immigrants, when officials prohibited new SRO construction in 1955, a decision informed by racist stereotypes about the tenants and genuine concerns about the decrepit living conditions neglected by absentee landlords.
But ensuing efforts to close the buildings down during an “urban renewal” fervor left tens of thousands of New Yorkers without a comparable low-cost housing option and fueled a rise in homelessness.
Despite the ban on new construction, there are still thousands of SRO units around today, including many used as supportive housing for formerly homeless New Yorkers as well as some pricey ones in the city’s most glamorous zip codes.
Last year, former Buildings Commissioner Eric Ulrich allegedly conspired with a developer in a failed attempt to shut down a dorm-style facility across the street from his luxury condo, according to a criminal indictment against him. Still, tens of thousands of similar apartments have been torn down or converted into condos or more expensive apartments since the 1950s ban.
Longtime SRO tenant organizer Larry Wood, the director of housing and advocacy at Goddard Riverside, said the small, rent-stabilized apartments remain a crucial resource for low-income New Yorkers. But he said any new shared accommodations should meet a high standard of living and probably include private bathrooms.
“Tenants in New York City are desperate for anything remotely affordable, but will this really just lead to a reduction in quality of life for poor people?” Wood said. “Having shared bathrooms and kitchens is definitely going to be a step back in terms of housing standards.”
When state lawmakers established a $100 million pool of cash for developers who planned to convert empty hotels into supportive or affordable housing, they explicitly required the new accommodations to include bathrooms and kitchens.
But Wood said there’s another potential track for new shared housing geared toward wealthier, likely younger, New Yorkers willing to move into apartments that resemble college dorms.
New Yorkers have already shown there’s a market for “co-living” arrangements where third-party real estate companies match renters with roommates, often at exorbitant prices. The SRO-style apartments could also appeal to the rise-and-grind set who shower at the gym — maybe one located on the ground floor, beneath their sleeping pods — before starting their 12-hour workdays.
“For some younger people, it makes a lot of sense,” said real estate consultant Jordan Barowitz, who started his own firm after working at the Durst Organization. “If you’re living in a 375-square-foot studio that has a tiny little kitchen that you never use, or you use the stove to store sweaters, it probably makes sense to use that space more efficiently in keeping with your lifestyle.”
Land-use expert Paul Selver, a partner at the law firm Kramer Levin, said developers will no doubt find a market for the stripped-down housing, but the industry is awaiting more details from the Adams administration.
“We have to see the details,” he said. “That’s where the devil is.”