New York isn’t building enough housing. Long ago, the city also decimated the sort of housing stock that could be getting people off the street tomorrow. Though we imagine the homeless have been a feature of the streetscape since industrialization first came for Manhattan, it was uncommon, for much of the twentieth century, to see large numbers of people sleeping in subway cars or on park benches.
It wasn’t that there was any shortage of destitute or mentally ill New Yorkers. Crime rose in the late 1960s and 1970s as an economic downturn, driven largely by the flight of large manufacturers, eroded the city’s tax base. Postwar New York was a foreboding place.
But finding a cheap bed to spend the night, the week, the month—or even indefinitely—wasn’t particularly hard. Large parts of the outer boroughs and even Manhattan had low-cost apartments. Most importantly, though, the truly desperate could head to a single room occupancy hotel, or SRO.
The SROs were relative godsends for the young, the disabled, and the deeply poor, especially if they were single and had few friends or family to rely on. From the Great Depression onward, virtually anyone living in New York City could rent a very cheap and private room. Bathrooms were often shared. Unlike traditional apartments, no long-term leases were required, and no questions were asked when you showed up. If you had a little bit of cash in your pocket, you weren’t going to freeze on a street corner.
Around 1950, the number of SRO beds in New York peaked at about 200,000. This was a crucial 200,000: the lowest strata of a society that would otherwise be sleeping outside. The hotels were not overly profitable for operators and were often vilified in newspapers as dens of sin and violence. Many SROs did have significant challenges—the living conditions could be substandard, and some hotels were plagued with drug use—and they soon became the target of both liberal reformers and conservatives who wanted the housing model ended altogether.
City law began to restrict the construction of new SROs, and with the fiscal crisis in full swing, tax breaks were offered to landlords to demolish the buildings altogether or convert them into almost anything else, including tourist hotels and condominiums. Real estate prices had crashed, and few politicians believed the city should keep prioritizing housing for the poor. To make matters worse, large psychiatric institutions were shutting their doors—part of a broader deinstitutionalization movement—and sending thousands of mentally ill people who had nowhere else to live into the five boroughs.
By the 1980s, the SRO stock had been eroded, and the street homeless population began to predictably climb. The homeless shelter industry stepped in to offer a solution that would forever be temporary and always deeply expensive for the city and state. To this day, many homeless would rather avoid the shelters altogether because they carry strict curfews and don’t offer privacy.
If Adams wants to conquer the homelessness crisis for good, he should pursue a full-scale revival of SROs, converting existing hotels and building micro-unit housing that the Bloomberg administration briefly pursued. No New Yorker should struggle to find a safe, cheap and private bed—not with the abundant resources sloshing through this city.
Breaking up encampments will only lead to new encampments. Adams has a chance to make history and do what Bill de Blasio, Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani could not. He can decide to treat homelessness for what it is: a housing problem. And there’s no reason the modern SROs can’t be cleaner, more humane and safer than their predecessors. All it will take is some money and political will. Adams can be the housing mayor if he chooses to be.