This story is part of our “Beyond Sacramento” series, a reader-driven initiative that lets you ask questions about our region that The Sacramento Bee explores and answers. Scroll to the form at the bottom of this article to submit your question.
The question, submitted anonymously, is: “Years ago there were lots of Single room occupancy (SRO) on K & adjacent streets downtown. (1) How many SROs are now gone due to redevelopment and (2) Have new SROs been built?”
Three years ago, Joe Brewer had no place to call home.
The 65-year-old Vietnam War veteran had just finished 13 years of on-and-off jail time for cocaine possession and assault with a deadly weapon. Brewer’s criminal record and lack of rental history made him an unlikely candidate for renting an apartment in downtown Sacramento.
For Brewer, single-room occupancy units, or SROs, like those offered at the Golden Lofts at 1010 10th St. are all that he can afford.
“It’s been great here,” Brewer said. “They’re renovating now, but I’m fine with the way it is. I’m a happy camper. It’s nice, it’s homey, the management is good. You see, my mat says ‘Welcome’!”
Even as the city boasts dozens of subsidized, affordable studio apartments, an SRO is still his cheapest option. And yet, the availability of SROs has been in decline for a century.
Agents at Volunteers of America, a nonprofit dedicated to aiding vulnerable populations, saved Brewer from homelessness. They helped him strike a deal with landlord Lynard Khan of Golden Lofts. Now Brewer pays $500 a month for his room.
SROs are similar to hotel rooms. When tenants rent SROs, they have a single room that may or may not have shared bathing or cooking facilities. The room may come with a mini fridge, hot plate or microwave, but no stove or working sink, according to Greg Sparks, spokesman at Rural LISC.
Sacramento has been facing a rapid depletion of SROs throughout the last century. In the 1960s, the city had 68 SRO hotels. By 1986, only 16 remained, totaling 1,013 SRO units. The majority have been demolished, sold for commercial use or converted into upper-scale apartment housing.
Today, as few as 13 residential complexes offer SROs, totaling 762 units, according to Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency Executive Director La Shelle Dozier. One of these, Capitol Park, faces conversion to a homeless shelter later this year. Other hotels with SRO units include Congress, Golden Lofts, Sequoia, 7th & H Project, Hotel Berry, Ridgeway, Shasta, YWCA, Cannery Place, Globe Mills, La Valentina and The WAL.
In the past year, three SRO hotels have withdrawn SRO units from downtown. The Marshall Hotel faces demolition and then conversion into an 11-story Hyatt Centric Hotel. The Ridgeway and Wendell are both reducing SRO units, either due to rehabilitation of current rooms or conversion to studio apartments. As a result, the city faces a loss of 150 units, which will be made up by the 7th & H Project.
The question that confronts real estate developers and policymakers today is how, or even if, SROs still work in the city’s housing ecosystem.
A revived hotel
In 2015, Lynard Khan purchased the Golden Lofts, built in 1912, from his half brother Mohammad Khan.
“When I came in, there was police activity every other day,” said Khan. “There was drug dealing. I had no idea it was that bad.”
The City Council contacted Khan, giving him notice that he had to not only make the Golden Lofts housing-code compliant, but he had to “change the culture of this whole facility,” according to Khan.
Khan started with a series of evictions, and later on, renovations. He maintained the basic floorplan and kept the SROs intact, unlike many other landlords, such as the late Ali Youssefi of CFY Development, who in 2012 converted Hotel Ridgeway’s 58 SRO units into 22 larger affordable studio apartments, according to the SHRA.
“There’s a need for 26 rooms, rather than 12 to 13 rooms,” said Khan.
Khan’s renovations include adding amenities such as built-in microwaves, shelves, sinks and mini fridges. The renovated rooms are furnished with a twin-size bed, storage space and a small desk alcove, the walls painted a trendy gray and white.
The Golden Lofts, Khan said, will cater to two groups that have been in crisis for decades: extremely low-income people who may be on federal assistance, and lower-tier workers who earn minimum wage and can’t afford downtown apartments.
“I’m thinking this SRO can serve both,” said Khan. “A Joe Brewer, as long as he can navigate the steps, can be happy here. And the guy working at the Citizen Hotel checking in guests at the lobby too. I don’t want just one group of people here.”
Khan said Sacramento downtown needs SROs.
“It is the most affordable option, and there used to be hundreds of them.”
Where did the SROs go?
Not all private landlords are as supportive of SROs as Khan, however.
As numbers rapidly dwindled from 68 SRO hotels in the 1960s to only 16 in 1986, the City Council passed an ordinance requiring that relocation benefits be paid to residents of SRO hotels upon demolition or conversion to other uses, such as luxury housing, offices or shops.
Dozier said the 1986 ordinance stemmed from a recognition of the important role SROs play as one of many affordable housing options in Sacramento.
“There needs to be multiple housing options for different segments of the population, so that extremely low-income people have a place to live downtown,” said Dozier.
SROs are essential options for single individuals with extremely low incomes, according to the SHRA. Rachel Iskow, a member of the Sacramento Housing Alliance, said that SROs save formerly incarcerated people from homelessness.
“People coming out of jails and prisons have in the past found homes in SROs,” Iskow said.
But now that the options are sparse, according to Iskow, the lack of cheap housing prevents new parolees from finding suitable places to live.
“A lot of them are becoming homeless,” Iskow said.
In 2006, following a loss of six more hotels, the council passed an ordinance that the city must maintain an inventory of no fewer than 712 SRO units at any given time.
Despite the baseline of SRO units, the demand for affordable housing in the city remains.
About 43,000 people have applied to join the waiting list for 7,000 slots in the housing choice voucher program for affordable housing, formerly known as Section 8, according to the SHRA.
Though Dozier said the 762 currently available SRO units – 50 over the minimum – adequately meet demand, other housing advocates disagree.
“I don’t think 712 units is sufficient,” said Iskow. “The amount of SRO units we have is low and there’s not much being built.”
Iskow said that as Sacramento’s vision of what downtown should look like has shifted, SROs have been left behind.
“There is more pressure from downtown businesses to convert SROs to other uses, and to not have low income people walking around the streets,” Iskow said.
To avoid more SROs from being converted into market-rate housing, Iskow advocates for nonprofit ownership of SROs, “investing in them to make sure the people in them are housed safely.”
Are SROs the cheapest option?
Greg Sparks, a program officer at the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corp., said that the recent trend of converting old SRO hotels into subsidized studio apartments is not necessarily a negative move.
Sparks said SROs are privately owned and don’t qualify for federal subsidies to build affordable housing.
“There aren’t any subsidies that want to perpetuate them,” Sparks said. “SROs are tolerated because they’re better than nothing. It’s not necessarily a home.”
SROs do accept vouchers from the Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8, a federal program that provides assistance for very low-income individuals to afford safe housing in the private rental housing market.
Larger affordable studio apartments are generally more expensive than SROs. Last year, The Hardin, a new affordable apartment complex in downtown Sacramento, offered studio units for $650 per month.
Rents at several SROs are as low as $525 at Capitol Park and Congress Hotel, $405 at Sequoia, and $475 at Golden Lofts.
Converting old SRO hotels into larger affordable studio apartments not only reduces the number of housing units available, such as at Ridgeway Hotel, but also can price out tenants like Brewer.
Back at the Golden Lofts
At exactly 3 p.m., Brewer’s cellphone vibrated.
A notification banner bearing the words “Judge Judy” flashed across his phone screen, and in response, Brewer switched the TV channel.
“I got ‘Judge Judy’ on speed dial on my phone,” said Brewer. “See, Judge Judy on right now!”
On a typical day at the Golden Lofts, Brewer watches “Judge Judy,” “M*A*S*H,” “Sanford and Son” and the local news. In between the shows, he makes sure to take high blood pressure medication and insulin three times a day. Over Memorial Day weekend, Brewer and his daughter’s family held a barbecue at McClellan Park. Life “is really good now.”
The AC circulates cool air around the one-bedroom unit. A collection of five Marine Corps camouflage caps hangs from hooks above the bed, mini fridge, shelves and nightstand.
Brewer said he has not touched cocaine for over three years now. Surrounded by quiet, safe neighbors, he feels comfortable and at home at his SRO.
“I see myself dying here,” Brewer said. “I’m satisfied with it. I can go to sleep and not wake up, right here. Right on this mattress.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated July 8, 2019 to correct the first name and title of La Shelle Dozier, executive director of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.