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Single-room occupancies (SROs) are efficiency or studio units, ranging in size from 200 to 400 square feet, which provide affordable housing options to very-low- and low-income single adults. Residents may share common areas and, in some cases, kitchen and bathroom facilities. While SROs have traditionally been hotels located in central cities that catered to low-wage workers, today, they are often studio apartments that offer affordable housing options for students, recent graduates, and other low-income, single-person households.

Many major metropolitan cities have SRO hotels dating from the 1920s. Motivated by high real estate prices in central cities, developers try to convert existing SROs into market-rate housing for higher profits, resulting in the loss of affordable housing units. While cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have adopted initiatives to prevent conversion of SRO units into market-rate units or tourist hotels, a number of smaller communities are adopting ordinances and code amendments to promote development of SROs through the use of regulatory incentives. Here are a few examples:

Fairfax County, Virginia

In 2003, housing advocates, developers, and various government agencies of Fairfax County formed a task force to study SRO housing as a feasible method of providing affordable housing for low-income single adults in the county. After a two-year period, the task force published a report with recommendations to develop an SRO policy for the county. The task force identified SRO housing as a valuable tool for combating homelessness, and for increasing affordable housing options for seniors, students, and other low-income single adults. Task force recommendations include removing regulatory barriers to the development of SROs by revising the county's zoning code, streamlining review and permitting processes, and engaging in community outreach to reduce opposition to SRO development.

Zoning code revisions recommended by the task force include classifying SROs as a single use in certain districts, utilizing floor area ratios to calculate allowable densities, and reducing minimum parking requirements for SRO developments. The county planning department is currently working on appropriate revisions to the zoning code.

Santa Cruz, California

View of downtown area in Santa Cruz, California.

Identifying the need to provide affordable housing options for low-income, single-person households, the city of Santa Cruz revised its zoning code in 2002 to encourage the development of SROs. The city’s land use code now allows construction of SRO developments in certain commercial districts. The SROs can range in size from 150 to 400 square feet; however, units larger than 220 square feet are required to have a kitchen and full bathroom. Parking is limited to 0.75 spaces per unit (as per the code, fractions of 0.5 or greater should be regarded as one full space) for SROs under 300 square feet, and can be further reduced for projects located in proximity to public transit and for SROs that provide senior housing. The code requires 15 percent of units in an SRO development to be affordable to low-income households.

Santa Monica, California

The city of Santa Monica allows construction of SROs in multifamily residential and commercial zoning districts, and provides incentives such as reduced parking and open space requirements. The city's zoning code defines SROs as multifamily housing units ranging in size from 150 to 375 square feet per unit and restricts maximum occupancy to two persons per unit. SROs are exempt from discretionary review, and there are no specific density limitations for SROs proposed in commercial and industrial zones. Deed-restricted SROs available to low-income households are eligible for additional incentives. Developers in Santa Monica are taking advantage of these regulatory incentives to build SRO units for students and young professionals. As of April 2007, there were 758 SRO units pending approval in the city.


In high cost communities, SROs offer affordable housing options for many low-income households. Oftentimes, the development of SROs can be hampered by restrictive land use regulations. By adopting flexible regulations and providing development incentives to encourage the development of well-designed SROs, local governments can not only alleviate homelessness, but also increase affordable housing options for single adults with limited income, such as students, young professionals, seniors, and other low-income households.

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