I can use many phrases to describe the way I live now, and yet none fully does it justice, because the way I live now is almost nonexistent in the United States.
One way: I live in a 44-bedroom rooming house catycorner from my alma mater, the University of Oregon.
Because the building provides not only room but also board (chef-prepared meals served in a dining hall downstairs), boardinghouse may actually be the more accurate term, making it an even rarer beast in the United States in 2019.
Each resident here has a 220-square-foot micro-apartment with a private bathroom, a huge and ingeniously designed closet, and a small balcony that fits two chairs, so a friend and I can enjoy the late-afternoon Oregon sun in the spring, summer, and early fall.
Each micro-apartment comes with a microwave and mini-fridge, but not a full kitchen. Our daily meals are made downstairs by a team of chefs, and an array of snacks, beverages, basics (dry cereal, oatmeal, bread, peanut butter, apples, coffee and tea, and too many fresh-baked desserts) are available in our dining hall 24/7.
Any leftovers from meals are packaged in single-serving containers and put in the communal fridge, and usually disappear within 24 hours.
Another way: I live in a privately run dorm, constructed in 1989 by a mission-driven developer who sought to provide academically minded students with an atmosphere suitable for “quiet enjoyment.” Luckily for me, he also admits non-students who are attracted to that lifestyle. Applicants have to submit three character references, and applications are taken all year; by April or May, there’s already a waiting list for the coming academic year (late September through mid-June).
Some other terms: microhousing (a term not yet well known in the US outside major cities, and often even within them); residential hotel (back in the day, these were common, especially for single working women in major cities; the Barbizon Hotel in New York City is a well-known example); co-living residence; and/or SRO or SRO 2.0.
Personally, I usually avoid using the term SRO because of the unfortunate associations it conjures. Ninety years ago, SROs were a common form of housing for people of modest means — <naturally occurring affordable housing> (NOAH), in housing-policy jargon. A century ago, a passable room might cost 35 cents per night (the equivalent of $8 today), and required no screening or background check, no rental or credit history, and little or no deposit. According to Living Downtown; The History of Residential Hotels in the United States by Paul Groth (available online at no charge), SRO units may have numbered as high as 90,000 in San Francisco in the early 1930s.
Unfortunately, SROs were virtually eliminated in city after city in more recent decades. Portland lost 40% of its SROs between 1978 and 2015, although the nonprofit Central City Concern, formed in 1979, has acquired and preserved many as low-income housing. In 1910 San Francisco, 15.6% of residents lived in SROs; in 2016, the figure was 2.2%. Most are now managed by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (tagline: <Opportunity knocks only if you have a door>), which houses over 4,800 people — most with an annual income of less than $15,000.
Only a relative few survive, in places such as San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago, thanks to the dedicated work of advocates for low-income housing. According to San Francisco’s Central City SRO Collaborative, that city’s 518 SRO buildings are home to more than 30,000 people — far more than live in federally funded public housing in the city, which comprises 6,096 permanently affordable units and another 10,000 people housed via Section 8 vouchers. More of the fascinating history of SROs in San Francisco is chronicled here and in Up from the Deep, creation of the late, gifted photographer and historian Mark Ellinger, whom it was my privilege to know.
In May 2018, when I stumbled across the listing for my current residence while researching how to find affordable housing in DC for The Young Leaders Guide to Internships, Scholarships, and Fellowships in Washington, DC, and Beyond, I wasnt thinking about honoring the venerable history of SROs in America, or even of living a bit as the acerbic writer Dorothy Parker had in her later years, in a residential hotel (the Volney). I just jumped at the chance to live affordably, have meals made for me, and relocate next to my beloved alma mater. As a writer yearning to live a simple, stress-free life in a culturally stimulating place, I felt I had found nirvana.
So what happens when a 55-year-old woman moves into a 220-square-foot room with 47 college students, and founds a local organization (which you can join for free) to spread awareness of + increase opportunities for microdwelling? Read on!