The situation at Dexter House is typical of what’s been happening at the city’s single-room occupancy hotels over the last 50 years. Once a widespread, cheap, and easily obtainable source of housing, their numbers have declined dramatically, as landlords find it more profitable to rent rooms to tourists, students, or homeless people whose rent is paid by the city.
“We used to have a list of SROs, but we don’t give it out any more,” says Terry Poe of the West Side SRO Law Project. “Outside of rooming houses, they’re not renting to permanent tenants.”
The number of SRO rooms in the city has fallen from 200,000 in the late 1950s to less than 40,000 today, according to Poe. Most of that decline came in the 1970s and 1980s – not coincidentally, the era when homelessness emerged as a major problem –but it continues today.
“In the last seven or eight years, there’s been a tremendous loss of rooming houses in Harlem,” Poe says. In 1986, he continues, there were 32 on one two-block stretch of West 121st Street; last year, there was one. The group is also seeing signs of SRO and rooming-house conversion in Brooklyn and the Rockaways.
The city Rent Guidelines Board has been more sympathetic to SRO tenants than to regular tenants over the past few years, freezing their rents in 2002 and 2004. This is partially because many SRO tenants would become homeless if they lost their rooms, and part because their landlords are a small and often corrupt sector of the real-estate business.
“They’re all known as bottom-feeders,” says Poe. Also, he adds, SRO landlords rarely show up to testify at RGB hearings, while SRO tenants do.