It would be tough to find one apartment building that exemplifies San Francisco’s transformation more than 20Mission. Residents of the long, squat, 41-bed building pay the rent in either dollars or Bitcoins. There are weekly game nights and corridors named after digital currencies and bedrooms themed after jungles and raves. Until recently, a chicken coop stood on the roof. The residents of 20Mission—once known as The Hudson, The Heckle, and later the Sierra Hotel—never ended up getting those orange trees the founder once predicted they’d squeeze for their own mimosas, but even in the Bay’s most notorious hacker houses some dreams do eventually die. Still, during 20Mission’s legendary ragers, fire dancers and undulating crowds are filmed from above by drone before footage is promptly posted to the house’s website.
Rent at 20Mission costs around $1,800 a month, but in 1908, the year the Sierra Hotel was built, one of its single rooms with hot water, a shared bath, and “electric lights in every room” went for what would now amount to about $80 a week. At that time, it was one of the semi-residential hotels—which, even by the ‘30s, made up one-tenth of all the housing in San Francisco—that earned the designation “the hotel city.”
Among the residents who moved into the hacker hostel, bought for $7.3 million and renovated by former Marine and early Bitcoin enthusiast Jered Kenna, a rumor persisted that it was the ghost of a former tenant, found dead under mysterious circumstances, who had driven the Sierra’s population away. More likely, it was the property’s landlord, a notorious figure buried in violations, who had so spooked the 40-odd residents of the Sienna, causing a mass exodus right around the dot-com boom.
It isn’t unusual for owners of single-room occupancy hotels (or SROs) to force their single, precarious, and transient renters out, or simply to make living conditions unbearable in the cheap and tiny rooms. But the romance of the hotel’s pre-war architecture and the closeness of its quarters—five bathrooms, four showers, 50 single rooms—made it an ideal landing spot for a new wave of the single and transient.
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Since the launch of the ill-fated Campus co-living network just a few years ago, the national rebranding of roommates as IRL social networks has been swift. It has also raised fantastic sums of money, particularly in what passes for a lean moment in VC funding. WeWork, by way of its spin-off company (and, one would hope, accidental John Carpenter reference) WeLive, plans to house 34,000 residents in its property in the next two years, an aspiration that in part earned it its current valuation of $16 billion. This month, New York’s Common, which manages properties in Crown Heights and Williamsburg, raised $16 million, a sum it says it will use to expand to San Francisco and Washington, D.C. And in the UK, a project ominously named “The Collective” just opened a 500-bed building with tiny rooms, all-inclusive laundry and housekeeping services, and shared kitchens—a situation, according to its website, that is “the perfect platform for life in the city.”
Single people used to be a social problem for cities. Now they’re an asset, particularly if they have money to throw around and a willingness to trade a private bathroom or full kitchen for an omnipresent sense of community. And as many at the intersection of tech money and real estate money know, there are more of those populations to house every year. Starting in 2014, the number of single Americans began to outpace those who were married. Nearly one-third currently live alone. And developers are beginning to cash in.
These companies crib from various cultural touchstones: the self-determination of the 1960s co-op, the opportunism of the Valley’s so-called “hacker mansions,” the efficiency of real estate for the masses of the young and uncoupled and urban. But they’re all betting the “disruption” of housing will be one that minimizes personal space and exists on a month-to-month basis, as well as that living in dense, urban centers are worth a higher dollar-to-square-foot ratio.
Like much of the sharing economy, it’s essentially a repackaging of an old idea under the banner of innovation and progress. After all, this kind of housing stock has existed for quite some time—it just doesn’t come with West Elm furniture and Slack rooms. In a recent radio documentary, the now-deceased manager of the iconic Sunshine Hotel, one of the last so-called “flop houses” in Manhattan, described his home: “Up in the Sunshine, we’re totally isolated from the rest of the world. So we create our own little society. Anything you want, you can get it from another tenant.” Which, if you’re familiar with the rhetoric of the sharing economy, doesn’t sound too unfamiliar at all.
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Chris, a slight 30-year-old bike mechanic, pays a little over $600 to live in a fluorescent, yellow-and-blue-tiled 8x10 room in the Lower East Side. He acquired it by way of a housing lottery and shares the four-story building with recently aged-out foster kids. Sometimes his neighbor across the hall wakes him up in the middle of the night belting Elvis over karaoke YouTube clips.
On the other side of the island, magazine interns and single elderly ladies pay $1,200 for furnished rooms and regular meals in one of the city’s few remaining women-only boarding houses, relics of the storied era of the Barbizon’s “Sorority on E. 63rd street.” Visiting gentlemen are never allowed past the lobby.
And at the Greenpoint Hotel, a guy named Jose coughs up $255 a month for a room the size of most apartments’ bathrooms.
The long-stay hotel sits at the end of one of North Brooklyn’s most desirable neighborhoods, past rows of punchy sidewalk chalkboards advertising brunch cocktails and/or backyards, just a few blocks from the noxious Newtown creek. The hotel sign may have been removed a few years ago, when the property was embroiled in one of its numerous legal battles, but, perhaps because of its clear demographic break with the area, the faded salmon building sticks out. During my visit last month, a curious person with a notebook in hand—presumably another reporter—tentatively peeked through the heavy steel-frame double doors that close the hotel off from the rest of the world.
Jose is used to being side-eyed; he’s been living in the four-story maze of more than 100 rooms on and off since 1999. A 58-year-old retired maintenance man originally from Prospect Park, he’s lived through the hotel’s worse days, before residents and tenant organizers sued the owner for overflowing plumbing, silverfish infestations, and doorless rooms. “It’s not great,” he says, “but yeah, it’s better. Still, when I go into that bathroom to take a shower it feels like I’m surfing, it’s all clogged up.” He holds his arms parallel to his feet like an extra in The Endless Summer and grins. He’s got great teeth for someone who was addicted to hard drugs for the better part of his life. Short and spindly with the gently rounded abdomen of a lot of men his age, he wears a gigantic blue and orange Knicks cap that’s constantly threatening to slide down past his eyebrows.
Jose has been in and out of rehab and the shelter system a good bit, too, but now with the diabetes and the screwed-up nerves in his feet—”I look like a fucking robot when I walk,” he chuckles—he’s just trying to keep from drinking too much hard liquor and help out with the care of his aging mother. “Nothing better than doing right by your momma,” he says. “I put her through so much.” The habit, for instance, for which she kicked him out in the ‘90s. It’s how he ended up here, in a place where the previous owners reportedly took the bodies of OD’d tenants out a back entrance and shoved them into cars for deposit elsewhere. And sure, he adds, there are doors on the bedrooms now, but there’s still a drug for every floor. “You want weed, this floor, heroin, this one,” he says. It isn’t always easy to stay sober, but he’s been clean for the last four years.
Jose’s room is cramped and the bathroom is nasty, since he shares with an entire floor—all single men, like all floors in the Greenpoint Hotel, a pattern more self-selecting than by design. But you can’t beat the price. When they close the hotel (and he’s sure it’s a question of when, not if) he’s not entirely sure where he’s gonna go. Spots like this can be hard to find; there are an estimated 35,000 SRO units in the city, but usually they’re open only when someone gets kicked out or dies.
Most of the guys at the Greenpoint Hotel have been there for years, if not decades, and for all his talk of keeping to himself he has a lot to say about the other tenants. Shortly after we start speaking, a tiny, anemic-looking older man in a vet cap and basketball shorts shouts to Jose to lift that kickstand off the bike outside the building—a request Jose refuses, though the intended use of the kickstand remains unclear. Mostly, though, Jose expresses something like begrudging pity for his neighbors. Like his buddy Joe, “a nice kid”—his parents stopped sending him money and now he spends all day, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., shuffling around the block looking for half-smoked cigarettes.
Or like the old man upstairs, who Jose says has more money than anyone in the building but can’t remember to spend it. At 68, his mind clouded by Alzheimers, he doesn’t buy food or underwear; he almost never leaves his room on the top floor, not even to collect disability checks. The other day, Jose says the old man stood up from his bed and his body completely gave out; when he tried to grab onto the pot rack that was shoddily bolted to the wall, it came crashing down on him. It took awhile for Jose to find him there. “Guy’s a hundred pounds,” he says. “I mean, if I were still working out, no problem. But it was hard to haul his ass back up.”
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If the city hadn’t ordered the Greenpoint Hotel’s owners to make the place barely livable a few years ago, it may have ended up like San Francisco’s Sienna, with shaggy and optimistic 20-somethings sardined between its walls. Historically, SRO owners have tended to take advantage of their very low-income tenants, refusing to do repairs in the hopes of forcing them out.
But in the last 10 years in particular, I’m told by Mari Weithman, a supervising attorney with the advocacy group MFY Legal Services, owners of residential hotels like the Greenpoint have realized just how profitable it is to do anything else with their properties—like rent them out to tourists, or get a contract to house the homeless (as the Imperial Court Hotel recently attempted to, for a city pay-out of $18 million a year), or simply to sell. Last year, a handful of SRO units were converted by the developer brothers Weismann and rented for about $1,300 a pop. “You’re not going to throw dinner parties in here, but it’s a great starter apartment,” one told the Daily News of the 150-square foot space.
“It makes sense financially for owners to just warehouse the buildings and let them stay vacant until it’s empty and they can convert it,” Weithman says.
That the small number of legal, privately owned SROs are packed with the recently homeless or generally down-and-out in the first place is no accident. As any historian of urban housing is quick to remind, there was once a plethora of options, hundreds of thousands of residential hotel units in America’s denser cities. Paul Groth, whose book Living Downtown chronicles the history of long-stay hotels in the county, makes the case that a combination of bad policy, cultural amnesia, and the press’ obsession with the “welfare hotel” have served to functionally erase these short- and long-term homes from public memory.
The spectrum, as late as the 1960s, ran from the glamour of the famed Chelsea Hotel to the careerist launchpad that was the Barbizon Hotel for Women (a lightly fictionalized account of which appears in The Bell Jar). Boarding houses and SROs, some of which included meals and cleaning services, housed seafaring migrant workers in San Francisco and factory employees on the East Coast. But between the Depression and World War II, landlords crammed immigrant families into rooming houses and tenement buildings, creating smaller and smaller units, boxing them in.
Around the ‘50s, as the middle class pined after home ownership in the suburbs, long-stay hotels’ most profitable and dependable core dropped out. In city after city, xenophobic policies sought to eradicate single-occupancy units, generally under the auspices of public health. Tax breaks were offered for conversions in New York; in San Francisco, maximum room-to-bathroom ratios were implemented. New York, from 1955 on, eliminated a number of units roughly equivalent to its entire public housing system. Chicago, between 1973 and 1984, lost what would amount to 92 projects. The remaining SROs, clustered in the oldest parts of the city, fell into further disrepair and took on overflow from shelters and mental health facilities.
In 2012, New York’s mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, hosted a design competition for micro-apartments and temporarily waived another piece of anti-SRO legislation, one that regulated the minimum square footage a living space was allowed to be. Carmel Place, a 55-unit set of staggered towers complete with custom furniture and butler service, was designed to be a “hotel-like experience.” Some apartments, sans the butler and the fancy interior design, were set aside for low-income residents. The rest ran around $1,490 a month for a 302-square foot space. Throughout the process of giving exception to the rule, Bloomberg did not utter that very untrendy three-letter acronym. Now, both Carmel Place and the West Side SRO developed by the Weismanns are managed by Ollie, a start-up that aims to provide an “all-inclusive living experience” by swapping space for a top-down sense of community and services like grocery shopping and housecleaning, amenities designed for the overworked.
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Carmel Place is one of those buildings so new it looks, even in real life, a bit like the architectural renderings from which it was conceived. It takes up less than a quarter of a New York City block, slipped between the housing projects and midtown’s towering apartment buildings. The windows are wall-sized; the front door is guarded by a video display and touch screen situation that looks more like a spaceship’s command center than anything else.
Chris Bledsoe, one of Ollie’s founders, says long-stay hotels are “major influences” for his projects. “From the ‘40s through the early ‘60s,” he says, “communal living in urban centers was more of a way of life.” He ticks off The Barbizon and Chateau Marmont, a Los Angeles hotel that has been home to at least three generations of celebrities. “The housing affordability problem is huge,” he says, “and the loneliness problem is huge.”
Like other co-living spaces, Ollie’s buildings have live-in community managers who organize talks and outings. For a recent roof deck party, a mixologist described as world-renowned mixed “green” drinks while a DJ spun. “Ollie talks” and group volunteer sessions on Saturdays are coming soon.
Other entrepreneurs seeking to disrupt the suburban housing model have drawn inspiration from older single-room buildings, too. Members of Common and Roam, an international network of converted hotel spaces for “location-independent” white-collar workers, have traded Paul Groth’s book on the history of living downtown. But it’s tricky business, under the vast banner of the sharing economy, to be not so much reinventing the wheel as giving it another name and putting it on a website with a parallax scroll—which goes along with building spaces designed around the needs of “creatives,” and thus the total absence of distinction between work life and home life.
PodShare, an LA-based co-working space that identifies as a “live-work community” rather than a hotel, provides tenants, remote workers, and travelers with Murphy beds that convert into desks during the day; a month costs around $900. “We’re here to cure world loneliness,” the founders tell basically any journalist who asks—“Our model offers the highest rate of collision for social travelers.” It might look a little like the deeply dystopic live-in internet cafes that house low-income and semi-nomadic Japanese workers, but because this is America the self-described “Podestrians” literally brand themselves with the company’s logo.
Ollie’s next project, in Downtown Los Angeles, will start renting rooms for $1,000 a month in a renovated SRO hotel, formerly known as the Cecil. Before the building was sold 30 rent-stabilized tenants were housed in what were, by many accounts, nearly unlivable conditions. The restoration of the space—the various hauntings of which have been the subject of urban lore and Reddit-style investigations alike—will take the next three years. As Bledsoe points out, it’ll be cheaper than any studio apartment in the area, and while there aren’t kitchenettes per se there will definitely be a pool. From an architecture and design standpoint, Bledsoe says he loves restoring these spaces to their former glory: “It’s about buildings telling stories,” he says.