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Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing fills a gap, brings new opportunities

women sitting on front steps outside

Rosie Baggett, 57, has lived at an SRO residence in Minneapolis for the past four months.

For the first time in over two years, Rosie Baggett has a house key. It opens the door to her room at the SRO residence, a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing building where she lives. After a long stretch of homelessness, she moved in four months ago. And with great relief at having her own space, she was able to store her belongings, get new clothes, and start laying a foundation for stronger housing stability.

“It’s given me freedom,” she said.

The SRO residence where Rosie lives is part of Hennepin County’s larger strategy to help fill an affordable housing gap in the region. Through the SRO housing model, the county acquires and rehabilitates properties, which has included motels and hotels, to create small, independent units that share common spaces like kitchens. SRO units are meant for people who can afford modest rents, are experiencing homelessness or housing instability, and who can live independently. It’s a cost-effective way to “right-size” housing interventions, tailored to the needs and strengths of a specific group.

It’s also an intensely collaborative effort across Hennepin County, leveraging the success of the Homeless to Housing [link to story page] case management program to find the right people for the right housing option.

“SRO housing helps to reduce burdens on our homeless response system,” said Julia Welle Ayres, Housing Development and Finance Director at Hennepin County. “Providing safe, affordable housing for people who can afford SRO rents and live independently will allow many people to move out of shelters, giving them greater independence and making room for others who need those services.”

An old strategy gains new traction

The idea of renting out single rooms as a low-barrier, low-cost option dates to the 1970s. But cities demolished this type of housing and prohibited future development due to shifting downtown priorities and urban renewal campaigns. The closure of SROs and mental health facilities during that time both contributed to skyrocketing levels of homelessness.

At the start of the pandemic, Hennepin County leased hotels as a refuge for people at high risk of COVID-19 who were living in emergency shelters. Soon after, the county purchased properties to replace those leased hotel units to maintain an asset that could be transformed into long-term affordable housing. So as concerns about COVID-19 deceased, the county decided to act —remodeling the hotels and converting them to SRO units, creating new SRO housing that meets modern building and design standards.

For the Hennepin County units, rent is expected to range from $425 to $550 per month, depending on whether they share bathrooms and kitchens. Units typically include private sleeping and living space while other amenities, such as kitchens and laundry areas, are usually communal.

The amenities might be basic, but that hasn’t diminished residents’ excitement.

“People are so excited to have a key to their own door” and have more independence than in shelters or supportive housing, Welle Ayres said. “The single-room occupancy model prioritizes stability, independence, and community over amenities within individual rooms.” 

Changing the affordable housing landscape

The addition of the SRO housing will make a lasting impact on the affordable housing landscape in Hennepin County, providing housing for hundreds more people who might otherwise need to seek refuge in shelters. And while the SRO concept is not a new one, Hennepin County is leading the effort to envision a bold, new direction for the strategy.

“Hennepin County was one of the first counties in the nation to consider going out and buying under-used hotels and motels and doing what we can to make them affordable housing,” said Welle Ayres. “We’re setting a different standard for how to make long-term impact in the housing space.”

For residents like Rosie Baggett, the SRO strategy is deeply personal. The stability of a private room and her own key has laid a foundation on which she can build on. After transitioning to her new room and newfound “freedom,” she’s taken on greater levels of responsibility, becoming the caretaker and overseeing the upkeep and cleanliness of the residence. She’s also thinking about the future.

“I would love to own a home,” she said. “I want to do something really different that I’ve never done before. Things are getting better.”