SRO Housing Delayed when Needed Most

A development in Montavilla, could add 11 new Single Room Occupancy units to NE Glisan. This would be Guerrilla Development’s second project in the area. They are wrapping up construction on their first building named Rocket Empire Machine. The new two story building is called Jolene’s Second Cousin and is adjacent to Rocket Empire Machine, at 6935 NE Glisan Street. The property, that both projects currently share, will be split before construction begins.

Image courtesy of Brett Schulz Architect

Building permits for Jolene’s Second Cousin have already been approved. Guerrilla Development has lined up the same contractors that worked on Rocket Empire Machine, to start work on this new building. However, “the project is on hold due to uncertainty around Covid-19.” Said Anna Mackay, Director of Development at Guerrilla Development. The delay could be short, with construction starting in Summer or Fall. Unfortunately, the delay could be longer and no timetable has been decided.

Portland once had a healthy inventory of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartments. They served reduced income residents and kept many people in housing, that otherwise would have lived on the streets. Over the last fifty years, that inventory of affordable rental options has been in decline.

Single Room Occupancy housing is structured similarly to a dormitory. Each resident has a furnished one room apartments. Tenants share a common kitchen, shower, and toilet. Some variation on SRO layouts could have a toilet, sink, or mini-fridge in the room.

This type of affordable housing may soon be in high demand, due to the fallout from our statewide shutdown. Six months after the Eviction Moratorium order ends, people are expected to pay their back rent. That could start a wave of evictions for those that do not have savings to cover the unpaid rent.

Before our current economic troubles, Portland had identified SRO housing as a way to keep people housed as rental rates climb. However the number of SRO apartments in Portland has not yet satisfied the pre-pandemic housing needs. Six months from now we may have less SRO options, not more. The Westwind Apartments project, downtown, is a seven story building offering 72 SRO units and 28 studio apartments. All units will support low income residents or people transitioning off the streets. It is replacing a three story building that currently offers affordable housing. When completed, this project should help many Potlanders gain access to housing. However, when the building is demolished to make way for its replacement, there will be even less affordable units to rent in Portland.

There is a an established need for projects like Jolene’s Second Cousin, and we need them built in the next six months, to meet the predicted demand. We also need more of them, spread throughout the city. Jolene’s Second Cousin picked an ideal scale for the project, insuring it fits in the neighborhood without dominating the area. Large towers like the Westwind Apartments do not always work out well for the residents. Historically, housing many low income people together has not been successful for other cities. Low income housing, mixed within the community, has worked well in the past and could do so again.

Montavilla once had SRO housing right in the center of town. In an interview of Dianne Dixon-Lawrence, she talks about the history of Dickson Drugs and the SRO units on the second floor. Dickson Drugs was located on the corner of 80th and SE Stark. The same space that once housed the Country Cat and will soon be the home of Lazy Susan restaurant. In the interview, she tells the story of the 1961 remodel that ultimately removed the SRO units. Those SRO units had occupied all of the second floor above Dickson Drugs. She said that in the 1960’s, the city had begun to require parking for each apartment. That change made it difficult to creat low cost housing in many places, and impossible for the space above Dickson Drugs. Dixon-Lawrence went on to say that the city later reversed that decision but by then, it no longer was cost effective to add the SRO units back.

It would be helpful to Portland, and Montavilla, if Jolene’s Second Cousin can start construction soon. The housing will be desperately needed and perhaps that can help alleviate some of the uncertainty around building it. However, 11 SRO units are not enough. We will need more, and a community that will be accepting of SRO housing near them. Any hesitation for allowing low income housing in the area, needs to be balance by the notion that people are not going away. A person can live in an SRO next to our house or on the street in front of our house, but they are going to be our neighbor, one way or another. Let’s encourage attainable housing for all of our neighbors.