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SROs on the decline in downtown San Diego

Historically, single room occupancy hotels have offered affordable housing to low-income individuals. These units offer cheaper rent and usually don't require security deposits, or first and last mont

Historically, single room occupancy hotels have offered affordable housing to low-income individuals. These units offer cheaper rent and usually don't require security deposits, or first and last month's rent. These one-bedroom studios are designed for single people who usually can't afford to live anywhere else. But slowly SROs are disappearing from the San Diego landscape. Reporter Karen Rostodha has more.

San Diego has always been a vacation destination. From the late 1800s to the 1930s numerous tourist hotels were built downtown. Places like the Hotel San Diego always catered to people looking for a cheap place to live on a more permanent basis. These single room occupancy hotels or SROs typically featured small rooms with shared bathrooms down the hall.

Bobbie Christensen, San Diego Housing Commission: "Most American cities saw an exodus of middle-income people in the '60s and in the '50s in some cases, and what that meant was that the hotels that were in downtown became less in favor."


That included hotels like the Pickwick on Broadway. Built in 1926 with a marketing slogan that read, "A Room and A Bath for Two and a Half." When businesses and visitors stopped coming downtown, SROs like the Pickwick primarily became havens for the working poor, or people on public assistance.

Judi Winslow, Winslow Investments V.P.: "By the late '60s and '70s 'flop house' was a term that was common to this area, this part of town, this building."

And this is how the Pickwick looks today. About half the guests who stay here are hotel visitors, the other half live here on a permanent basis. But soon the hotel will shut down for renovation and when it reopens in 2007, it will strictly be for hotel guests, and that means the SRO residents have to move.

Paul Sisco, Former Pickwick Resident: "I'm packing, as you can see, and I have all my boxes packed up. I have most of my clothes all shaped and everything."

Fifty-year-old Paul Sisco has lived here off and on for six months. By law, when an SRO closes, the tenants must be given 60 days' notice and approximately two months' rent if they've lived in the SRO for more than 90 days. Pickwick owners say the average payout for the 146 SRO tenants is $1900.


Sisco: "I don't make much on disability. The relocation fee is for the first/last month's deposit, whatever. So I'm able to move and it's great. If it weren't for that, trust me, half the people who are having to leave say it's a blessing that we're getting this relocation fee."

Owner Judi Winslow says they can't afford to stay in the SRO business and will spend 16-million dollars to renovate the place for tourists.

Winslow: "With the amount of money that we have to put into it, and it's all private money, it's not public money, there's no public/private partnership in this particular project, it's necessary that we come into a different market."

San Diego lost one-third of its SRO stock during downtown redevelopment in the '70s and '80s. Today there are about 4500 SRO units left in the city. More disappear every year. Most recently the Hotel San Diego closed down to make way for a new courthouse. And other owners are opting for trendy condos and boutique hotels.

Christensen: "I think the lack of SROs may indeed increase homelessness."

Bobbi Christensen is with the San Diego Housing Commission.

Christensen: "In fact I understand there are people who get Social Security for example which is about $750 a month, and an SRO that costs $750 a month allows them to live in that unit for three weeks, the last week they have to become homeless again."

Regulations require that SRO owners who want to demolish, convert or close an SRO must replace each unit with an SRO unit or pay a fee. However many SRO owners took advantage of a loophole in the regulations - they notified the city before January 2004 that they would eventually go out business. The owners did not have to specify a closing date. The City received 22 withdrawal letters representing 2100 SRO units. So far only the Maryland and the Pickwick have actually filed to close. While no new SRO units have been built in the city since the '80s, some have renovated. The historic Lincoln hotel built in 1913 sits in the heart of the Gaslamp District and is home to 41 low-income residents.

Merlin Mueller, Lincoln Hotel Manager: "I think it's a wonderful thing for them to have low income housing downtown. It's a wonder for people who can't afford it or people who are coming out of some kind of program which needs some place for transition."

Merlin Mueller knows all about tough times. Homeless for 10 years, he's now a manager for the Lincoln.

Mueller: "I had bad drug and alcohol addiction and I went through an extensive program to better my life, wipe my record clean and I found this job working for Barone and Galasso."

Barone and Galasso are the owners of the Lincoln and other low cost living units.

Mike Galasso, Barone Galasso & Assoc. President: "Having people be able to live at a place that they feel safe coming home to, feel dignity in living there, and are part of a community is very important. It's important to us. It's part of our philosophy that we have here. It's just not housing alone."

Mike Galasso is talking about his development called Island Village on 12th and Market downtown. It opened in 2003 and while it's not an official SRO, according to the Housing Commission, low cost living units like Island Village are the future for the city's poorest. So how is Island Village different aesthetically than other SROs?

Galasso: "Well, this one is quite unique in an urban area because we have so much open space and we had the opportunity to put in green grass which is something you don't find too often in urban areas."

Rent at Island Village averages $600 to $700 a month. All the rooms have a cooking area, a bathroom with a tub and shower and storage space. Then there are the community areas, complete with a state-of-the-art kitchen, a big screen TV, and computers.

Rostodha: "How does this compare to where you used to live in the Mason?"

Rodney Livingston, Island Village Resident: "This is like going from the slums to the life of luxury. I felt my way down the hallway "

Rodney Livingston's former residence, the Mason hotel, burned down in 2004. He was homeless for a while and eventually got a spot at Island Village.

Livingston: "I've been sober six years now and after all this work I lost everything. So now I'm little by little getting everything back."

Island Village sits next to half-million dollar condos. Galasso says he did hear some NIMBYism initially. That wasn't his biggest hurdle.

Galasso: "We have to go through more reviews and more hearings than the condominium project that was built next door to us. We think that one of the things that could possibly change is that there should be a permitted use anywhere not only downtown but also in some of the other communities in San Diego."

The Housing Commission agrees there needs to be more incentives for SRO builders, like government subsidies. A proposed change to the SRO Ordinance would exempt owners from certain fees, but it would also require owners to pay displaced SRO residents six months' rather than two months' rent.

Winslow: "I think it's a sincere effort to maintain affordable housing but I think it's misguided. I think what it has done instead is it has penalized the private sector. The private sector functions more productively with incentives or rewards or co-opting partnerships, rather than regulations and restrictions and penalties."

Christensen: "There are people, very low income people, who need help to not become homeless. Companies which have a right to profit who want to make more money. It's just nearly impossible to get to a place where you are in the middle."

Sisco: "They're giving us this furniture, all the furniture that you see, and it looks pretty good for a person who has no furniture."

Rostodha: "The TV too?"

Paul Sisco has found a new home, at least for now

Sisco: "From a spiritual sense that God wants me somewhere else, so I'm looking at it as an adventure. I'm kind of a nomad in many ways so I'm looking at my life like that, like there's more stuff I need to do."