More Safe, Legal Rooming Houses Would Increase Affordable Housing In Philadelphia

City Council Needs to Pass Derek Green’s New Bill

By Greg Wertman, President, Hapco Philadelphia


Rooming houses weren’t always dirty words.

When this country was formed in Philadelphia, many of the Founding Fathers lived in what were basically rooming or boarding houses while they drafted the U.S. Constitution.

In the 1930’s, the Philadelphia Tribune estimated there were at least 50,000 SROs, or “Single Room Occupancy” units, in Philadelphia.  In the 1950s, 10-percent of New York City’s housing were SROs.

So, what the Hell happened?

Politicians eventually wanted more single-family housing and branded rooming and boarding houses as dumping grounds for drug addicts and the down-and-out.  New York banned new construction of SROs in 1955.  And the resulting zoning changes around the country essentially did away with SROs.

Housing experts contend the rise in homelessness nationwide is due in part to the demise of the rooming and boarding houses.

How many are there in the Philadelphia today? According to L&I, there are just 82 legally licensed SROs.  And when asked by city council members how many calls L&I gets about illegal SROs, they estimated between 400 and 500 in a year.

A community development corporation in West Philadelphia back in 2017 mapped 40 illegal rooming houses along four commercial corridors. How many were issued violations? None!

So why don’t we have more SROs?

It’s because they are banned in all single and multi-family zones, except for high density—which are found in mostly Center City and University City.  If you wanted to file an appeal with the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the chances of them granting a variance are slim and none.

Wouldn’t more SROs help with the city’s affordable housing crisis?

At-large council member Derek Greens has proposed new legislation would make SROs legal in multifamily and commercial zoning districts.  The bill would not allow SROs in neighborhoods zoned single family and they cannot be within 500 feet of each other in any part of the city.

At least three council members plan to introduce legislation that exempt their districts from Green’s bill. Not surprised? You aren’t the only one.

Former longtime L&I commissioner David Perri went before City Council back in 2018 to get it to change the zoning to increase legal SROs, as well as get those operating illegally to get a license.

Perri’s argued that it would increase the number of affordable housing units and hopefully get more illegally operated SRO’s to get licensed. Unfortunately, his plea fell on deaf ears.

Let’s hope Derek Green’s legislation doesn’t fall victim to the same ignorance.