SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not what was inside his room that Jeff Stant was most grateful for — not the bug-free bed, the clean sink, the personal minifridge or the second-story window view of the street outside.
It was the door locked behind him.
Living at a shelter in downtown Salt Lake City for the previous 11 months, Stant had known thieves to knife open bags in the night. He slept with his shoes under his mattress, so they'd be there in the morning. At the nearby Rio Grande Hotel for $330 per month, Stant had bought back his sense of security.
“I knew what I left in my room was going to be there when I got back,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Four years later, the 57-year-old cook at the local food hall has an enviable setup. A flat-screen TV. Wall-mounted speakers. Space enough for a comfy chair and his bicycle. His cookware is organized on a long shelf above the sink, and he keeps a full spice rack, a case of energy drinks and a few lightly touched bottles of top-shelf liquor.
The Rio Grande Hotel was built in 1911 for railroad workers at the adjacent depot, and it still offers low-cost rooms with shared kitchens and bathrooms. Nobody has to sign a lease or divulge their criminal record. It's clean and quiet, and through an innovative private management approach, it's able to turn a profit.
And yet the 50 rooms here constitute the city's only housing in the category known as single-room occupancy (SRO), down from 800 in 1978. The same trend played out nationally throughout the 20th century, when residential hotels were decimated by zoning and redevelopment as critics of hotel living said it bred crime, disease and culturally deviant lifestyles.
Today's widespread shortages of affordable urban rentals have led modern planners in places like New York and Chicago to try to preserve what's left of single-room occupancy.
In Salt Lake City, where the 1,100-bed shelter is slated to be replaced next summer by three smaller shelters with a lesser overall capacity, leaders have begun to see SRO housing might as a missing piece in a revamped homeless services model: a stepping stone for the homeless and a safety net for those who might otherwise become homeless.
Stant, who went to the shelter after being laid off, estimated 50 to 75 percent of people there could benefit from similar rooms. He's still looking for an apartment, but in the absence of more conventional housing, a locked a door counts for a lot.
The death of SROs
Paul Groth was baffled when, in August 1977, thousands of protesters surrounded San Francisco’s International Hotel to stop police from evicting elderly residents ahead of the building’s demolition.
“I asked, ‘Why such a fuss? Why would anyone want to live in a hotel?’” the University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus of architecture and geography wrote in the introduction to his 1994 book on the subject, “Living Downtown.”
But Groth needed a dissertation topic, and he eventually undertook what would become an authoritative study of San Francisco’s rich history of hotel living. (All while the site of the razed International sat empty, save for the homeless who gathered in its basement archways to escape the wind. It was only rebuilt as senior housing in 2005.)
Groth eventually concludes in “Living Downtown” that “this wholesale closing and destruction of residential hotels is a major tragedy and a root cause of homelessness in the United States.”
“A good hotel room of 150 square feet — dry space, perhaps with a bath or a room sink, cold and sometimes hot water, enough electric service to run a 60-watt bulb and a television, central heat, and access to telephones and other services — constitutes a living unit mechanically more luxuriant than those lived in by a third to a half of the population of the earth.”
It was common throughout the first half of the 20th century for American city dwellers to live in hotel rooms, which ranged from palatial suites to nickel-a-night spaces on a flophouse floor.
Frugal Calvin Coolidge and his wife shared a $1-per-night room in Boston (about $20 in today's dollars) until he became Massachusetts’ governor and his friends persuaded them to upgrade to a $2 room. As a young congressman, Lyndon Johnson spent three years at Washington, D.C.’s Dodge Hotel. Rooming houses that operated similarly to the Rio Grande Hotel contained an eclectic mix of teachers, machinists, policemen and nurses, day laborers and newlyweds.
But the tide of public opinion turned against hotel life. Some were sources of crime, fires, disease. Hotel living became viewed as aberrantly individual, delaying the formation of families living the American Dream in single-family homes. City officials and planners began to say things like “Nobody should have to live in a hotel.” Concentrations of single-room occupancy became known as “skid rows.”
After World War II, many cities rewrote their codes to exclude rooming houses from multifamily zones. In the ensuing decades, those SRO rooms that remained were often filled long-term with elderly patients referred by welfare departments or mental health patients released by shuttered institutions. That meant the job of managing residency hotels became as much casework as hospitality.
Between 1974 and 1983 alone, the nation lost nearly 900,000 SRO rooms costing $200 per month, either because they were demolished or converted to more profitable uses like office towers or condominiums.
A decade ago, Salt Lake City tore down three SRO hotels on State Street between 200 and 300 South — at the heart of the downtown business district — to make way for a mixed-use development that promised affordable housing, retail and eateries, the “Plaza at State Street.”
After a series of financial and structural problems led the developer to back out, all that remains are steel beams and graffitied concrete.
A local solution
The house rules are affixed to the wall in the Rio Grande Hotel lobby.
No borrowing or lending. No smoking. No public intoxication. Visitors have to sign in and out. Etc.
Under innkeeper laws, tenants of the Rio Grande Hotel are “guests,” not residents, and when they violate the rules, managers have broad authority to eject them at a moment’s notice.
Still, management say they only eject about a dozen people each year, and ejectees are welcome back on the waiting list for another room. There’s no black book.
Brent Willis of HomeInn Transitional Housing, which manages the Rio Grande Hotel for the city’s Redevelopment Agency, said he doesn’t ask guests about their criminal histories, even as he welcomes many from halfway houses and the prison system.
They often make the best guests, he said, because their parole officers and counselors give them a support structure (though they can also be prone to discouragement when they first realize how often they will be discriminated against in housing and job searches).
“I’m not saying I have compassion for what they’ve done, but I have compassion for their situation,” he said. “At some point, people pay their dues.”
The hotel’s hallways are bright and airy, with a central atrium that feeds fresh air and sunlight into interior-facing rooms. There’s a bathroom per every five residents, and each bathroom includes a shower and a lock. Guests share three large fridges, a free laundry room, and a central community space where they can check out hundreds of DVDs and books.
Out back, a gated lot secures guests’ cars and bikes and includes a covered smoking area. Security cameras are everywhere you look, feeding two large displays in the manager’s office.
All for as little as $225 per month, for one of a few bunk rooms, or $330 for a single room.
There's one unique catch, however: Guests can only stay for a year unless they participate in a “give-back” program. Those who volunteer between an hour and four hours a week can earn up to two additional six-month extensions, and those with a high degree of utility at the hotel itself become “essential,” meaning they can stay indefinitely.
The give-back concept came to Willis after he and his wife, Naomi, bought their first SRO property about 15 years ago — a rooming house in Kearns that had become a hive of drug activity and sold for cheap.
The previous owner had run the place using apartment laws, which meant it could take up to three months to evict somebody even if they refused to pay their rent.
Willis, a retired air traffic controller, thought there must be a more sensible way. His solution: innkeeper laws. By treating the property as though it was a hotel, and not an apartment, he could immediately hold guests accountable for their actions. What’s more, he could incentivize good behavior.
“It’s more than what the old-fashioned SROs used to be: Come rent a room, stay for just a few months and then leave,” Willis said.
That’s why it’s spotless — why there’s no dirt, even, on the pipes that run along the tops of the walls. It’s a guest’s job to dust those pipes.
The aim is to help every guest obtain the skills and habits necessary to “graduate” to better housing, said Willis. By his in-house tally, nine out of 10 are able to do so.
Stant, who cooks an annual four-bird Thanksgiving dinner for the whole building in addition to his food-hall and volunteer duties, is essential. He can stay as long as he wants. Same for Tracey Miller, who lives at the Rio Grande Hotel and makes $13 an hour as HomeInn’s maintenance man, driving his old Ford Ranger between its three area properties.
In fact, the Rio Grande Hotel has just one full-time employee — HomeInn’s financial controller — who isn’t also a guest.
Miller is a deferential 56-year-old whose sinewy golden forearms evince a life spent working on cars and houses. He divorced twice and, faced with two child support payments, went to live for cheap at the original HomeInn property in Kearns about five and a half years ago.
It’s “just like being married and having kids,” he said with a soft laugh. Some guests have to be told to clean up after themselves, or what they shouldn’t put down the drain. But Miller displays an abiding pride for the condition of the place, where he works his way through odd jobs jotted on clipboard in the lobby.
He collects things that might be useful, like a sink he recently found in a dumpster across the street, ripped from the wall of a $150-a-night hotel. He’ll repurpose that — with the high-end hotel’s blessing — as he and Willis make their way through one-by-one remodels of the Rio Grande Hotel’s 10 bathrooms.
“If I had the space for it, we would have gotten a lot more stuff,” Miller said.
And local momentum, too?
Outgoing Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes bought his first building in 1996: The Woodruff apartments at 235 S. 200 East in 1996.
The Woodruff was built in 1908, providing working men with Murphy beds, hot water, a gas range, a buffet and their choice of color paint on the wall.
When Hughes took over, the basement still had dorm-style units, a shared bathroom and a towel service, and most of the tenants were elderly and had lived there for years.
“It met their needs,” Hughes said. “They didn’t need a whole lot, but they wanted their own place. They wanted to be self-sufficient.”
But he had trouble filling vacant rooms, and he tired of washing towels. When Hughes rehabilitated the building, he turned the basement into studios, reducing the building’s total occupancy from 60 to 48.
If he had to do it again, Hughes said, he would have kept the single rooms.
“It’s only in hindsight where I’m seeing the challenges now, and I’m seeing the barriers for housing and how high they are to people.”
Along the Wasatch Front, rental vacancy rates are 3 percent. Utah’s housing price increases are the nation’s fourth-highest since 1991, according to a March report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. If housing prices and incomes increase at the same rate as they have since then, the report says, Utah’s 2044 housing market would look like San Francisco’s.
Hughes frequently spoke about the need for affordable, dorm-style housing this time last year, after making new shelter funding a priority at the legislative session and then marshaling a crackdown on shelter-area crime from an improvised office at the south end of The Gateway mall.
The subject faded into the background as Hughes and other officials freed up funding for drug treatment and arranged new employment opportunities for the area's homeless.
But a small group of state officials and homeless advocates breathed new life into the conversation earlier this month after it surveyed 165 service-resistant homeless people about where they would like to sleep, if not on the streets or in the new shelters.
A quarter of those surveyed liked living on the streets. Most preferred to live alone. But nearly half had some source of income, whether from wages, disability or social security.
The group’s recommendation: Build three 50-unit buildings with rents limited to $200.
They didn’t say when or where they should be built, however, and if the process of siting three new homeless shelters was any indication, the builders are likely to encounter some “not-in-my-backyard” opposition.
Willis has experienced it already. There's very little turnover in the 140 rooms that HomeInn manages, which as of this year include a few dozen low-income State Street motel rooms purchased by the Housing Authority of Salt Lake (which filled in less than three weeks). He is constantly on the lookout for more locations, but two proposals have died in the face of resistance at the public comment stage.
More than two dozen sex offenders had most recently listed the Rio Grande Hotel’s address, according to the Utah Department of Corrections’ online registry — though it’s worth noting that HomeInn offers the use of camera-monitored mailboxes to people who are on the waiting list.
A log of recent police calls didn’t show inordinate criminal activity there, given that it’s at the center of the city’s downtown homeless service district and an area that until recently was known for its open-air drug market. In fact, the Rio Grande has had fewer calls, since 2016, than the hotel across the street.
Hughes said it’s key that SRO developments are allowed to have “a much stronger management side” than he could offer when he bought the Woodruff.
Willis said it would also hamstring an owner to receive government subsidies that call for yearlong leases or other stipulations that can drive rent into less affordable territory.
Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Corporation, said SROs aren’t a panacea, but she’s heard “so many stories about people being moved off the street, but sleeping on a floor, or sleeping in a tent.”
“Why are we building to tax credit standards where they want you to have a pool and all these amenities?” she said. “Let’s figure out what we need in terms of space.”
As part of Salt Lake City’s five-year housing plan, city staff have recommended expanding the zones that SRO housing is allowed (currently, just transit corridors and one type of form-based neighborhoods).20 comments on this story
Planning Commissioner Brenda Scheer, a University of Utah professor of city and metropolitan planning and architecture, said she supports contemporary SROs as a “low cost, low-rent option that we have not used as much as we could.”
“We do have this image of an SRO being kind of smoky, kind of a downtrodden place, and I think we have to change our image,” she said. “I think that fear of the ‘other person’ is strong, and it’s even stronger, I think, in Utah, because there’s been a kind of homogeneity in Utah for decades, and that’s changing a lot.”