Portland looks to SRO hotels as model for low-income housing

PORTLAND — Jennifer Carder has lived in the Barbara Maher Apartments building in North Portland for only four months but she already feels more at home than she has in years.

Every wall of her tiny room is covered in photos, crafts and other belongings. She’s got a cat, Bubba T. Boobooface, who greets her at the door.

Sure, she shares the bathroom and kitchen with the building’s 33 other women. But her room is the first place Carder, 37, has had to herself since she became homeless while in the grip of addiction to alcohol and opiates.

Now with a new job at Little Big Burger and eight months of sobriety, she’s confident her recovery is going to stick — in no small part because of the roof over her head, modest though it might be.

“If I was to relapse,” she said, “I’d lose all of this.”

Carder is exactly the kind of Portlander that the city is trying to help with a renewed push toward a type of housing that fell out of favor decades ago.

Single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs, were once ubiquitous in the central city, an affordable haven for people who otherwise would land on the street. For the last 50 years, though, the landlords who owned SROs retired or sold the decaying buildings to developers who put up expensive homes, offices or upscale hotels in their place.

But in recent years, housing advocates have convinced state and local officials that these buildings can be renovated or built from the ground up to serve the growing number of people who are homeless or on the brink.

The city and county are staking more than $20 million on four projects they hope will both provide a home for the poorest in the city and fulfill a pledge to create housing bundled with social services for people suffering from addiction or other medical problems.

The idea has its detractors — among them longtime homeless services workers who find the sparse dorm-like SRO units lack the dignity of a fully outfitted apartment.

Yet supporters say the few remaining SROs are effective to stabilize people who might otherwise go to shelters, hospitals or jails.

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