MENTION single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels and most of us imagine aging firetraps infested with rats and drug dealers, where the working poor pay high rents for leaky rooms. Fortunately, not every SRO is a slum. While Los Angeles and other large cities struggle to upgrade old SROs, San Diego has broken new ground, figuratively and literally, by offering low-interest loans and flexible planning approvals to bring innovative private developers into the market.
Leading the pack is Chris Mortenson, described by San Diego architect Rob Wellington Quigley as "an aggressive developer with a conscience." Mortenson realized the need for new construction when he renovated an old building and found that the displaced low-income tenants had nowhere to go. In 1987, he and partner Bud Fischer invited Quigley to design a 209-room SRO downtown, promising him that "if you'll work with our budget, you'll have design freedom." Challenged by a ceiling cost of $17,000 a room, Quigley used attractive low-maintenance materials to create a humane sense of place and to provide such basic amenities as a toilet and microwave. The Baltic, finished in 1987, is now almost fully occupied; rooms rent from $300 to $350 a month, based on the tenant's ability to pay.