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Officials See SRO Hotels as Idea Whose Time Has Come Again : Housing: Rules are being drawn that would permit construction of up to 750 new rooms in certain areas of downtown. But there is strong opposition from homeowners.

July 07, 1991|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Community activist Bob Roxby remembers that there were about five or six of them where the downtown mall now stands, residential hotels where somebody without much money could rent a simple room by the week.

Others were scattered around downtown, left over from the prewar years, and the city flattened a lot of them during redevelopment--with no regrets. The often-ramshackle structures did not fit in with the sparkling new image Long Beach was creating for itself.

Now local officials are talking of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) with new fondness. They are thinking of bringing them back with some modern twists as relief for the painful cost of housing in the region.

Impressed with a much-lauded SRO program in San Diego, Long Beach officials are drawing up regulations that would permit the construction of as many as 750 new SRO rooms in certain areas of downtown bounded by 7th Street, Ocean Boulevard, Alamitos Avenue and Pacific Avenue.

The move is good news to housing and homeless advocates, who have long sought an SRO revival. "It's something that's desperately needed," said Marc Coleman, a downtown attorney who has sued the city over affordable housing issues on behalf of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, a community group. "It shouldn't be seen as a solution in and of itself, but it is a step."

The proposal also has stirred up a hornet's nest of opposition. A consultant's recommendation that SROs be allowed on major thoroughfares outside of downtown incited an onslaught of irate protests from homeowners and neighborhood activists who equate SROs with rat-infested slums.

"ABSOLUTELY NOT," declared a letter to the Planning Commission from the Los Cerritos Improvement Assn., whose members live south of the Virginia Country Club.

In another letter, a group of Pine Avenue residents living north of downtown made it clear what they think of SROs. "We strongly object to having units such as these built in middle- to high-income neighborhoods where they will rapidly turn into slum units, increase the crime rate, and further congest the streets with parked cars."

About 150 people turned out for a Planning Commission hearing on SROs last month and most were adamantly against having such projects anywhere near their neighborhoods. Roxby, 77, a member of LBACI, was one of the few to speak in favor of the proposed SRO ordinance.

The city planning staff has since said it never intended to suggest SROs should be built throughout the city. With as many as 250 rooms per project, the SROs belong downtown, planners say.

That assurance has failed to smooth the way for the SRO plan, however.

"We are going off on a wild turkey chase," complained Planning Commission Chairman Patricia Schauer, contending that the city is moving too quickly on the proposal. "We have done no research, no clear thinking."

At Schauer's suggestion, the commission last week postponed a vote on SROs to allow more time to review the matter before sending it to the City Council.

Schauer, a property management consultant, questions whether there really is a need for SROs in Long Beach. She argues that the city already has "an excess" of low-cost housing with ample vacancies and that most homeless people would never qualify for the new projects. Citing her own experience and conversations she has had with local real estate agents, Schauer maintains that the vacancy rate may be as high as 15% at the low end of the rental market.

SRO proponents challenge the assertion that there are plenty of cheap apartments available. They also point to Long Beach's large numbers of poor: About half the city's 159,000 households are considered low income by government standards and, of those, a market research firm has estimated that 48,000 households have incomes of less than $15,000 a year.

Diane McNeel, who as manager of the city's Housing Services Bureau oversees the city's affordable housing programs, said that the last time her office solicited applications for subsidized housing, 10,000 people applied.

"Of those 10,000, a good 25% were single Long Beach residents," McNeel said. "Which tells me we have more than enough single people in Long Beach who need affordable housing. I don't have landlords calling me up and saying, 'I have one-bedrooms, give me some referrals.' I have plenty of applicants saying, 'I can't find a place.' "

There are still some SROs in Long Beach, although the city has no exact figures. But for years local zoning laws have outlawed the construction of new ones. The current proposal would change zoning laws to allow developers to either build SROs or convert existing buildings to SRO units after obtaining conditional-use permits.

Supporters say the ordinance would give the city enough control over the projects' design and management to ensure that they do not become the slums feared by critics.

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