As long as I’ve been writing a column for this paper — and writing about Seattle’s struggles with homelessness, which happens to be the same length of time — Joe Martin has been writing to me about SROs.
Flophouses. Flea bags. Skid Road.
“We once had housing for all the people we now call ‘homeless,’ but we tore it down and didn’t replace it with anything,” Martin wrote to me back in 2005, after I’d written a series of columns on Seattle’s “rolling slums,” the car-camping colonies that sprang up in Ballard back then.
“It was the Single Room Occupancy hotels,” he wrote me again, when the city was debating clearing out The Jungle homeless encampment on the side of Beacon Hill. “That’s when this started — when we tore down the SROs.”
About the only visible sign left of the city’s thousands of squats for itinerant workers and the laboring poor is that vintage neon in Pioneer Square, advertising “Rooms 75¢.” Today an Airbnb there rents for about $250 a night, after cleaning fees and taxes, according to the State Hotel’s website.
Martin, 70, who co-founded the homeless rescue Downtown Emergency Service Center and the Pike Market Medical Clinic, retired last week after nearly 45 years of helping downtown’s wandering and wounded.
When I caught up with him, he was mulling over an irony. He’d started his career in the 1970s arguing that Seattle’s flop hotels were an unappreciated glue holding together a mostly hidden society. Which fell on deaf ears.
But now, as he’s ending his run, Seattle and King County governments are … buying up hotels, to once again house the impoverished.
“We’re kind of going back a half century,” Martin mused. “I don’t know why it took so long. It’s been glaringly apparent for decades that human beings need a room of their own.”
The story of how Seattle tore down about 18,000 units of downtown’s housing stock, almost all of it housing older people and the poor, was well told in a 2001 essay by historian Trevor Griffey, who now teaches at UCLA. “A prologue to homelessness: Contempt, ignorance and the disappearance of downtown’s affordable hotels,” the title sums up.
Martin says it’s a mistake to romanticize the SROs; they were often squalid places, lacking in kitchens or basic codes. After the deadliest fire in Seattle history swept through the Ozark Hotel, in 1970, it was “certainly understandable that the city wanted to do something about the conditions,” Martin said.
But what happened, mostly, is they got replaced by parking lots or rehabbed into offices. The souls living within were an afterthought. Griffey quotes a Seattle planning document from the time: “The ‘itinerant element’ occupying the substantial number of existing ‘substandard’ mission houses, boarding hotels and other ‘Skid Road’ facilities in this area will be eliminated as a blighting environmental factor … through a program of relocation and rehabilitation.”
Martin is a 5-foot Irish dynamo and proud commoner (a favorite quote: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at who he gives it to”). He’s been working on the street downtown for so long that he was quoted in Griffey’s history. Martin called the loss of the SROs “an ongoing apocalypse in slow motion.”
The city went from having one homeless street person in the 1970s — a woman who used to live in the portal to the Public Safety Building — to a few dozen by 1980, to 400 in the mid-’80s to 1,200 in 1990 (these are estimates of people rough-sleeping outside, and doesn’t include those staying in overnight shelters). Today Seattle is up to nearly 4,000 outside — and that count was from before the pandemic.
There’s been a huge push by nonprofits to build more low-income housing, but the deficit was never made up, Martin says. As troubled as some SROs were, we ended up with something worse: crammed, barracks-style shelters and poverty camps dotted around the city.
In desperation after the pandemic hit, some local governments found their way back to the hotel.
“Now that it’s clear that rooms in hotels are better for homeless people’s mental and physical health than bunk beds on crowded floors, more homeless advocates and nonprofit leaders have pushed government leaders to stick with the model,” reported this newspaper, on Tuesday, about King County buying the 110-room Extended Stay America hotel in Renton.
King County also bought the Queen Anne Inn and has leased rooms temporarily in at least five other hotels. Seattle has leased out two hotels and is looking to buy up to $100 million worth of hotels, motels or other housing.
There are differences, of course. These are publicly funded programs, while the SROs were off the government grid and housed some tenants for decades. We’re in a different era of substance abuse and mental health treatment. But the central premise — a room where you can close the door, with the barrier to entry as low as it goes — is like going back to the future.
Martin says he’s pleased that a basic need of humanity is being officially acknowledged. Even if it spanned his entire working career to see it come back around.
“I’ve been a proletarian in this city for half a century,” he laughed. “Maybe at the end here I’m finally coming into style.”