Baltimore SRO for women to open this week


A relatively new concept in affordable housing will make its debut in Baltimore this week when a 13-unit residence called the Calverton opens at 119 E. 25th St.

SRO housing -- short for single-room occupancy housing -- is the term used to describe congregate residences where people rent individual rooms but share kitchens, bathrooms and living and dining areas.

In San Francisco, San Diego and other West Coast cities, SRO housing has become an accepted housing alternative for displaced homemakers, students, immigrants and others in search of low-cost living space.

In Baltimore, the Young Women's Christian Association on West Franklin Street offers what amounts to SRO housing on a temporary basis, providing emergency housing for homeless women, battered spouses, single parents and others who have nowhere else to live.

But what makes the Calverton different from the YWCA or other forms of transitional housing is that it is permanent in nature, according to Nancy Gregory, development officer for St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center and a board member of the Women's Housing Coalition, two groups that were instrumental in the creation of the Calverton.

"It's the first permanent housing, not an emergency shelter," Ms. Gregory said. "There's no time limit for residents as long as they abide by the terms of the lease and the [federal] rules and remain income-eligible, which means their income doesn't go up."

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center is the developer of the project, and the Women's Housing Coalition, a non-profit group formed in 1979 to provide housing and support services for homeless women, is the operator. Kelly Clayton & Mojzisek is the architect and construction manager.

As planned by those groups, the Calverton will be for women only, and only for women who earn no more than $7,900 per year. Despite those restrictions, Ms. Gregory said she expects a diverse mix of residents, from people with physical or mental disabilities that prevent them from holding a permanent job to the "working poor" who have minimum wage jobs to "battered women" who may have left a crisis situation.

"It's not an apartment building in that people have a kitchen and bathroom as part of heir own unit, but otherwise it's an apartment," she said.

"Our goal is to instill a sense of ownership and form a tenant council and really make it a home."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, state housing secretary Jacqueline H. Rogers and members of the Women's Housing Coalition of Baltimore are scheduled to attend a ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony for the $630,000 project on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The initial residents are expected to take occupancy next month.

The Calverton was built with a mix of public and private funds and marks the first time that city and state money has been used to fund SRO housing.

Several Baltimore area foundations and individuals also provided funding, including the Abell Foundation, the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, the Aaron & Lillie Strauss Foundation, the Jimmie Swartz Foundation, St. Joseph's Church and Carolyn Hutzler.

Ms. Gregory said the Calverton is the first of at least three SRO facilities planned for Baltimore and could serve as a model for others.

Already under construction is Holden Hall, a 14-unit $310,000 SRO residence for men inside the old St. Jerome's Convent at 761 W. Hamburg St.

St. Ambrose is also studying plans to convert a building on Paca Street near Lexington Market to a 50-unit SRO facility for men and women. City officials are seeking federal funds under the McKinney Act to create an SRO on North Avenue.

Ms. Gregory said SRO housing is essentially a new twist on the old hotels and boardinghouses from the 19th century that housed single women, college students and others living on a tight budget.

The four-story building on 25th Street has been converted to 13 residences, three kitchens and five shared bathrooms. There is also a resident manager's apartment and offices for the Women's Housing Coalition.

Each residence has a bedroomand a living area -- about 150 square feet -- and many have balconies. Each residence will be equipped with basic furnishings: a bed, desk, lamp, table, two chairs and small refrigerator. Residents sign a one-year lease and are free to personalize their living spaces.

The Calverton's resident manager will coordinate activities, and residents are expected to work together to prepare meals, clean common areas and and otherwise maintain the household.

Architect Brian Kelly of Kelly Clayton & Mojzisek said he learned about SRO housing during an American Institute of Architects convention in 1988 and believes the Calverton will provide a model for future projects.

"To me, the main design expertise required is in life safety, because you have non-related individuals living in close quarters," he said. "The problem of people smoking in bed is something we were all concerned about." As part of the design, the architects specified sprinkler and alarm systems that provide more protection than city codes typically require of single-family housing.

Ms. Gregory said she believes there will be increasing need for SRO facilities as the cost of traditional housing continues to rise.

"There are more and more people in the service economy who make the minimum wage of $3.50 to $4 per hour and can barely afford to house themselves today," she said. "This could be a good alternative for them."

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