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How SRO’s Could Lesson Our Workforce Shortages

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB

Every day another business complains it can’t find workers to fill their job requests. This isn’t just Napa: it’s a widespread crisis across California and America. The biggest challenge isn’t pay: it’s the cost of housing. Buying has become a luxury: renting is becoming more remote.

Could industry-sponsored housing of SROs, single room occupancy units, help save our economy and lifestyle? Or is this the return of the “Company Town” of the 1900s?

I recently stayed overnight at the Queen of the Valley Hospital for a minor procedure. I was very impressed with the support staff and the nurses. As an inquisitive architect, I would ask them where they lived and they all said, “Not in Napa, Fairfield or Vacaville, or further away.” Only one said they were renting in American Canyon.

It’s tough enough that hospital staff were under so much pressure during the pandemic, risking their lives, on a day-to-day basis with ravaging diseases that changed by the week. The 2019 nursing shortage only worsened during the Pandemic and by 2023 it has become close to catastrophic. One source says over 100,000 registered nurses have left the profession while over 500,000 hospital and home caregivers are “transitioning”, whatever that means. While there is a great need for registered nurses, the demand for all personnel, from home caregivers to grounds keepers, is going to remain incredibly high. Aggressive recruiting is one way, but they need to take seriously providing accommodations for their personnel.

And this is only one of the many industries we are so dependent upon, both to take care of us and to sustain our economy. The hotel/hospitality industry and the vineyard/wine producing industry have all expressed their personnel shortages as gloomy.

As I gazed out of my room, I saw a sea of asphalt with lots of open unoccupied parking spaces. How hard would be for the two major hospitals of Napa and all the medical offices to get together and create a housing complex for their staffing needs, students, applicants and personnel?

One Napa City Zoning process unused to date is called SRO, Single Room Occupancy. According to Napa City Municipal Zoning, a SRO is a type of group residential use of at least five single units or rooms with no more than two occupants each, and must comply with the regulations of city zoning. Each single room must be code compliant, have a bathroom and a limited cooking facility. It must combine living, dining and sleeping accommodations.

According to section 17.52.460 the existing zoning, planners could double the existing density range. For example, according to the city zoning, a general plan designation of 10 to 20 units/acre could be the equivalent of 20–40 rooms/acre. Other density bonuses could also apply. Here are a few more requirements:

  1. Any new construction or exterior alterations to an existing building must be compatible with the design and scale of the surrounding neighborhood.

  2. The design and location must reduce potential adverse impacts on adjacent residential properties to the “maximum feasible extent “, such as privacy, visual and minimizing noise.

  3. Room sizes shall range from 150 to 450 SF, the equivalent size of mini JADU or even a compact one-bedroom ADU.

  4. The project must be located within 1200 feet of a public transit. Generally, that also includes a rideshare pick-up spot.

  5. A well-designed management plan with sufficient details and standards must be submitted as part of the application. This must be approved by the Napa Housing Authority.

Because such a complex must be near transportation lines, parking can be significantly reduced. This would only make sense in commercial districts or Downtown. This is somewhere between a hotel and a boarding house focused on full-time occupants.

SRO’s were originally developed as “Company-owned towns” for workers in mines and manufacturing where pay was low and employee demand high. In urban areas this became necessary for shelter-challenged individuals. San Francisco is full of such structures, and their reputation has not been the best. But the idea and concept is applicable today. What goes around, goes around.

What would such a complex look like? As a planner and architect, I would suggest a 50 unit structure of perhaps 350 SF units plus, say 50 SF each for circulation, three stories, with a footprint of about 7000 square feet. Depending on limited parking, the site could be as small as half acre. This could easily fit in any of the medical office complexes, hospital sites or shopping centers in Napa.

I’m sure few of us reading this article would be interested in having a SRO complex next door. However, in commercial areas where many of our hospitals, hotels and basic services centers are located, they’d be a perfect fit.

Chris d Craiker AIA lived on a SRO in Sausalito: a houseboat.

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