Lepers at the City Gate: Single Room Occupancy and the Housing Crisis

Lepers at the City Gate: Single Room Occupancy and the Housing Crisis

It’s a sultry July morning; I am sitting on a low wall outside a three-story brownstone on West 120th Street, a stone’s throw away from Mount Morris Park, in Harlem. Four workmen, covered in dust and dirt, are coming and going, throwing debris and masonry onto a nearby dumpster, bantering with each other and disappearing into a gutted building, number seventeen. From my perch, I can hear drilling and banging inside. Overhead, there’s a lamppost adorned with a banner welcoming me to “Mount Morris Historic District,” a patch bound by Lenox Avenue to the west, 124th Street to the north, 119th Street to the south, and Mount Morris Park West to the east. (The park, which interrupts Fifth Avenue for a five-block stretch and is dominated by a craggy outcrop of rocks, was renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973, in honor of the Jamaican black nationalist.) My eyes follow a uniform row of red brick and terra-cotta houses, most built around 1890, grand in their day; many are now burnt-out shells, boarded up and abandoned. Wire fences seal several off; knee-high weeds and accumulated litter make everything feel forlorn and menacing. I watch a disheveled African-American man, with two loaded bags, emerge from one ruin across the street.

As I ponder the scene and look more closely at the fine detail, I notice amid the wreckage and dereliction that a few structures actually look healthy. They have fine wooden shutters in their windows, renovated façades, recent paint jobs, and window boxes bearing fresh flowers. These new rehabs look quite delightful; they are the telltale signs of change in the air, a revival of sorts in Harlem, where, after years of neglect, properties are miraculously being spruced up, money is flowing in after decades of flowing out, and middle-class people, are returning. And, to cap it all, five blocks to the north, Starbucks, the Gap, and Disney have set up shop.

I am early for an appointment with number seventeen’s last tenant. It’s amazing that somebody is still there, living in what looks like rubble. The workmen are unperturbed as I walk into the premises and go up the stairs in semi-darkness. The air is thick with dust and I feel it catch my throat. At the top, a diminutive African-American woman, Mary Osborne, greets me, shakes my hand cheerily, and ushers me into a second-floor room. It’s barely twelve feet by twelve feet, though the tall ceilings make it feel less claustrophobic. It’s filled with her modest possessions: a small television, a radio, a refrigerator, clothes stacked up on a single bed, all covered with plastic wrapping—“to protect everything from water leaks and the mess,” Osborne laments. In one corner there’s a cheap bookshelf, upon which I spot Alex Haley’s Roots, a biography of Malcolm X, several Bibles, a bulky biography of Queen Elizabeth II, and, curiously, a paperback by a certain Donald Trump.

Osborne has a mop of black curly hair, with only a couple...