SAN FRANCISCO—The city has the means, the technology, the creative architects, and the funds to transform SROs (single room occupancy hotels, or “residential hotels”) and raise the quality of living for tenants, according to Rajiv Bhatia, Director of Environmental Health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. But the community needs to care more before it can put in enough political backing to make the transformation a reality, he says.
Rick Clark, an SRO tenant in the Tenderloin, watches construction workers put up new buildings in the neighborhood every day.
The SROs range from an 8-by-10 with nothing but four walls to newly renovated “microunits” with all-inclusive amenities. These units, good and bad, are integral to San Francisco’s history and house about 5 percent of its population.
“There’s a lot of homelessness here, but in the next ten years it’s going to be by choice,” said Clark, who lives in a unit in the renovated YMCA and volunteers for City Impact. “They’ve cleaned the streets up a whole lot since I’ve been here.”
The prevalent problem, Clark says, is that many of the tenants who were recently homeless still live as if they were homeless, bringing habits like substance abuse, violence, and hoarding into their new lives.
Tenants often deal with facing evictions, poor living conditions, and no responses to their requests to fix basic living amenities in the facilities—and this takes a toll on the mental and physical health of these residents.
Central City SRO Collaborative (CCC) coordinator Pratibha Tekkey says the conditions of SROs vary, but the ones that are bad are just not habitable.
“Many of the tenants we interact with have severe health issues,” Tekkey said. “Some have mental health issues, … are recovering from heath disease, or some kind of disability.”
“They need to live in a clean environment to recover,” Tekkey said. CCC works with tenants to contact their landlords to make repairs, but often the tenants receive no response until the organization contacts a building inspector.
With a high concentration of the city’s SROs located in the Tenderloin, most of the services for SRO residents, like medical and legal help, can be found there as well.
“If you’re in the Tenderloin, you’ve really got to try, to starve,” said Kent McCormick, who works for City Impact. “Every block has something that can give you something. This is the place to be if you’re low income or homeless, because it’s where you can get things for free. … If you want a job, there’s all sorts of help centers, if you want to get clean there are detoxes, everything.”
But improving conditions for SRO tenants may require a fundamental change in approach, says Bhatia.
“San Francisco is on the cutting edge of doing some of the most transformative work in improving the lives of SRO residents,” but there remains a major problem that needs to be addressed, Bhatia said at a SPUR event Tuesday.
Architects like Chris Duncan have changed many of the Bay Area’s SROs-in-disrepair into microunits with refrigerators, bathrooms, cooking facilities, and basic living needs like proper ventilation and heating—and have seen the tremendous effect it has had on the new tenants.
“Many of these buildings haven’t been renovated since they were built,” said Duncan, whose architecture firm has renovated many SROs into “microunits” over the past 15 years, with projects as small as the first 24 units they renovated, to the $15 million YMCA renovation in the Tenderloin.
But the core of the problem lies in whether or not the general community has the will to provide better living conditions in the city, Bhatia said.
“Money is secondary,” Bhatia. “It’s a matter of a certain will, and I think that would come from more exposure of what is really shameful conditions that people have to live with.”
One prevalent problem is having families with children living in SROs, which do not have the capacity for that many people, but tenants and the city alike “tolerate that illegal occupancy because the alternative is worse,” Bhatia said.
There are also blatant code violations even in projects under the utmost scrutiny, according to Bhatia, such as one case where a building owner, under City-supervised court order to remodel a building, used an unlicensed contractor and had tenants living in residences with asbestos and lead in the walls.
“I think the existence of substandard conditions is one of the shames of San Francisco,” Bhatia said. “For some people, they feel that just as long as the city is able to keep people in housing, they’re keeping poverty out of sight.”
“This problem has to become less hidden,” Bhatia said.
“I think even the act of relabeling an SRO as a microunit is removing a lot of the stigma; it’s potentially really powerful and transformative,” said Bhatia, provided that the remodeled SROs actually are microunits.
In 2004, Bhatia authored a study that showed minimal monetary savings in moving SRO residents to cleaner, more livable units—in terms of hospital costs and other measurable indicators—though anyone could see they were healthier and happier, Bhatia said.
“It can be a very dangerous enterprise,” he added. One would have to find a way to gauge the “holistic measure of human needs.”
The lack of a fridge or a place to cook can be enough reason for tenants to not feel in control of their lives and to feel dependent on others for resources.
SROs are a mix of privately owned and city-owned buildings, and although the mayor has indicated that the current public housing program should be scrapped and a program modeled after HOPE SF used instead, it might not be adaptable in a straightforward way to the Tenderloin.
The cost of building affordable housing units under HOPE SF is absorbed by the developer, because it also sells market-rate units in the same building. Buildings are demolished, then rebuilt and up-zoned—but the City has long come to a consensus that it should not demolish any of the buildings in the Tenderloin that hold significant historical value.
New affordable housing units are also being built in other areas of the city, but because the majority of community-organized services are concentrated in the Tenderloin, “I think a lot of people are a little bit scared to leave,” McCormick said.
“Anybody out on the street, they’d love to have a room, but they’d like a room in the TL,” he added.
The shortage of housing is obvious—in one project Duncan worked on, 80 renovated apartments were opened for affordable housing, and almost immediately the building owners received 1,800 applications.
Planning director John Rahaim has also acknowledged that as Mission Bay, the waterfront, and Downtown see immense growth in the upcoming years, the Tenderloin should be addressed as well. But because the Tenderloin is the most historic district on the West Coast, it’s unclear to him how exactly the area should be addressed, as he said at a SPUR event last month—other than “very, very carefully.”
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