Dan Jordan is a senior who uses a cane and lives in a privately run SRO hotel on Sixth Street. There are many seniors in his hotel, yet there are no on-site services such as case management, social workers, nurses or referrals. There is also no elevator, no kitchen and many sub-standard living conditions.
For months, Jordan and the other residents endured piled up garbage in the hallways, rodent infestations and filthy bathrooms and hallways. There is no desk clerk in the hotel, creating many safety concerns for the tenants. A few months ago an elderly woman who lives in the hotel needed immediate medical attention and called 9-1-1. When the paramedics arrived at the hotel, the buzzer wasn’t working and there was no desk clerk to answer the door. It took almost an hour before someone opened the door and the paramedics were able to provide medial attention.
The tenants have been to the Department of Public Health about their complaints, and inspectors have cited the owners for violations of the health code. But some owners fix the problems only to allow them to recur, piling up citations in the process.
When Jordan moved into his SRO unit nine years ago, he was not a senior. This is the reality for many SRO residents who are aging in place. With a lack of affordable housing or senior housing, many SRO residents are aging in their hotels and need more services as they get older such as case management, healthcare, food access and social workers.
The majority of the over 500 SRO hotels in San Francisco are not supportive housing, and residents, many of whom are seniors or people with disabilities, have to look elsewhere for services.
On Monday, seniors, people with disabilities and housing advocates gathered at City Hall for a hearing at the Land Use Committee called by Supervisor Eric Mar on seniors and people with disabilities who live in SRO hotels. Tenant advocate groups led by the SRO Collaboratives and Senior Action Network released a report on the needs of this population, highlighting solutions for addressing the issues.
The report came out of a survey of 151 seniors and people with disabilities that live in SRO hotels and documents numerous and widespread problems, including isolation, personal safety concerns, pest infestations, lack of access to support services, and lack of disabled access.
Supervisor Christina Olague who worked on the survey in her former position with Senior Action Network opened the hearing by describing the needs of the growing population of seniors and people with disabilities living in sub-standard SROs. “When we went out and surveyed we found that many seniors did not want to leave their SROs but they wanted to see conditions improve. We are about to have one of the largest senior populations of any major city and I hope to walk away today with some next steps.”
At the hearing, tenants and advocates asked the supervisors to support legislation that would require SROs to have working phone jacks in rooms and grab bars in bathrooms. Stephen Tennis, a resident of a SRO hotel in the Tenderloin explained the need for working phone jacks so that seniors can access low-cost phone service. “Many seniors are isolated in their hotels and having access to a phone is the only way for them to communicate with the outside world or to call a doctor or emergency services.”
San Francisco has the nation's strongest housing code enforcement laws, but due process requires that landlords get some time to fix problems. And this can result in a hotel being constantly cited, and abating the violations before the city sues them.
It is common practice throughout San Francisco for agencies receiving city funds for short-term placements (like the HOT progam) to place clients into privately run SRO hotels that are below standard, have pest infestations or are not safe or accessible for seniors or people with disabilities.
“We are asking for contracts between city departments and agencies to require minimum standards of habitability for SRO units that are being subsidized with city funds. This additional contract language would give private hotel owners looking to fill SRO units with clients from agencies the incentive to keep their buildings up to code, clean and safe,” said Joyce Lam from the SRO Families United Collaborative.
Seniors and people with disabilities have particular needs that cannot always be met by typical SRO housing. For example, many SROs do not have working elevators or any elevator at all, making it difficult for many to even leave their units to take care of their basic needs, and creating extreme danger in case of a disaster.
There is also a need for access to nutritious food and the ability to prepare ones own food. Most SROs do not have shared kitchens and people with particular dietary needs are not able to prepare their own food and often lack the financial resources to meet their health needs.
The hearing focused on the need to take action to ensure that seniors and people with disabilities have adequate living conditions in SRO hotels. Supervisor Jane Kim concluded the hearing by saying, “Now that we have the report before us, there are some clear next steps we can take.”
Raising awareness of the problems in SROs on Monday was a good start, but success of the hearing will be seen in timely implementation of the recommendations in the report.
As said by SRO tenant Rick Chavez, “I may be living in this SRO for the rest of my life, and I deserve a home that is free of bedbugs and mice, has grab bars to keep me from falling, has a working phone jack to connect me to the outside world, and is a place where I can feel safe.”
Sari Bilick is a Community Organizer at the Central City SRO Collaborative.