Peskin Protects SRO’s as Planning Commission Rejects Conversions

by Randy Shaw and Rio Scharf on December 8, 2016

CCDC and SRO tenants citywide rally in front of Hotel Des Artes, which later withdrew its conversion application.

SRO Tenants Celebrate, Mobilize

Six SRO’s withdrew their conversion application in the wake of strong opposition by the San Francisco Planning Commission.  This represents a major victory for SRO tenants and their allies,  sending a powerful message of Planning Commission support for protecting  SRO housing.

The conversion applications have been moving forward for years, and represented the biggest threat in decades to San Francisco’s landmark San Francisco Residential Hotel Unit Conversion and Demolition Ordinance (hereafter “the HCO’). San Francisco enacted the HCO after the Planning Department found that 6098 SRO units had been lost from 1975-1979 alone. The Board of Supervisors found “there is a severe shortage of decent, safe, sanitary and affordable rental housing” in San Francisco, and that it most impacts “the elderly, disabled and low-income persons.” Many of these groups “reside in residential hotel units.”

For the background and legal deficiencies of these conversion applications,  see our earlier story, “SF SRO’s at Risk.”

Tenants Mobilize and Peskin Moves Forward

On the day prior to the planned Planning Commission hearing the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) organized a protest at the Hotel Des Artes, 447 Bush. The Des Artes has a majority of residential designated units but was recently purchased by a tour operator who prefers renting exclusively to tourists. The Des Artes was one of the six applicants seeking to convert their units without complying with the HCO.

At the rally, tenants from the Tenderloin joined their Chinatown allies in speaking out against this attempt to subvert city law. As has happened since the days of the International Hotel, these attempts to eliminate SRO housing have united tenants across neighborhoods.

Standing in the rain outside of the hotel, SOMA tenant Randall Sloan said, “these residential hotels have saved my life and I’m ready to oppose any proposal that weakens their protections.” At an earlier meeting to mobilize for the Planning Commission Mission tenant Cynthia Crenshaw said, “With so many people facing homelessness, we cannot stand by while more affordable units are taken off the market.”

The Hotel Des Artes is in Aaron Peskin’s supervisor district. Peskin was a staunch SRO advocate during his prior tenure on the Board and has been closely following these conversion applications almost from the day he returned to office.

Peskin has felt for months that SRO’s should not ever again have to face the risks posed by the recent conversion applications. On December 6, he introduced new legislation to strengthen the HCO and greatly expand residential housing opportunities amidst our current housing crisis. Peskin’s proposed legislation enhances the law in a number of ways.

First, the new law requires owners to prove that they have invested enough money into replacement units to actually be responsible for their having been built. This more clearly restates existing law and would have automatically caused the denial of the six conversion applications.

Second, the measure explicitly prohibits the renting of residential SRO rooms to tourists on a weekly basis. Though the HCO has long barred residential rooms from being rented to tourists by the week, SRO owners claimed that they could not be punished for renting weekly to someone from Paris or Copenhagen because they were told the person “was intending on moving to San Francisco.”

In other words, proof problems and questions of intent hampered enforcement of seven day tourist rentals. Weekly rentals to tourists have played havoc with the city’s residential SRO stock, and the Hotel Des Artes—site of the protest– is among the worst offenders.

Peskin’s measure bans the renting of residential rooms for less than thirty days. This will immediately restore hundreds of housing units to the residential market. It is probably the single most pro-housing piece of legislation San Francisco could pass in 2017.

Third, Peskin’s new HCO amendments increase the fines and enhance the reporting requirements for SRO owners. The Ordinance has not been updated in over twenty years, so the fines for violations are not currently high enough to deter unlawful actions. If approved, these amendments will increase the fines and more effectively discourage SRO owners from ignoring the law.

Peskin spent months working with the City Attorney’s office and the Department of Building Inspection to fine tune the legislation, and it will be heard at the Board in January. SRO tenants will be out in force to support passage.

Planning’s Critical Role

As SRO tenants celebrate their victory and begin organizing to support Peskin’s legislation, we must acknowledge the key role played by  the Planning Department in this positive outcome. The staff recommended denial of the applications, and saw through the applicant’s arguments from the start.

Most importantly, Planning Commissioners steadfastly supported protecting SRO’s as a vital housing resource. I was told a couple of months ago that hotel lobbyist Alex Tourk was bragging that he “had the votes” on the Commission to win this vote; he must not have been talking to current Commissioners.

Not all past Planning Commissions have seen SRO’s positively, yet this Commission clearly did. Mayor Lee, Board President London Breed, and former Board President David Chiu deserve credit for appointing commissioners who recognize that protecting SROs must be a top city priority.

The rejection of these conversion applications combined with Peskin’s legislation means that by the end of 2017 San Francisco will have significantly added to its available SRO housing supply for low income working people. And it will have done so through preservation and enforcement, without spending public funds.

That’s something to cheer in a holiday season lacking much good news.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Rio Scharf is an organizer with the Central City SRO Collaborative.







Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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