SF Business Times Attacks the Poor

by on March 13, 2015

TNDC's majestic Ambassador Hotel

According to the March 6 SF Business Times, San Francisco’s SRO hotels are “typically old buildings of questionable safety, usually in poor repair, sometimes vermin-infested, often willing enablers for the urban pathologies that accompany extreme poverty.” Its lead editorial asks us to “ponder why SRO’s are now rare in many other cities—but cherished as an ongoing necessity in ours.”

I value the SF Business Times as a news source, ignoring its strident editorials opposing tenant protection laws. But the paper’s attack on SROs is really an attack on the low-income people who live in them.

And silence in the face of this class war against the poor is not possible when the SF Biz Times demonstrates such profound ignorance in editorializing on the issue.

The Quality of SROs

The editorial is right on one point: SROs are “typically old buildings,” with most built between 1907 and1930. But old buildings are hardly a negative in San Francisco, as the steep prices for 19th century Victorians attest.

The editorial’s other claims are false. SROs are not of “questionable safety.” As I have recently written about the lack of SRO fires in contrast to the wave of those hitting apartments, SRO tenants are far less at risk of fires than apartment dwellers.

Nor are SROs “usually in poor repair.” San Francisco’s SRO housing stock is in better condition today than at any time since the 1940’s if not earlier. SROs are inspected more often than any other form of housing, and a significant percentage are owned or run by nonprofit groups.

It’s obvious that Biz Times editors have never walked down Eddy Street and entered the many beautiful, ornate SROs found there. This area includes the Verona, Cadillac, Marlton Manor, Alexander, Empress, and Ambassador are some of the well maintained buildings of great architectural distinction. Tthis single stretch of SROs alone undermines the Business Times’ false depiction of such housing.

In recent years the number of SRO’s “in poor repair” has steadily declined. The vast majority of cases at DBI Director’s Hearings for housing code violations involve apartments. Yet you do not see the SF Business Times disparaging apartments or  tenants living in apartments for the wrongs of bad apartment owners.

The “Pathological” Poor

What appears to most upset the Biz Times is clear from its claim that SROs are “often willing enablers for the urban pathologies that accompany extreme poverty.” As a publication that routinely touts the lavish salaries of tech CEO’s and the multi-million dollar lifestyles of the super-rich, the Biz Times certainly is familiar with “urban pathologies.”

Yet what the paper is really saying is that low-income SRO tenants are bad for San Francisco. That’s why they don’t understand why SROs have been highly valued by  San Francisco’s political leaders, and why their hope that SROs should become “socially unnecessary” is so foolhardy.

If the editors of the SF Business Times applied the factual standards it uses for business coverage to SROs and SRO tenants, it would quickly learn what most San Franciscans already know. Namely, that in the three neighborhoods where SROs are most common — Chinatown, Sixth Street and the Tenderloin —SRO tenants have played a leading role in nearly all community improvement efforts.

Who leads the fight for pedestrian safety in these neighborhoods? SRO tenants. Who is most likely to be at City Hall pushing for greater resources for these communities? SRO tenants.

It was Tenderloin SRO tenants who led the drive and succeeded in the remarkable transformation of the first block of Turk Street. And SRO tenants outnumbered all other demographics in attending the recent public hearing on police redistricting.

Until recently  SRO tenants were often the only Tenderloin stakeholders pushing to reduce crime and improve the neighborhood’s quality of life. Had the Biz Times editors talked to any of the tech or business folks involved with the Tenderloin they would have quickly learned how much they recognize and appreciate what SRO tenants are doing for the neighborhood.

What is really “pathological” here is that editors of a major San Francisco newspaper would publicly disparage the many thousands of seniors, disabled persons, low-income working people and the unemployed who live in SROs. Such a perspective is hardly unique in San Francisco, but one expects more from newspaper editors than to echo the poor people bashing found on online comment lines.

A Challenge

I am hardly an unbiased person in this debate, having devoted over three decades to preserving and improving the city’s SRO housing stock. The organization I head, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, leases and operates 17 SROs.

Believing that facts are the best cure to editorial pathologies, I challenge and invite the Biz Times editorial writer to join me on a tour of some of the above Eddy Street SROs so they can offer readers a more accurate perspective. I can certainly arrange with Chinatown groups to give a similar tour if desired.

In my experience, people who hear all the horror stories about SROs are routinely and pleasantly surprised when they visit them. The media rarely does stories on well-maintained SROs, so much of the public only hears the negatives.

Does that mean that there are not rundown SROs? Of course not. But there are even more rundown apartments whose decrepit condition is associated with landlord neglect, not residents’ “urban pathologies.”

Among the stories told in the soon to open Tenderloin Museum is how SROs played an historic role in fostering women’s independence and in promoting neighborhood activism. It is a story the SF Business Times should know, and will hopefully convey to its readers in the months ahead.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He has written about SRO tenants in The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century and explores their historic contributions in the Tenderloin in his soon to be released book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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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