SRO Tenants Still Face Major Visitation Problems

by Allen White on March 2, 2005

Visiting someone living in San Francisco’s SRO hotels, you would think, shouldn’t be too complicated. In fact, San Francisco’s Rent Board created a policy and had the details printed on huge posters. They will tell you each hotel has posted them to eliminate any confusion. The policy is amazingly simple. As you enter, the visitor gives their personal identification to the manager, gets a receipt and enters. When they leave, they collect their id and they are on their way. By chance, should the manager misplace or lose the id, they have 12 hours to either find and return it or, failing that, immediately give the visitor $75 in cash.

Sound simple? That’s what I thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I learned this San Francisco Rent Board visitor’s policy is a blueprint for identity theft. Through their incompetence, implementation of this policy creates serious and painful consequences for visitors and tenants alike.

Last Wednesday afternoon, I followed the Rent Board’s plan. I gave my driver’s license to a hotel manager on my way to visit a friend. Thirty minutes later as I left I asked for it back.

My ID was gone, they said they never had it, and asked me to leave. Thus began a journey through bureaucratic hell.

First, I called the Rent Board to learn what I should do – my first mistake. The fact is the Rent Board staff couldn’t locate a copy of the policy. All they could suggest was filing a police report and waiting to collect my $75 if it wasn’t found. I went to the Tenderloin Police Station. Like the Rent Board they too couldn’t find a copy of the SRO Visitor’s Policy. They did, however, take a report.

The next day, my identification seemed long gone. About noon, however, pressure began to mount at the hotel. Pressure where practical solutions take precedence over courtesy. Those who knew the thief’s identity acted and offers which couldn’t be refused were made.

The ID was returned, I was called and they said let’s call the whole thing off. An option I offered to accept after I receiving my 75 bucks. Was I dreaming?

I persisted, calling police and waiting for their arrival. The call was made at 7:05 Thursday night. Visitors, I learned, have no standing before the Rent Board and they fare not much better with police. Three hours later, I left.

The weather was getting as cold as the treatment I received from the cops. Checking a final time at the Tenderloin Police Station produced several interesting comments. Most significant was their failure to assist me was prompted by the station’s lack of any copies of the law they would have to enforce.

The next day the SRO Collaborative delivered the policy to police. Finally, with copies of the law, and almost two days of hassles, police entered the SRO hotel ready to take action.

With police assistance my only option to receive the $75, an amount the law stated I should have received a full day earlier, was to make a citizen’s arrest.

And so it began. Arriving at the hotel, a San Francisco Police officer carefully and methodically explained the options to the hotel manager. It was simple…pay the money or be cited. He was determined not to pay the money. With that the citation was to be written.

Then came the clincher. When asked for ID, the hotel manager proclaimed he couldn’t be given a citation. The reason..he had no identification. That was his big mistake!

With that, his options changed dramatically. The new choice was to be arrested, be taken to the Hall of Justice and sit in jail while his identity could be determined. Or..pay me my 75 bucks and let me get on with my life.

In less than five minutes I had my $75, I finally had my driver’s license returned and I learned, first hand, the wide gap San Francisco’s Rent Board has created between reality and respect for thousands of San Franciscans. This ridiculous policy of demanding control over other people’s personal identification takes place while identity theft reaches epidemic proportions across the nation.

We empower people lacking any form of identification, some not even employees of these hotels, to take control of people’s most highly private documents. A person who visits another’s home forfeits any ability to stop the person who would copy or sell this information. Rarely is the $75 paid and even so, it’s a cheap price to gain possession of a valid California driver’s license.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Operators of many of San Francisco’s SRO facilities long ago discovered the flaws of the policy. Today, the major operators of SRO hotels, including the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, no longer require surrender of an ID. They know possession of these ids has no substantial benefit. Loss, on the other hand, sets off problems which disrupt their business and people’s lives. Making matters worse is a scam devised to switch the ids and force $75 payoffs.

The problems relating to this policy are not new to the Rent Board members. Ironically, just three months ago the Rent Board had a public hearing to review and address the issues of visitors to San Francisco’s SRO hotels. They listened to speaker after speaker, almost four dozen, plead for these residences to become a home, not a glorified replication of a prison lockdown.

If there is a tragedy on the streets of San Francisco, it is pathetically matched by those who sit on the Rent Board of our city. They should know better and their abdication of their responsibility to the people of San Francisco should be a source of shame.

Rent Board members could have addressed and eliminated this travesty months ago. They didn’t. They have failed to understand the many changes now taking place in San Francisco.

Hope and dignity are now real for many people. Solutions to homelessness are much easier achieved when second-class citizenship is replaced with dignity and respect.

Because the Rent Board has failed to act, I have recently asked Supervisor Chris Daly to immediately review and take swift action to revise the San Francisco SRO Residential Visitor’s Policy.

* No longer should anyone be required to surrender his or her personal identification.

* No longer should these hotels be allowed to operate with no posting of the current visitor policies.

* No longer should people who lack verifiable identification be allowed access to information on another’s identification, even if it is only to fill a logbook.

* And finally, for those few operators of these facilities who have no respect for their customers, penalties must finally be put in place to deter them breaking the law.

In a day when we are seeing the paradigm of caring for people change so dramatically, there should be little patience, or tolerance, for those who fail to simply be decent human beings.

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