SRO Tenants Build Stronger Neighborhoods

by Randy Shaw on August 12, 2013

After the San Francisco Chronicle described longterm SRO tenants as representing a “failure” of supportive housing,” I noted that, to the contrary, many actively work to improve their buildings and neighborhoods. But many people share the false stereotype of SRO tenants panhandling, pushing shopping carts, and creating a market for public drug sales. To be clear, some SRO tenants do engage in activities that hurt neighborhoods. But they tend to be transient residents of poorly run privately managed SRO’s, not tenants of supportive housing. This distinction is critical: when from 1982-1989 the city spent tens of millions of dollars on a “hotline hotel” program that drove longterm SRO tenants from their homes and replaced them with short-term transients, the program wrecked buildings and destroyed neighborhoods.

But the history of longterm SRO tenants. many of whom live in supportive housing, is very different. They have long been the driving force for improving the city’s SRO neighborhoods, which include Chinatown, the Mission, the Tenderloin and Sixth Street. While these tenants are at public hearings pushing for pedestrian safety, more police, and public improvements, irresponsible property owners stay on the sidelines. These property owners have long been a chief cause of problems in low-income neighborhoods and the biggest obstacles to improvement —yet they are rarely blamed by the Chronicle and other critics of SRO tenants.

I have never heard more negative reaction from SRO tenants to any media story than to the August 3 Chronicle article that described longterm supportive housing tenants as “failures” for not “exiting” their homes (the story is linked above but the paper requires non-subscribers to pay to read it. SRO tenants read it because it was copied for them). Starting today, SRO tenants will be expressing their own views in our pages, but I want to focus on the profoundly erroneous view many have toward how SROs impact neighborhoods.

SRO Tenants Drive Neighborhood Improvement

Since at least the 1980’s, SRO tenants in Chinatown, the Tenderloin, and Sixth Street have led efforts for increased pedestrian safety, reduced crime, and for healthier and safer neighborhoods. These are the people you see advocating for neighborhood improvements at public hearings, and who push city officials to get the job done.

Chinatown likely would not exist today had SRO tenants not defeated plans to demolish the neighborhood and replace it with highrise office developments. Similarly, when the Tenderloin’s future was at risk from tourist and office development in the 1980’s, longterm SRO tenants mobilized to protect the neighborhood.

When urban renewal threatened SOMA in the 1960s and 70s, SRO tenants also led the resistance. Their homes were demolished to create Yerba Buena Center, Moscone Convention Center, and the rest of now-upscale SOMA, but they won major affordable housing mitigations and fought to the very end.

While the Mission has fewer SRO’s, its tenants have also worked to improve
neighborhood living conditions. Former D6 Supervisor Chris Daly got his start organizing SRO tenants in the Mission (he was a co-founder of Mission Agenda).

For decades, when the Board of Supervisors is addressing pedestrian safety, crime, and other neighborhood issues, longterm SRO tenants in these four neighborhoods greatly outnumber all other constituencies. But for their presence and advocacy, improvements in these communities would often not occur. Some SRO tenants are a frequent presence at City Hall: the late Jazzie Collins likely testified at more public hearings on these issues regarding SOMA in the past decade than all property owners combined.

Refuting Anti-SRO Stereotypes

But despite SRO tenants demonstrated record of civic engagement, negative stereotypes persist. The biggest may be that SRO tenants create a market for public drug dealing. Many people believe that public drug dealing is located in the Tenderloin and along Sixth Street and 16th Street because SRO tenants are the chief customers.

But considering that the Care Not Cash participants who populate many supportive hotels have less than $75 in total cash per month to spend, they could not possibly support an ongoing street drug trade. And while SSI recipients in supportive housing have on average $400-$500 per month to spend, they must cover all of their food costs with this slim amount.

Drug dealers set up shop in areas like lower Turk, the Golden Gate and Hyde Post Office, and the 16th Street BART station for one reason: they are allowed to do business there. If the SFPD wanted to invest the resources to close down these drug supermarkets, they would be gone. And if these dealers tried to set up shop in the Upper Filmore, along Union Street, or on 24th Street in Noe Valley— whose upscale residents also use drugs and have a lot more disposable income than SRO residents—the police would arrest them within an hour.

SRO residents have led the fight to stop public drug dealing in areas like the Tenderloin. But those battling drug dealing are not the SRO tenants profiled in the SF Chronicle.

Ignoring Irresponsible Property Owners

Another false stereotype is that property owners—and certainly not SRO tenants!— care the most about improving neighborhoods. This is said to be true because they have a financial investment in the community. But San Francisco’s SRO neighborhoods refute this. Their properties rise in value despite surrounding problems, enabling many owners to profit while doing nothing for the community.

In March 2012, (“Overcoming Mid-Market’s Owner-Caused Blight”) I discussed a number of these owners and their blighted properties. And the fact is that it is new owners—-such as the Shorenstein Company whose purchase of the former SF Furniture Mart made Twitter’s relocation possible— who are fueling Mid-Market’s revival. But for new property ownership in Mid-Market, its resurgence does not occur.

The Tenderloin has been beset by negligent owners in critical locations, like the Warfield Hotel at Turk and Taylor and the former United Artist building at Golden Gate and Leavenworth. And one reason that lower Turk is the area’s worst block is that owners of properties on the south side have allowed the entire block’s retail spaces to be vacant (a problem that will change with Group One’s purchase of 950-970 Market). These derelict or poorly managed properties provide havens for drug dealing while preventing positive businesses from occupying the space.

Yet you won’t read about property owner responsibility for problems in SRO neighborhoods, as the media shifts blame to the low-income population victimized by owner neglect.

As with Mid-Market, the Tenderloin’s chief challenge is not with its SRO population, but rather with attracting new owners, investors and small businesses that will join with SRO tenants in working to improve the neighborhood.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Beyond Chron has a response to the Chronicle story by a Mission Hotel tenant in today’s edition, and will have a longer story on the real lives of supportive housing tenants later this week.

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