Photo via Flickr user Peretz Partensky
This is the first in a four-part series on housing the substantial homeless population in San Francisco, featuring stories from the people living on the margins of life in one of America's richest cities.
San Francisco’s SROs (single room occupancy housing) once used to function as low-cost dormitory-style apartments for the city’s artists, students, transient workers, fresh immigrants, and bachelors. Those newly arrived and/or down on their luck were at least able to maintain some acceptable standard of living.
But the start of the housing crisis in the mid-70s demolished or repurposed at least 9,000 of these long-stay units into expensive apartments and office buildings, relegating the remaining SROs to serve as government-sponsored housing for about 30,000 of the city’s poorest residents; those who are chronically homeless but stable enough fulfill the bare minimum requirements for welfare. In 1970, Justin Herman, the executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency said of the SRO-studded SoMa neighborhood, “This land is too valuable to permit poor people to park on it," echoing the political sentiments that have lead the city to its current crisis in housing the poor.
Today, SRO owners manage to stay viable within the city’s ballooning real estate bubble by offering rent prices equal to a low-income tenant’s federal SSI stipend, around $700 to $1,200 a month, while minimizing responsibility for problems such as bedbugs and mice, electrical malfunctions, dirty bathrooms and kitchens, harassment among residents and from staff, as well as a lack of heat, plumbing, fire safety, maintenance, and repairs. Most tenants are too intimidated to complain because the threat of eviction is so high for such in-demand housing, and their landlords couldn’t be happier to oust tenants from their rent-controlled units.
Photo via Flickr user Mark Coggins
Of the roughly 500 SROs still standing—containing some 19,000 units peppered throughout Chinatown, the Mission, SoMa, and the Tenderloin—over 8,000 residents are adults and seniors with disabilities; short on income, housing alternatives, work opportunities, and adequate ADA accessibility as required by law. A San Francisco Human Services Agency survey of 151 residents found that over half had no access to a kitchen, and as a result, had skipped meals from a lack of resources. Additionally, elevators in these old buildings are often semi-functional or consistently broken, forcing seniors and those with disabilities to either take the stairs or stay trapped in their rooms.
Living in an SRO often places you either one step out of homelessness, or one step away from it; its rooms often occupied via shelter recommendation or caseworker placement. Tenants are a combination of permanent residents with no reason to leave, and unstable temporary assignments, kicked from one building to another. I wanted to know what it was like.
Photo via Wolfgang Ante
Visiting at an SRO requires you to hand over your ID and sign in before being collected by your tenant. Some have multiple gates to be buzzed through before entering the building, or even reaching the front desk. In a way, it felt like a sexless conjugal visit. Many of these hotels have massive dilapidated marquees over the entrance, reminiscent of 70s porno theater signboards. The rest are tucked away in back-alleys, their entrances surrounded by people "waiting for a friend." As I did the same, a woman with dirty, blonde hair shouted in my ear that she’d murdered her husband in 1998, and asked if I could please help her out. I couldn’t bring myself to make eye contact, but I looked down at her thin, torn up arms just as the entrance door buzzed.
The front desk reminded me of medical marijuana dispensary waiting room. A security camera sat at eye level, inches from my face as I waited for the gum-chewing desk clerk to slide a sign-in sheet beneath the inches thick Plexiglas divider. I raised my camera to take a photo, and the clerk promptly snatched the clipboard away, warning that if I took any pictures outside of the tenant’s room, then both he and I could be thrown out. While I waited for my first interview to meet me downstairs, the clerk eyed me as she made a call I couldn’t hear through the divider. After what felt like an itchy eternity, my man came down and I was allowed into the main building.
The hallways and stairwells were much narrower than I was used to, and looked overly thick with bright yellow paint, as though you could press a fingernail in and leave a soft dent. I realized this was probably because it must be easier to paint over blood and dirt than it is to clean them off.
The small elevator was the type with a sliding metal grate you had to pull by hand, and on the wall was a notice to residents saying that Management had received their complaints about the lack of an elevator permit, and that because the paperwork had been in process for the past three years, they were under no obligation to service said elevator.
There was also a warning prohibiting more than two people inside at one time. The air smelled thick with weed and rubbing alcohol, and it appeared that none of the windows up here were open. I started to get dizzy and I was relieved to finally make it into the first room.
Next week, we meet the residents of San Francisco's SROs, and learn how they manage to survive.
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