Ralowe Ampu never expected to see her neighbor's body splayed out on the floor of the entrance to her housing complex. "Everyone was shocked," she said. "The way the EMTs were handling the body bag, and the management was just letting it happen - it was like they were taking out the trash."
For Ampu, the situation represents the way poor and marginalized people in San Francisco are treated amid growing inequality and gentrification: as garbage, refuse to be thrown away and forgotten.
SRO rooms at the Altamont typically measure about 11 by 14 feet, barely larger than the size of a prison cell. Bathroom and kitchens are shared, as in a dorm or a prison itself.
Ampu lives at the Altamont Hotel in San Francisco's Mission District, a "single-room occupancy" hotel, or SRO, where rooms are primarily rented out long-term to low-income residents who pay rent that is partially subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The hotel exclusively houses people like her: people who couldn't otherwise afford to live in a city where wealth inequality is on par with Rwanda's.
SRO rooms at the Altamont typically measure about 11 by 14 feet, barely larger than the size of a prison cell. Bathroom and kitchens are shared, as in a dorm or a prison itself. Ampu is not allowed to have more than two guests in her room at a time, and there are no guests after 10 pm unless they've already provided ID to a desk clerk who surveils the place 24/7. According to the Altamont's rules, Ampu's girlfriend Craig can sleep over just 10 nights out of the month. These rules are typical of subsidized SROs in the city.
Like most SROs in the Mission, the Altamont has a history of bedbugs. According to the Mission SRO Collaborative's last survey in 2009, the number's nearly 75 percent. There's a history of having roaches, too. "They're in the microwaves, they're in the elevator," said Ampu, whose floor is currently bedbug free, but not roach free.
In contrast to the homogeneity and wealth of mostly white males of the tech industry's gentrification, occupants of SROs are largely comprised of marginalized people at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, including many queer, trans and people of color. Ampu's story is echoed in the countless experiences of SRO tenants dealing with the same problems of housing insecurity.
"A lot of undocumented people live in the hotels," Sanyika Bryant, a housing counselor with the Mission District-based group Causa Justa/Just Cause, told Truthout. "There are also families that live in the hotels. You have people in there with four or five kids, mother and father living in the hotel."
SRO residents both inside and outside their homes exist in a constant state of surveillance.
And San Francisco would certainly be less of a gay mecca without affordable housing. "There are a lot of queer people that live in the SROs who've been alienated from their families because they haven't had access to the safety net and support," Bryant said.
With social services diminishing in the city due to gentrification (victims since the Great Recession "recovery" include a queer and transgender mental health nonprofit, a homeless youth drop-in center, and a recycling center that provided poor people with a source of income), residents squabble over weekly deliveries from the food bank and face constant harassment from police, with whom SRO managers actively collude.
But take a 10-minute walk outside the Altamont's heavy glass doors, and you could be standing in front of a multimillion-dollar house owned by the likes of new arrivals such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google executive Jack Halprin, who is currently using the Ellis Act (a California state law that landlords have been abusing to evict tenants for no fault of their own) to empty out seven units in the Victorian building he recently purchased in the Mission. Gentrification has brought more police into the area as well. What once was a heavily utilized public transit plaza for SRO residents in the heart of the Mission has been emptied, thanks to a continual police presence. SRO residents both inside and outside their homes exist in a constant state of surveillance.
"People in SRO hotels are heavily, heavily criminalized," Bryant said. "So there's all kinds of scandals that happen over hotels. Police will access people's rooms without warrant[s]. Things like that."
It's not a living situation most people residing in one of the wealthiest regions of the country would put up with. But then again most SRO inhabitants don't have a choice in the matter.
As Bryant said, SROs are "pretty much one of the last places or last resorts people have before they go homeless."
A Legacy of Activism
There are over 500 SROs in San Francisco, and many have been around since the 1800s, where they originally served as housing for immigrant workers. The Mission SRO Collaborative is an organization that has helped to keep the history of SROs from disappearing.
Charlie Fredrick, a one-time Collaborative member who has been involved in preserving that history, talked about how housing rights advocates championed SROs in the 1970s. When San Francisco, like other urban centers, began a period of redevelopment to clear out blighted buildings near the city's core, residents led a counter-wave of lively activism, recognizing the uneven nature of "urban renewal" efforts, which pushed out African-Americans in the Fillmore neighborhood and Filipino Manongs in Manilatown.
Because SROs are one of the most affordable housing options available, they are also easily exploited by nonprofits and property management companies capitalizing on the many government subsidies for SRO maintenance.
As the city closed and demolished many of its SROs, the International Hotel - which housed almost 150 low-income Chinese and Filipino seniors - became a symbol for the war between real estate interests and activists. Years of protest eventually sparked a court battle over whether city funds should go to buying the "I"-Hotel and handing it over to tenants groups, with the seniors being publicly supported by a range of high-profile left activist groups, including Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, the Third World Liberation Front and the Weathermen. Ultimately, the tenants of the "I"-Hotel lost the fight. In January 1977, as police came to escort out the last of its residents, about 5,000 protesters surrounded the SRO and refused to leave. But by August 1977, the building was emptied and later demolished.
That same decade, the city was ablaze, literally, with SRO fires. Eleven arson fires burned up an eight-block radius in the Mission District; in some cases, landlords were charged with hiring arsonists as an easier way to remove tenants without a legal fight so they could get higher-paying tenants in. Other fires were the result of neglect by property managers. The Mission SRO Collaborative was initially formed to educate SRO residents on what they could do to avoid future infernos.
These battles of the 1970s resulted in unprecedented protections against real estate speculation and stronger tenants' rights. An ordinance enacted in 1981 restricts demolishing or converting SROs into tourist hotels, thus protecting this vital supply of low-income housing.
Yet because SROs are one of the most affordable housing options available, they are also easily exploited by nonprofits and property management companies capitalizing on the many government subsidies for SRO maintenance.
The Worst Offenders
Landlord arson is far from the top of the list when it comes to troubles facing the 30,000 or so SRO tenants living in San Francisco today. "There's just a lot going down in these hotels, a lot that's kept hidden. Usually when things are kept hidden, you're allowed to get away with all kinds of abuse," Bryant told Truthout.
Neglect is the most pervasive of problems, and it often takes a court case to get property owners to change. The Thakors, a family that controls about a dozen SROs throughout central San Francisco, have been sued more than 100 times by residents and the city for charges including tenant harassment and exploiting public funding for low-income housing. According to one of the most recent lawsuits brought earlier this year by San Francisco's district attorney, "The Thakors used a practice called 'musical rooms' to force tenants to vacate their rooms before accumulating 30 consecutive days of residency, which would qualify tenants for rent control and legal protection from certain types of eviction."
"There's a real big attitude, which is you're better having housing than not. So if you stir stuff up, or there's prominent issues and you bring them to management, you could lose your housing."
Earlier this year, Tony Robles, an organizer with Senior and Disability Action, a housing rights organization based in the city's South of Market neighborhood, told New America Media that the fight for better conditions is "a fight against isolation." In particular, he spoke of one SRO-dweller who was trapped in her building for three weeks because the elevator was broken. In 2012, a group of four San Francisco nonprofits released a study of SROs, which found that as many as half of SRO residents lived in buildings where there was no elevator, or one that wasn't always accessible because it wasn't always working. This, in a city where most SRO buildings rise several stories above ground.
"Many cited concerns about falling on the stairs or in the shower . . . When asked 'Do you feel safe in your building?' only 56 percent of survey respondents said yes," Robles' colleagues found in their report.
In another ongoing case, long-term residents of an SRO in the Tenderloin district filed a class-action lawsuit against the home subletting website Airbnb, which has been used to rent out some of the other rooms at the hotel. The long-termers are worried, as are activists, that landlords will begin phasing out regular tenants in favor of more lucrative short-term tourists who can afford to pay a couple hundred dollars per night for accommodations.
Another notorious landlord, Edward Litke, (recent net worth: $40 million) also owns multiple SRO properties in the city. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a grassroots data visualization project, is specifically targeting one of Litke's SROs in the Mission District for being recently made over as a dorm for high-paid, young tech workers, "flaunting" city regulations as it remains on the city's books as an SRO.
Why don't people demand better of the landlords and management companies that often collect more than $1,000 in rent each month? Peter J. Sampson, an SRO resident who lives down the street from Ampu, explained: "There's a real big attitude, which is you're better having housing than not. So if you stir stuff up, or there's prominent issues and you bring them to management, you could lose your housing." Like undocumented tenants facing threats of deportation, or the countless coercive "buyout" offers to tenants to vacate rent-controlled units, seeking help or finding the will to fight back is difficult.
Charlie Fredrick, the former Mission SRO Collaborative activist, said landlords often exploit residents' immigration status or disabilities to keep them from complaining to the city.
"The big problem is the private SRO owners. And that's where you have the really marginal and fucked-up living situations, where the wires are so old the power goes out all the time, and you can't run the heater; they're traps - filthy, and horrible."
Ampu's different. She complains to management - often. She even wrote an essay about it for an anthology dealing with state surveillance of low-income queer people, Captive Genders. But for most SRO residents, problems often go unresolved. "You have people who don't care about this place trying to do a job that says that they do," Ampu said, pointing to negligent and exploitative owners and management companies that run SROs.
"They are truly taking advantage of people not knowing their rights," added Causa Justa/Just Cause's Bryant.
Truthout spoke to Sam Moss, the executive director of Mission Housing Development Corporation (MHDC), the nonprofit that runs Ampu's SRO. MHDC owns and operates a number of SROs and other housing developments, and purports on its website to be a "community based organization which creates and preserves high-quality affordable housing for residents of low and moderate incomes in the Mission District." In reality, though, MHDC is run in many ways like a for-profit company, and actually has a for-profit arm called Caritas Corporation that receives city money to manage its properties.
Moss himself hails from the private sector, and apparently doesn't have a lot of direct contact with MHDC tenants. "I have witnessed our director of tenant services take calls on her cell phone from SRO tenants," he said, speaking proudly of his organization's work. "That kind of accessibility is a privilege." There are no tenants on MHDC's board, and most staff don't live in the neighborhood.
Given the budget constraints that nonprofit companies like MHDC operate under to manage these SROs, Moss said conditions are as good as they can be. "You see a doubling of your budget for code upgrades because of the age of the building. These are buildings that have gone through two earthquakes," he said.
"It would be nice if everyone had a money tree in their backyard but we don't. I believe that [MHDC] is doing absolutely everything that it can. It's just really difficult to keep going."
But James Chionsini Jr., a social worker who used to organize with the Coalition on Homelessness, said more could and needed to be done by nonprofits like MHDC and the city. "The big problem is the private SRO owners. And that's where you have the really marginal and fucked-up living situations, where the wires are so old the power goes out all the time, and you can't run the heater; they're traps - filthy, and horrible." As for code enforcement by the city, Chionsini said, "There's like five or four code enforcers to cover all the hotels in the city. It's impossible for them to do anything, really."
A code enforcer who spoke with Truthout on the assurance of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation said that most landlords he deals with find neglecting their buildings, measured against the risk of citations and court fees, a worthwhile gamble. "It's a specific practice: not fixing anything, and just collecting the rents. The city has even gone after specific bad, bad landlords - just bad people - and courts will force them to sell their buildings, and [the same problems persist at their other properties]."
The code enforcer told a hypothetical story of a typical management company in San Francisco:
Say you're a master lessor [or management company] and pay $20,000 per month [to lease an SRO building], but then you collect $80- to $100,000 per month in rents that you get to keep because you're paying $20,000 to the owner, and somebody wants you to fix X, Y and Z. You're going to be like, "That cuts into my profits."
When asked about the city's housing crisis, Moss cited new housing coming on to the market as a solution. A recent study, however, has challenged the notion that higher supply will quell extremely high demand, which activists have outed as a solution that mainly benefits real estate developers.
Moss' predecessor, Larry Del Carlo, left the nonprofit in December 2013, and now consults for Maximus Real Estate Partners, a company planning to develop luxury housing a block away from Ampu's SRO. Community advocates say it'll further gentrify a neighborhood that is already becoming richer, whiter and techier, but are fighting to see that the space is turned into affordable housing.
And steps away, "There's the Eula Hotel that was just sold," said Bryant, the Causa Justa/Just Cause organizer, noting that all but two of the hotel's tenants were illegally evicted so the building could undergo renovations. "It's close to 16th Street, where Maximus Corporation is doing the development on the plaza." And the Mission District is just one San Francisco neighborhood where displacement is an ever-looming threat.
Mission SRO resident Peter J. Sampson is optimistic about what could happen now that it seems like the housing crisis, and the activism surrounding it, is approaching 1970s levels.
Right now, Sampson says, management views residents as "something that they have to deal with" rather than a resource. "What if one of the things they did was report back to [the] community on what they're doing and solicit feedback from tenants? Treat us like we live in the building, and we know what's going on in the building because we live there," he said.
Every now and again, Sampson hears whispers around his SRO proposing rent strikes: withholding rent money in an account until demands are met.
"We're paying rent. If we do the work to get organized, there's a bunch of stuff - they'll have to deal with it. And we haven't done that," Sampson said.
Land trusts would allow for permanently affordable housing to be established at SROs by allowing tenants to collectively own and manage their building, giving tenants more agency in creating the kind of living environment that they would like to see.
But some recent activism has brought real, physical changes. After the embarrassing report from 2012 exposing the extreme disrepair of SROs throughout the city, social worker James Chionsini reports, happily, that an important accessibility feature - shower handrails - has been installed in all buildings. And elevators are becoming more dependable thanks to a workgroup solely devoted to getting reliable elevators in all SROs.
Other efforts that have gained increased traction in recent years are land trusts and cooperative ownership of land and buildings. Land trusts would allow for permanently affordable housing to be established at SROs by allowing tenants to collectively own and manage their building, giving tenants more agency in creating the kind of living environment that they would like to see. It is already a solution being utilized in San Francisco by other housing rights organizers to save individual buildings from eviction by real estate speculators. Converting SROs into cooperatives under the control of community land trusts would be a starting point for ensuring the city's most vulnerable citizens have secure and stable housing.
Ted Gullicksen headed the San Francisco Tenants Union for years, until his death in October 2014. A local housing rights hero, Gullicksen spoke in simple terms about the need to preserve one of the last places that low-income people have to live.
"One thing that's particularly notable about SRO," he told Truthout a day before his passing, "is that they are the most affordable housing in San Francisco, and rents in SROs have been going up very dramatically. Any pressure on that housing stock needs to be vigilantly fought back."
Some SRO tenants are preparing to fight. There's been no lull in the protests outside the sites of evictions, storming of the businesses of landlords, actions outside of the mayor's home, and proposed local policy changes. SRO tenants have never been better equipped to organize along with the rest of the city. "There's a real opportunity to really open up more space to be creative about what's possible," Sampson said.
This post was written as part of the Educational Policy and Politics course at Gallaudet University, taught by Dr. Christina Yuknis.