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Life inside San Francisco's vanishing Single Room Occupancies (SROs)
July 18, 2014 9:13 AM   Subscribe

There are approximately 530 single resident (or room) occupancy (SRO) hotels in San Francisco. San Francisco has hundreds of SRO hotels that are home to more than 30,000 tenants or approximately 5% of the city, the majority of whom live in low-income neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin and Chinatown. As San Francisco’s cost of living continues to leap upwards and SROs get demolished or converted to condos, many housing activists worry about what will become of the vulnerable SRO population. Life has always been precarious for these residents and far from idyllic in even the best-managed buildings. Here are the stories of six people trying to survive in a city that’s increasingly out of reach.

SROs have been part of San Francisco since July 1977, when the dilapidated, historic Cadillac Hotel was purchased by Leroy Looper to house people getting out of prison. What Looper created at the Cadillac has since become known as “supportive housing.” When Mayor Newsom speaks of “Housing First,” and the idea of providing on-site services is described as a national model, keep in mind that for the West Coast, it all began at the Cadillac Hotel.

A 2009 report from the Human Services Agency (PDF) listed average monthly rent at $500 to $600, but it’s not uncommon for tenants to pay as much as $1,000 for an 8x10 room with no bathroom or kitchen. Still, this is a lot better than the median rate of $3,200 (as of April 2014; source).
posted by filthy light thief (22 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
I knew some people who lived in SROs, and while they were not pretty places, they were homes where those people could put their lives back together. It really is amazing what has happened to SF, especially with the AirBnB / Ellis Act shenanigans that are going on, and what with SB1439 getting dropped things are looking ever more grim.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:21 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


Great post, thank you.
posted by rtha at 9:26 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


Related Yahoo has 48 acres of undeveloped land near Levi's stadium. You could build a lot of housing of 48 acres, but instead they will make it into a parking lot.
posted by humanfont at 10:20 AM on July 18


Sounds like Vancouver.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:25 AM on July 18


As I recall, Google tried to build employee housing at the Googleplex only for Mountain View to put the kibosh on it, so I suspect just hoping Yahoo will build a bunch of housing isn't quite that simple.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:29 AM on July 18 [3 favorites]


God knows, I love SF and the Bay Area, but I know that I would never, under any circumstances, be able to survive in any way in sound mind and body there now.
posted by blucevalo at 11:25 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]



Sounds like Vancouver.

No. Vancouver is more expensive to buy than is SF, but rentals are much cheaper- in fact I'd say it's more expensive to rent in Calgary even though housing (purchase) prices, while incredibly expensive in Calgary, are maybe half of Vancouver's.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 11:33 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


As I recall, Google tried to build employee housing at the Googleplex only for Mountain View to put the kibosh on it, so I suspect just hoping Yahoo will build a bunch of housing isn't quite that simple.

I'd be interested to know more about that. In searching on that topic, I found this article from the Mountain View Voice on a recent (June 2014) public forum on the jobs:housing unbalance in the area, and the article says that Google and LinkedIn are planning major office parks in the area, but there isn't enough land zoned for housing to balance the number of possible jobs. The article also has a graph from Trulia titled "No Expensive Housing Builds Much Housing," which is taken from this article titled Where Buying a Home is Within Reach of the Middle Class. But the take-away for me is not that the market won't support building more residential units, rather that there isn't enough space with current development patterns. Here's a key paragraph:
For America’s most expensive housing markets to become significantly more affordable, they would need either a spectacular drop in demand – a local economic collapse, for example – or a dramatic increase in housing supply. But in these markets, geography and regulations limit new construction. Coastal California, south Florida, and parts of the Northeast are hemmed in by oceans, mountains, or both – unlike large swathes of the Midwest and South. Furthermore, regulations like zoning, onerous approval processes, and high permitting costs hold back construction. It’s complicated to tease out whether geography or regulations matter more because geographically hemmed-in areas also tend to be more heavily regulated (see this academic paper [The Geographic Determinants of Housing Supply] for evidence).
But given those geographic limitations on creating more housing and the general demand to live in lively/ vibrant/ exciting places, the cost for that housing will increase. SROs are a way to get more return for the space while keeping the cost to individual renters down, which is why they're useful in SF.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:39 AM on July 18


You're allowed to rent an 8x10 room with no bathroom??

I knew someone who lived in a 6x9 room in San Francisco and showered at her gym, but that was a converted storage space.
posted by subdee at 11:45 AM on July 18


Housing in San Francisco is such a complicated subject. Everybody games the system and everybody loses.

One interesting thing about the article on the six people living in SROs is that it didn’t mention how any of them pay their rent. Except for the Chinese couple, nobody seemed to have jobs. I’ve met any number of homeless or SRO-residing people who moved here thinking San Francisco is like it was in the 60s and that Janis Joplin or Jerry Garcia still live in the Haight.

San Francisco is the absolute worst city to live in if you’re trying to get on your feet.
posted by shoesietart at 12:00 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]


humanfront: you do understand that's in Santa Clara, not San Francisco right?
posted by aspo at 12:00 PM on July 18


Zoning in San Francisco and Silicon Valley a blight on the state of California. That anyone can accept that status quo (and blame the Google Bus no less!) and still consider themselves liberal and urban is amazing.
posted by mikewebkist at 1:39 PM on July 18


You're allowed to rent an 8x10 room with no bathroom??

Yea, i used to do it. For a year and a half.

It fucking sucked. The shared bathrooms were disgusting(as were all the common areas), and they were only cleaned occasionally by a tenant who got some pittance way-below-minimum-wage rent discount to do it. People smoked crack and meth and shot up in them. The place was a converted 1904-ish seamans hospital, and the laundry room was literally the old morgue.(SPPOOOoooOOoooOOKY, but actually just leaky and gross).

The landlord was a slumlord, the on-site manager was an enormous buff asshole with anger management issues who would let himself in to peoples units and steal small things or rifle through your stuff(think little porcelain cats or something, nothing valuable... but just as a power play you couldn't prove). There were constant pest problems of every shape or form, ending in my screwing metal plates to certain parts of my floor to stop the roaches and mice coming through.

I eventually had one of those medieval bars that drops across your door to barricade it, home made with some brackets and a huge chunk of lumber. You know, because of the several times someone tried to kick the door in very violently, and the one time they actually did. I also slept with a chunk of iron that had blades and spikes welded all over it(my friend made it as a joke, but that shit weighed like 10lbs and you could kill someone with it in one swing i bet)

The place was full of violent mentally ill people, convicted sex offenders, and just general goddamn creepoids like a guy who seemed like a literal serial killer.

But it was cheap, and all utilities were included. It gave you a roof over your head, an address with a mailbox, and electricity and a kitchenette(with a gas stove! why the fuck do 3/4 of the nicer apartments i've seen or lived in since then not have that?). The heat didn't really work, but since electricity was free you could just buy a cheap space heater. it never really got colder than like 55 in there anyways because it's seattle, and the walls were so damn thick. I swear, even the door was like 5 or 6 inches thick, with two panels screwed onto that.(ancient fire door technology? idk)

I totally fucking hated it and thought it was completely disgusting and was apalled that the city seemed to turn a blind eye to half of the stuff they just let go or did, but i also realize i'm speaking from a position of extreme privilege over most of the people who lived there when i did, some of whom still live there.

I get why it exists, i just think that this kind of affordable housing could be handled a lot more compassionately with a lot less of the "meh, well they're poor, this is what they deserve. if they wanted better they'd shovel harder" mentality.

Zoning in San Francisco and Silicon Valley a blight on the state of California. That anyone can accept that status quo (and blame the Google Bus no less!) and still consider themselves liberal and urban is amazing.

On one hand i'm sad that seattle has just been rubber-stamping essentially any building permit and handing out variances like candy to any developer who wants to build even several floors over the height limit, or otherwise go way above the size the area was originally zoned for(and that previously maybe 4 floors max areas are becoming skyscraperville)... but on the other hand, the approach that SF has taken backed by a bunch of rich NIMBYs who want everything to stay looking exactly the same with single family two story houses in the middle of town, even though they're simply creating an amusement park and suburb for other pretty damn rich people, is pretty disgusting.

I'm sad to see the neighborhood where my parents grew up and lived in when they were in their 20s completely change in character rapidly, and ditto to the neighborhood i grew up in... but i also realize that the two options are pretty much adapting as quickly as possible to the influx of people, or become SF.

And really, SF should be a template for what not to do. You can't just freeze the architecture of a city in time if you want it to be a city and not a housing development in XYZ price range.

I might sound like i'm being alarmist, but as i watch this all go down i feel like the bay area is becoming freaking hunger games or something.
posted by emptythought at 1:51 PM on July 18 [19 favorites]


I've lived in Chicago for just under two years and already seen three SRO to condo conversions in my neighbourhood. The loss I feel is that I can no longer laugh, in french, about Hotel Chateau.
posted by srboisvert at 3:28 PM on July 18


Rents in Menlo Park, the new home of Facebook, have at least doubled just in the last year. Can't get a place with 2+ bedrooms for less than $3,000/month now. It is similar in SF. I don't know how anyone can afford to live here...I am not sure if I can afford to live here anymore.
posted by Chuffy at 5:08 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


you do understand that's in Santa Clara, not San Francisco right?

I do. However the entire Bay Area has a significant housing shortage.
posted by humanfont at 5:51 PM on July 18 [1 favorite]


If only there were an app, for that...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 6:06 PM on July 18


FYI: The Bold Italic (owned by newspaper conglomerate Gannett, also owner of USA Today) has inspired a parody site, The Sans Serif, with such articles as "Which Walgreens is REALLY the Best in SF?", "Google Employee Perks Now Include Goodie Bags, Pony Rides", and "5 Things To Do In Oakland Before You Die".
posted by larrybob at 6:08 PM on July 18


I used to live in a SF SRO about a decade ago, during the first dot-com bubble. I moved out to San Francisco with two suitcases, and not much else.

I totally fucking hated it and thought it was completely disgusting and was apalled that the city seemed to turn a blind eye to half of the stuff they just let go or did, but i also realize i'm speaking from a position of extreme privilege over most of the people who lived there when i did, some of whom still live there.

I'm on the other side. Living there, in what I thought at the time was the greatest city in the world, was one of the best experiences of my life. Sure, there was a shared bathroom, and occasionally somebody would decide to take a shit in the shower. But it was still a space I could start in, and move on from there.

I remember one guy, intensely thin, who lived at the end of the hallway. One night, I came home late to find them wheeling his body out on a stretcher. He had died overnight. I asked the manager what was up. He had been living with AIDS, and I'm guessing had a decent meth habit along with it.

I don't think the city turned a blind eye to what was happening to him. He was in San Francisco, which had one of the best support networks for HIV/AIDS patients and the community in the country, if not the world. He had access to support and tools, but he chose something else.

But I do regret not ever talking to him. Not because I could have saved him, or helped him. But because I'm sure he had a lifetime of stories to tell. I'm not going to feel pity about him or his life, I'll have a bit of regret I missed out on those stories.

I get why it exists, i just think that this kind of affordable housing could be handled a lot more compassionately with a lot less of the "meh, well they're poor, this is what they deserve. if they wanted better they'd shovel harder" mentality.

Eventually, I moved out of the SRO, next door into a shit-hole hovel of an apartment. But I was still in the city I loved. I didn't move out because some "compassionate" social worker helped me move out. I moved out because I wanted to accomplish something else. And because I had opportunities available to me.

There's a shelter in my neighborhood now, across the street from me, that's closing down. That's just a few fewer beds that will be available to people who really need them.

At some point, talking about how disgusting a place is does more harm than good, because it continues to re-iterate the image in the minds of the public about the poor.
posted by formless at 6:18 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


I thought SRO places were long gone in the USA. I'm shocked that there are still some in SanFran. (Yes, I said that.)

Given the direction the USA is headed in, I imagine they'll soon make a roaring comeback.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 12:13 PM on July 19


Already here, but we don't call them SROs and they ain't cheap.

Micro-apartment developments on rise in S.F.

Micro-Dwellings via curbed sf.
posted by rtha at 2:29 PM on July 19


rtha: "Already here, but we don't call them SROs and they ain't cheap."

So I'm back to looking for a tent in a field that floods regularly? Check. At least I know that I'm right where Mitt Romney would want me to be. Hope Ann can still drive her two Cadillacs.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:25 PM on July 19


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