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SRO Housing Preservation Helps Keep Tenderloin Neighborhood Affordable

Written by Amanda Maher

San Francisco city officials have come to the realization that despite their best attempts to build new affordable housing units, rent-controlled units are disappearing equally as fast—negating the impact of the 6,600+ affordable housing units that have come online over the past decade.

Apartments within a 10-mile radius of San Francisco have now eclipsed $3770 per month. Homelessness is increasing so rapidly that policymakers havedeclared a “state of emergency,” with several shelters in crisis mode, unable to meet growing demand. One by one, many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods are becoming places where only the wealthy can afford to live.

There’s one glaring exception: the Tenderloin neighborhood.

Despite its prime downtown location, sandwiched between upscale Union Square and affluent Hayes Valley, the Tenderloin has remained an affordable place for low- and middle-income residents. Even though tech companies (most notably, Twitter) have moved into the nearby Mid-Market area, the Tenderloin has been able to resist pressure to gentrify, as we discussed in a recent What Works Case Study.

How? A critical part of the answer lies largely in the neighborhood’s preservation of single room occupancy (SRO) housing.

For a long time, SROs were common feature of big cities across the country. SROs were essentially boarding houses for transient, working-class men. The cramped apartments usually offered affordable rooms about 8’ x 10’ in size and then a communal bathroom. Some SROs had a shared kitchen; most didn’t.

Over time, SROs became synonymous with illegal behavior. In an attempt to clean up inner city communities, cities promoted the demolition of SROs in favor of more typical affordable or market rate housing. Instead of following suit, nonprofit organizations began scooping up SRO properties and preserving them for low-income renters. The acquisition of this critical housing resource was combined with the enactment of a strong city law preventing the conversion or demolition of SRO hotels. The Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC), founded in 1980 as a volunteer legal clinic, fought for this law, and since 1990 has had the ability to directly sue violators to stop illegal SRO conversions.

As a result of these efforts and zoning restrictions on new development, the Tenderloin has managed to retain and even expand its affordable SRO housing stock. The most expensive nonprofit owned and managed SRO units rent for $500/month, compared to SROs rented privately for upwards of $1,000 per month. Even the more expensive SROs prove a bargain compared to renting a full-sized unit on San Francisco’s open market.

Today, THC and other city-funded nonprofits collectively own and operate more than a third of the Tenderloin’s total housing stock. Many residents are new immigrants. Others are recently released convicts or formerly homeless residents.

Not everyone has fallen for the SRO concept. Some contend that SRO operators have allowed buildings to fall into a state of disrepair, and low-income tenants are stuck living in sub-par housing conditions because they cannot afford to go elsewhere.

Others argue that concentrating at-risk populations in the same building only heightens illegal activity. “If you become sort of a monoculture type of economy where it’s all based on providing service, then it becomes almost impossible [for the neighborhood] to be able to have a rebirth,” said George Gascón, a former police officer and current San Francisco District Attorney.

But in San Francisco, a “rebirth” often means rapid gentrification.

In recent years, the city – largely through the efforts of its Police Department, DPW and Office of Economic and Workforce Development – has made a push to improve the Tenderloin’s physical environment. Street sweeping, trash collection and policing have given residents a newfound sense of pride. Many SRO renters keep flower boxes outside of their homes.

With the Tenderloin’s Uptown District earning historic designation, and with the opening of a number of new restaurants, bars and art galleries, the Tenderloin is proving an up-and-coming destination.  People from across the region are finding a reason to visit. Despite the Tenderloin’s revival, the demographic mix has held stable—thanks largely to the preservation of SRO housing and proactive land use policies.

Randy Shaw, Executive Director of THC and author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, believes the Tenderloin offers important lessons to other communities at risk of gentrification and displacement.

“Since 1980 most felt the Tenderloin’s transformation into an upscale area was ‘inevitable.’ But it was never inevitable,” says Shaw. “We’ve been able to ward off gentrification, and the Tenderloin experience shows how other urban neighborhoods can take similar steps to maintain their working and middle-class character.”

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