Will Bruce, 65, expressive and gregarious, sang “Something’s Coming,” from West Side Story, Friday afternoon inside his home in a single-room occupancy hotel in the Mission.
On the walls of the small room papers were taped, like a newspaper clipping from when Barry Bonds broke the homerun record, which happened just months after he moved in, and calendars from the nearby church he attends.
Hours earlier, Bruce was one of the attendees at an affordable housing lottery in the Tenderloin for a room at the Dalt Hotel. It was his third in recent weeks and he had the three tickets to prove it, on the backs of which he wrote the number he placed.
Bruce, born and raised in San Francisco, said he battled prostate cancer a few years ago but received radiation treatment and the cancer now is in remission, though he remains on a daily regimen of pills for health complications. That has him thinking about his own mortality.
As if these issues weren’t enough, Bruce is worried about his housing. That’s because since moving into the El Capitan Hotel back in April 2007, his rent has consistently increased, most recently on May 1 by 4.2 percent — that’s the 2.2 percent allowable hike under rent control and an additional 2 percent banked rent hike. That has him paying another $28.57 for a total of $708.72 per month.
Bruce is questioning the rent hike, but wishes to find housing where they won’t take more than one-third of his income for rent, as is guaranteed by nonprofit-operated affordable housing, because he knows it’s only going to keep going up. His income is a social security check that he said was about $945 monthly.
“I’m 65 and I’ve done a lot, I’ve seen a lot, I’ve lived a lot, but still I want to finish my life, you know, and I don’t want to be in distress while I try to finish it. I want to enjoy it,” Bruce said. “I need to get out of here before I die. That’s what I need to do.”
Bruce doesn’t want to leave San Francisco. If he did, he would become yet another story of the outmigration of black residents. The City’s black population has decreased to below 6 percent. But, needing housing, he did unsuccessfully try to move into a senior housing development in Oakland.
“They would only take a third of my income. I could live on that. I would have money in my pocket. I could go to Grocery Outlet and shop my ass off,” Bruce said.
The manager of the SRO knocked on Bruce’s door during the interview with the San Francisco Examiner and the two discussed why his rent went up 4.2 percent.
“That is beyond what I am going to be able pay,” Bruce told the manager. “I am going to have to find some kind of solution. This is taking me to a point where I am going to have to cut back on a whole lot of things just to even live. I am going through a whole lot of stuff that you guys know nothing about.”
The manager said that everybody’s rent was increasing by that same rate, noted that the room could fetch $1,500 or $1,600 monthly at market rate, and he advised Bruce to talk to the SRO Collaborative for further assistance.
“This is just a room. It’s not nothing special,” Bruce reflected after the manager left. “This is ruining me.”
Bruce also worries about ending up homeless, which he knows something about. He said he worked as a janitor in 2000 and 2001 for a business on Port property and slept in his van he left parked in the lot without anyone knowing. “You don’t want to be homeless. Homeless ain’t no fun,” Bruce said.
Bruce’s situation also illustrates what life can be like growing older in an SRO. He spoke of feeling lonely. “There’s nobody in here for me to talk to. I don’t have no company. I’m old. I need someone to talk to. It’s boring man,” Bruce said. “I am the only black on this floor and [the manager] don’t got no black women in here. I can’t talk to no females because there are none around.”
Bruce didn’t do very well in the housing lottery that day. He placed 236 in a lottery of 615 participants for about 60 re-rental units. In a previous lottery he fared better, placing in the 50s, but had yet to be contacted.
With Bruce’s housing troubles far from resolved, he broke into the West Side Story song as a farewell to the Examiner, after the conversation steered toward creativity and he said he liked to sing.
It seemed easy to guess what was on his mind when he sang: “Something’s coming, don’t know when, but it’s soon … something great is coming.”