High employee turnover often worsens living conditions in San Francisco’s residential hotels. As a result, extremely low-income residents can get caught in between staff churn, blighted buildings and just holding on to the roof over their heads.

Now, San Francisco leaders are hoping that an influx of cash aimed at increasing wages, growing the number of caseworkers and upgrading buildings themselves might slow down the “revolving door” of nonprofit staff who work on-site in permanent supportive housing buildings that The City oversees.

“The actual amount of need in these sites is significant,” said Lauren Hall, director and co-founder of the nonprofit DISH, which employs janitors, front desk clerks and building managers who work in nine of The City’s permanent supportive housing buildings. “We really have seen over the last couple of years that the level of turnover on the support services teams has a deep impact on my staff.”

On Wednesday, Mayor London Breed proposed allocating $67.4 million in funding for permanent supportive housing, which offers long-term affordable housing, on-site case management and other social services. The investment is part of the Mayor’s 2022-24 budget proposal, which has yet to be finalized.

“We have heard regularly from providers the need for wage equity and making sure they can retain a workforce to support the homelessness response system,” said San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing Director, Shireen McSpadden. “The revolving door that’s been in existence the past couple of years was there before, but COVID really made things tougher. People were out sick and it made it tough on the staff who was there. We’re really hoping to address that.”

About $30 million of the proposed funding will go towards increasing wages for nonprofit staff who provide support services on-site and manage properties within The City’s permanent supportive housing supply. The added funding would raise base pay to $28 per hour for case managers, who coordinate health and support services for residents.

Currently, base pay for case managers in residential hotels varies from nonprofit employer to nonprofit employer. One case manager at the Henry Hotel, for example, makes $21 per hour.

About $12 million of the total will be dedicated specifically to increasing wages for frontline workers such as janitors and desk clerks as well.

“When you have a revolving door of staff, residents feel less inclined to engage. If I’m short janitors, I can’t keep buildings as clean. If I have a vacant front desk position, there are challenges. But the deepest impact is on residents who need to know who the staff is every day,” said Hall.

Former Mayor Ed Lee created San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in 2016 to dramatically change The City’s homelessness response. The plan emphasized expanding permanent supportive housing as a solution to growing rates of homelessness.

The effort has grown significantly over time, reaching a total of nearly 160 buildings and 10,000 units today. Nearly 2,500 new permanent supportive housing units have been added to the portfolio since July 2020, surpassing Mayor London Breed’s initial goal of acquiring 1,500 permanent supportive units.

By some metrics, it’s beginning to work. San Francisco recently reported an overall 3.5% drop in homelessness from 2019 to 2022. That included a 15% drop in unsheltered street-level homelessness, meaning more individuals who are experiencing homelessness are staying in shelters and temporary housing.

But the housing solutions themselves have come under fire for poor conditions for workers and residents alike. A recent scathing investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle found that residents in hotels overseen by the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing faced dilapidated living conditions and disorganized oversight.

City officials concurred there’s a need to upgrade wages and physical conditions, especially in some of the oldest SROs in the system.

“The first buildings in our portfolio are older and need more work than the ones we are bringing online now, many of which are newly renovated. We want those older buildings to be in great shape as well,” said McSpadden, referring to some of the newly added permanent supportive housing buildings in The City’s inventory, such as the 160 units recently added at 1321 Mission Street.

SF budget proposal could raise SRO caseworker wages to $28 per hour

The Panoramic at 1321 Mission St. is one of many buildings The City has added to increase the number of permanent supportive housing units. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

In addition to increasing wages, the proposal includes $32.4 million to hire more case managers and balance workloads. City officials estimate that will create a standard of about 25 clients per case manager in the housing facilities, and 20 clients per case manager for those working with families and young adults ages 18 to 24.

Case managers who work in permanent supportive housing sites provide and connect residents with various services ranging from mental health care to meal programs.

“We have people with big challenges and trauma in permanent supportive housing,” McSpadden said. “One of the things we want to do by bringing case management ratios down is to give people more support. That, in turn, will help with some of the other issues we see.” She added that unmanaged hoarding or resistance to room checks can lead to habitability issues.

Chipping walls, infestations and inaccessible pathways are also a focus of the Mayor’s proposal.

About $5 million will also go toward enhancing the physical buildings themselves with a priority on upgrading the oldest SRO buildings in The City’s permanent housing portfolio. Improving elevator access will be one focus, McSpadden said. Installing WiFi in sites that still lack it will be another priority, Hall added, along with renovating bathrooms and shared community spaces with new carpeting, painting and other basic upkeep.

Still, $5 million pales in comparison to the infrastructure repairs and upgrades needed in many of the older SRO buildings. The exact buildings that could benefit from the investment have not yet been disclosed.

“I’m trying to renovate my buildings one unit at a time because I have flat funding. If we had capital reserve funds as you might have in a traditional building, that would be great,” said Hall of DISH. “It won’t solve everything, but it’s progress.”

Fueling the increased funding for homelessness services is dollars accrued through Proposition C, the 2018 ballot measure that created a tax on large local businesses with more than $50 million in annual receipts.

“While this year’s budget will help us address some of our most pressing issues, it is critical for us to support the investments that we have already made in permanent supportive housing,” said Mayor Breed. “We know that housing connected to resources is the solution to homelessness. These investments allow us to maintain the critical infrastructure and staffing needed to help get our unhoused residents off the street and into housing.”

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com