Chinatown SRO tenants fear close quarters will spread coronavirus

Shared kitchens, bathrooms make it difficult to avoid contagion

Selina Luo, her husband, and her 9-year-old daughter live together in a single-room-occupancy hotel in Chinatown, a cramped living situation she worries may make them far more vulnerable to COVID-19 than most housed San Franciscans.

Luo shops in her neighborhood with a mask and gloves on. She dives quickly into and out of shops. When she arrives home, she disposes of the mask and gloves immediately. She washes her hands for 20 seconds, then sprays disinfectant on her shoes.

That’s her new routine — it’s what she can control. In the tight living quarters of an SRO, there is plenty more that she cannot.

Her family of three shares a kitchen, a toilet room and a separate shower room with the occupants of 15 other units, many of whom are seniors pushing 65 years old, who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The kitchen has only two stoves.

“It’s very tough for us to practice social distancing. I’d go to the kitchen at very late hours when people are not cooking,” Luo told me Friday, in Cantonese through a translator. But the shared surfaces Luo cannot avoid touching cause her to question every gesture, every movement.

“I fear we all will contract it in this tight living environment,” Luo said.

The shared kitchen in Selina Luo’s SRO has two stoves for the residents of 16 units. (Photos courtesy Selina Luo)

The shared kitchen in Selina Luo’s SRO has two stoves for the residents of 16 units. (Photos courtesy Selina Luo)

She is far from alone. There are 180 single-room-occupancy hotels in Chinatown alone, with 6,500 rooms between them. And in those rooms, about 500 families live in private SRO’s in Chinatown.

The fear of shared spaces fostering the spread of COVID-19 has prompted the Chinatown Community Development Center, a nonprofit that runs some public SROs in the neighborhood, to launch a “resiliency fund” to help relieve the pressure to crowd in all of Chinatown’s SROs.

Chinatown CDC alone operates 3,000 units of affordable housing, so its leaders know the need. The fund would provide food security for isolated seniors living in SROs, wellness checks and access to health resources, eviction defense and housing stabilization funds, and buying personal protective equipment, soap and other sanitary needs for SRO denizens and the frontline workers helping them.

“For us, by far the most significant concerns are the huge concentration of low-income immigrant residents living in SRO hotels,” Malcolm Yeung, the incoming executive director of Chinatown CDC told me Friday. “You gotta think, if shelters are like Mardi Gras in terms of transmission, SROs are like cruise ships.”

It is, of course, nearly impossible to practice social distancing when you live shoulder-to-shoulder.

Right now, Yeung and Chinatown CDC are just hoping for the funds to support SRO families as a start. By providing take-out food to families in SROs, for instance, they could eliminate the need to use shared kitchen space that might spread COVID-19. They estimate they’d need $350,000 monthly to support SRO families alone.

“That’s just the families,” Yeung said.

Chinatown SRO tenants fear close quarters will spread coronavirus

Yet Chinatown SRO residents aren’t alone in their vulnerability — SROs exist in neighborhoods across San Francisco.

Mayor London Breed and the San Francisco Human Services Agency announced early on a need for 3,500 housing units to quarantine and isolate homeless people and people from single-room-occupancy hotels, should they test positive for COVID-19.

But dozens of faith leaders from across San Francisco, including reverends, rabbis and pastors from myriad churches, including Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist congregations, co-signed a letter to Breed on Wednesday demanding The City fill 30,000 vacant San Francisco hotel rooms with people living in SROs.

“Today COVID-19 exposes the consequences of an economic system that has done violence to the planet and its people,” they wrote. “In San Francisco we have an opportunity to take responsibility and lead the way into a new, restructured society that cares for the most vulnerable and turns from the addiction of wealth accumulation in the hands of a few.”

Chinatown SRO tenants fear close quarters will spread coronavirus

As faith leaders, nonprofit leaders and city leaders tussle over who will provide care, and how, families like Luo’s dread the coming days.

Luo moved to San Francisco three years ago to reunite with her family.

“I love San Francisco because it is very liberal and has all these freedoms. I want my daughter to experience that, and I want her to enjoy the diversity,” Luo said.

For now, the dream of San Francisco will have to wait outside their door, touched only by hands protected by rubber gloves.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

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