City officials seek cure for health disparities in SROs

For years, the health of San Francisco residents has deteriorated by conditions in single room occupancy hotels. Living in SRO hotels, for instance, increases one’s chances of falling, suffering from asthma attacks and other health ailments.

The health disparities strike to the core of San Francisco’s inequality, with thousands of residents with limited means having to call home this vital stock of low-income housing.

But public health officials are trying to come up with a fix.

Last week, the Public Health Commission approved a slew of recommendations to improve the conditions of SRO buildings. Their effectiveness, however, was called into question.

As many as 19,000 residents live in these single room occupancy units spread out across some 530 buildings, under both private and nonprofit ownership, with the highest concentration in the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods. The City funds many of these buildings and they are also used to house the homeless.

But the tenants are exposed to such conditions as pests and mold that dramatically compromise their health. They are two to three times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma attacks than The City average, three times more likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and three times more likely to end up in the emergency room due to injuries sustained from falls, according to a recent Public Health Department’s three-year study. The health data is based on hospitalization rates within the area of the SROs.

To address the SRO conditions, the Public Health Commission last week adopted five recommendations that focuses on training and data analysis.

For instance, mandatory training would be created for SRO operators on how best to work with tenants and address building conditions.

Some commissioners suggested The City should take a more aggressive approach, like increased penalties for not correcting violations or other ideas like financial incentives.

“We are hoping by providing education it will lessen the need for these enforcement mechanisms,” said Cynthia Comerford, manager of the Office of Policy and Planning for the Department of Public Health. “We are trying to look more at the upstream approach because that [enforcement] hasn’t been that successful because that’s what we have in place right now.”

Health Commissioner David Pating argued for a stronger strategy, such as providing financial incentives for building owners to improve. Pating suggested corporations near SROs could help fund those incentives.

Part of the report’s findings is based on the health, housing and fire code violations for SROs. For example, between 2008 and 2012 city inspectors issued a total of 2,907 violations in 462 SRO buildings. Ninety-five buildings had 10 or more violations and one building had a high of 47.

Health Commissioner David Singer questioned whether the department’s work would end up being “just a data gathering exercise [rather than changing] a meaningful amount of people’s lives.”

Thinking the recommendations would lead to change was “somewhat utopian,” he suggested.

Another recommendation is data collection and routine analysis by creating “an inter-agency housing inspection data sub-committee to establish and track performance measures,” which would help direct city resources.

After the San Francisco Examiner published an article last month about the department’s SRO health findings, a number of tenants contacted the publication and one SRO operator invited the publication on a site tour.

Sam Moss, executive director Mission Housing Development Corporation, led the Examiner on a tour of the Altamont and Apollo Hotels, both near 16th and Valencia streets. He oversees the management of 35 buildings comprising some 1,600 units of which 300 are single adult SRO rooms measuring about 200 square feet.

“The stats and the data that you wrote about are real and they need to be addressed,” Moss said during an interview. “But there are other SROs, high quality affordable housing with quality resident services, that exist in The City. The SRO is an important type of housing that doesn’t need to be a slum. It can be high-quality, long-term sustainable housing and I hope that is what you’ve seen.”

In SoMa, some 50 tenants filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court on Aug. 8 against the Tenderloin Housing Clinic over the conditions of the Seneca Hotel at 34 Sixth Street. The lawsuit alleges “sub-tenant conditions,” which include bedbugs, cockroaches, rodent infestation, defective plumbing, mold and a non-working elevator.

The attorney representing the tenants, Timothy Kodani, declined to comment on the case, but said in a voice message, “I’m afraid I am not going to be able to be much help. I don’t discuss any adjudication. That’s about all I can say and hopefully we will have a good result in the case.”

Randy Shaw, executive director of the nonprofit Tenderloin Housing Clinic, also declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“I wish I could comment on the Seneca case but it’s being handled by a law firm selected by our insurance company and I am unable to comment,” Shaw said in an email.

Speaking generally about SRO conditions, Shaw said, “The fact is that SROs in San Francisco are in better shape overall than at any time since at least the 1950s, if not the 1920s.”

He said city inspections have increased and the city attorney has sued landlords failing their obligations.

“Most of the habitability problems occur in for-profit owned and run hotels whose rooms do not get regularly inspected and where tenants do not regularly complain to city agencies,” Shaw said.

Shaw also suggested the health of some tenants isn’t all that great to begin with when they first move into an SRO.

“The SRO population is older, poorer and in poorer health when they start living in SROs than San Francisco’s population as a whole,” he said. “So SRO tenants start with greater health problems.”

The next steps for The City are unclear. Comerford said they have yet to work out a timeline for implementation and other specifics related to the recommendations.

But there may be some relief in the near term if voters in November approve Proposition C, which would repurpose some $260 million in bonds that were previously approved by voters in 1992 but unused, to finance the rehabilitation of and purchase of affordable housing.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who introduced the measure, told the Examiner during a recent editorial board meeting that SRO operators could have access to these funds for needed capital repairs.

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