Resident Ron Divino strains as he reaches for a dryer door in the laundry room at the Plaza Apartments at 988 Howard St. Divino and others say the building is difficult to navigate for disabled tenants. Resident Ron Divino strains as he reaches for a dryer door in his wheel chair in the laundry room at the Plaza Apartments at 988 Howard St. on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Formerly homeless contend with high heat, accessibility issues in supportive units

Five fans blew the hair of Mary Rogus over her face as she sat leaning on a medical walker in her sixth floor apartment in a South of Market supportive housing building for the formerly homeless.

It was a cool late September morning outside. But inside her apartment, a thermometer on the nightstand read 80.1 degrees.

A thermometer displays the temperature inside the apartment of Mary Rogus at 988 Howard St. The building, which was built in 2005 and hailed for its “green” construction, overheats and has poor ventilation.

Temperatures in her unit rarely dip below 74 degrees, even at night, and have risen to as high as 96 degrees. Other tenants in the building have recorded 100 degree temperatures in their units, according to Rogus.

Complaints about the hot apartments, as well as about accessibility issues, she said, are met with little response from the building’s property manager, the John Stewart Company.

“It’s hotter in here when it’s hot outside, and it’s still too hot for any level of safety when it’s cold out,” said Rogus, who moved into building about two years ago. “And they don’t think about calling us. They need to check on us everyday, that’s how dangerous this place is. I don’t get phone calls. No one checks on us. We are not offered cold water. If it’s 50 degrees outside it’s like 79 [degrees] in here. That’s not a safe baseline.”

Officially known as “Plaza Apartments,” 988 Howard St. is one of the properties The City uses to rehouse San Francisco’s homeless residents with disabilities and substance use disorders. Multiple private and public entities are involved in its operations, including the Department of Public Health, which provides onsite nurses.

As the San Francisco Examiner has previously reported, many of The City’s supportive housing properties are older buildings built before modern accessibility codes. But 988 Howard St. is relatively new, having opened in 2005. When it was built, it was hailed as an architecturally designated “green building,” constructed with recycled materials, energy efficient systems and environmentally sustainable products.

And yet tenants say the nine-story building has had problems with overheating and ventilation since it opened. It also has accessibility issues, making it difficult to navigate for its disabled tenants, and a longstanding cockroach infestation.

Mary Rogus holds a roach trap inside her apartment at the Plaza Apartments at 988 Howard St. on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The problems highlight the challenging living conditions faced by San Francisco’s formerly homeless, even once they are housed by The City. It also raises questions about whether these tenants’ concerns are being adequately addressed.

A cool response

Lettie Marquez, a spokesperson for the John Stewart Company, explained that the heat “comes from the sun shining on the building” and said that they are “aware of” the issue and have been responsive to the tenants’ complaints.

She said the company installed window film on 65 of the most-affected units, to the tune of $32,000 this summer.

“Every unit in the Plaza was given a free oscillating pedestal fan in July 2019,” said Marquez.

Marquez added that “cooling events” — at which tenants have access to cold water, refreshments and “sometimes ice cream” — are held in the building’s lobby during heat waves in The City.

Additional wellness checks are performed on “the most vulnerable tenants as needed” on hot days, she said.

One of the nonprofits that provides services to the tenants, Conard House, said it is aware of the heat issue but that the conditions of the building are not its responsibility.

“None of the property management issues…are anything we deal with here,” Conard House CEO Richard Heasley told The Examiner. “I’m aware that the heat is an issue — that’s about the extent of it. We can do nothing more than … refer them to the complaint process through the John Stewart Company.”

He said, however, that “overheating in any building is a problem with people who have compromised medical conditions.”

City agencies involved with the building responded through a statement from Max Barnes, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

The statement said that The City has “taken steps to ameliorate said living conditions” including installing air conditioning units in common spaces.

He said that MOHCD is collaborating with DPH, the Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing and with nonprofit partners to develop other solutions.

The building is owned by Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Donald Falk, CEO of TNDC, also said that the nonprofit has been working to address the heat issue.

“Tenants’ well-being and concerns are important to us, and we are sorry for the discomfort she and others have experienced,” he said.

But tenants who have been living with the same concerns for more than a decade told The Examiner that they don’t feel like their comfort or safety is being put first, and that the recent fixes do not remedy the longstanding issues.

“When the sun comes up over the Bay, it comes in this window. It stays coming in this window all day long, and in the afternoon it also comes into that window. So every bit of the sun is shining in your apartment, and the heat from down below moves up,” said Steve Johnson, a former cab driver and tenant on the eighth floor of the Plaza Apartments. “So it’s extremely hot in here.”

Johnson moved into the building when it first opened, and said the heat has been an issue from day one. And so have the cockroaches.

“From the first day, people would see roaches coming in the basement from the building next door, just streaming in,” said Johnson, adding that monthly visits from a pest control inspector have not abated the problem. “The whole building is infected. It took eight years for them to get on the eighth floor, and I still have roaches.”

Marquez, the John Stewart Company spokesperson, said that they perform monthly pest inspections and treat units as needed.

Another tenant who requested anonymity said that when he moved into the building nearly 14 years ago he requested the window films, which were only installed this summer. Still, he said the treatments are ineffective.

“It’s like an oven in here. I have complained about it. I told them, ‘Hey it’s that hot and it gets hotter every year,’” the tenant said. “The people in this building, some of them are bed-ridden. They can’t get up or get out of their places. They are sickly. That much heat must be unbearable for them, I can’t imagine.”

A total of 13 complaints were filed with the Department of Building Inspection in 2019 alone about units overheating, mold, poor ventilation, cockroaches and accessibility issues faced by tenants with disabilities at 988 Howard St.

In addition, Rogus said that she, among other tenants, has made multiple verbal complaints to frontline staff about the building’s conditions.

“When I verbally express my concerns about heat, inaccessibility, and other issues, the staff is dismissive and makes excuses,” said Rogus.

Struggles with access

A slightly inclined ramp leads from a Howard Street sidewalk to two separate entrances on the ground floor of the Plaza Apartments — the first is a narrow, single door that serves as an entrance into the building’s reception area.

A larger entrance past an outdoor courtyard comes with double doors and is intended to facilitate access to the building for tenants using wheelchairs.

Resident Ron Divino reaches with his functioning right arm to open a door to a balcony to fit his wheel chair at the Plaza Apartments at 988 Howard St. on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

But while the narrow front entrance comes with a push-plate door opener, the larger entrance intended for wheelchair users does not — and on a recent Wednesday, at least one tenant using a wheelchair could be seen asking for help exiting the building.

Moments earlier, a woman also using a wheelchair while managing her leashed dog was seen attempting to enter the narrow entrance, her wheelchair scraping the side of the metal door.

“I do have a pretty big wheelchair,” the woman remarked.

A verbal complaint by Rogus about the wheelchair accessible door lacking an automatic door opener was met with silence by front desk staff.

That same morning, several floors up, some tenants struggled to access a laundry room and an outdoor patio located on the building’s top floor.

Ron Divino, a third-floor resident who has lived at the Plaza Apartments for 14 years, said that the heat in his unit has affected his health. He suffers from emphysema.

But a stroke left him partially paralyzed, and Divino said that his biggest difficulty lies in accessing the building’s laundry room.

There are also no automatic door openers at the entrances to the laundry room and adjacent patio, and his wheelchair regularly gets stuck on a concrete threshold in the doorways.

“The doors are made so that when I go in, the door opens up from the right side and the door swings open to the left. I have no use of my left arm,” said Divino. “So I have to actually open the door with my right hand, enough so that my wheelchair can squeeze in, jam it, and then I use my wheelchair to open the door the rest of the way.”

Resident Ron Divino navigates his wheel chair in the laundry room at the Plaza Apartments at 988 Howard St. on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Divino pulled down the collar of his shirt to show bruises on his left shoulder from attempting to wedge the door open. His wheelchair, too, gets “banged up” in the process.

He said that he has requested an accommodation with The City, as is his right under ADA law, but was told that he will likely have to foot the bill.

“I have been trying to find somebody to help me with that. In the meantime I’m getting pretty much banged up a lot,” he said.

“If they are accommodating people with wheelchairs, the doors should be [designed] so that people can get in and out without having to put up a fight,” Divino said. “When I talk about this I want to make it clear that I am not just speaking for myself. There are other people in the building with wheelchairs. If you are going to rent to people with disabilities, you need to be able to accommodate them…so they can get in an out of their own homes.”

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Resident Mary Rocus holds open a door to a balcony as she pushes her walker up over a concrete threshold at the Plaza Apartments at 988 Howard St. on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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