Mayor London Breed’s plan to solve San Francisco’s homelessness crisis seems simple on paper: Buy hotels, many of which have sat vacant for much of the pandemic, and turn them into housing.
Under the Homeless Recovery Plan, unveiled in July 2020, The City will acquire or lease 1,500 new units of permanent supportive housing, facilities that provide a home to people experiencing chronic homelessness and a chance to link them with services, over a two-year period.
Making good on that promise has proven to be a trickier proposition.
At its most straightforward, the process goes something like this: The City reaches out to hotel owners interested in selling their property; evaluates the site on a number of criteria to determine whether it’s a good candidate for the program; solicits an asking price from the seller and, if deemed reasonable, issues a letter of intent to purchase the property.
Though non-binding, the letter of intent jump-starts a due diligence process that allows The City to conduct a deep dive on the property’s history, physical condition and environmental impact while simultaneously negotiating contract terms with the seller.
Next, the proposal goes through the public review process, community engagement begins and the Board of Supervisors has the opportunity to approve. Negotiations between San Francisco and the hotel or residential property seller are kept private.
“Confidentiality is an essential component of any property acquisition,” said Jeff Cretan, spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office.
So what happens when neighbors pushes back after all this legwork has been done?
That tension is playing out right now at the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel at 1800 Sutter St., which is already being used as a temporary shelter for people during the pandemic. On Sept. 7, city officials decided to slow plans to convert the Japantown property into permanent supportive housing due to extensive pushback from neighbors who say the area relies on tourism.
The perfect building
According to San Francisco’s tally, there were 8,035 homeless residents in 2019, the last time the point-in-time count was conducted, a 30% jump from two years prior.
Nearly 70% of these people had been living in San Francisco at the time they became homeless, and over half of that group had lived in The City for more than 10 years.
This most recent data substantiates the idea that San Francisco’s high cost of living pushes many people to the fringes and often to the streets. As pointed out in the report itself, once a person loses housing, it’s much harder to secure other basic needs such as health care, proper nutrition and consistent employment, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
The City considers a variety of factors when evaluating hotels for purchase: number of units, physical condition, accessibility features, existing private bathrooms or kitchenettes and common space opportunities, according to Deborah Bouck, spokesperson for the Department of Homelessness and Supporting Housing.
Additionally, there’s the question of whether it’s more effective to create housing sites that provide people units within a larger complex — the hotel model — or distribute smaller units more disparately throughout many neighborhoods, an approach taken in a number of other cities nationwide.
San Francisco has focused mostly on the project-based strategy, turning existing hotels into a housing solution for what’s often dozens of people. This is useful because it allows a person to access myriad services in one place, something Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations, likens to economies of scale.
However, Kushel noted that these projects are also more prone to run into conflict with neighborhood residents and they might make it more difficult for someone to start anew.
“I think the answer, as it is for most things, is that it depends,” she said.
City officials agree that the best program will scatter permanent supportive housing facilities all over San Francisco as opposed to concentrating them in a few neighborhoods.
Breed hopes to oversee the purchase of four hotels by the end of the year, including the Japantown building. The other three are the Eula Hotel in the Mission, the Mission Inn in the Outer Mission and the Panoramic in SoMa.
Together, they would add 368 units to The City’s total housing stock.
“San Francisco needs to build more housing and provide affordable housing across our entire city,” Cretan said. “Of course this will require conversations with parts of The City that have not traditionally seen as much housing over the years, but we have a crisis on our hands and we need as many options as possible to help move people off the streets.”
San Francisco is uniquely positioned to make that kind of disparate approach work, according to Kushel.
It has a relatively far-reaching transit system that means people can access essential services from most neighborhoods, and an underappreciated network of city-run health care and behavioral health providers that make it easier to live close to where you receive care, she said.
Geographic diversity isn’t only a matter of optics. It has real-life implications for the people who need permanent supportive housing the most.
Many tenants in permanent supportive housing struggle with substance use or mental illness. For some, being near people who have similar experiences is useful. For others, it makes their journey forward more difficult.
“I think the fact that The City is intentionally looking beyond the same neighborhoods (the Tenderloin and SoMa) is really important for people’s health and well-being, and it will have really positive impacts,” Kushel said.
‘Work with urgency’
San Francisco has long struggled to win over large swaths of town where some residents think that providing housing for the homeless population is important — just not on their streets. For Breed to reach her goals, these tensions are likely going to play out with some regularity.
“Some projects will move smoothly, while others will require more conversations and outreach,” Cretan said. “But if we are going to make a difference in moving people off the streets, we have to identify properties in more than just a couple of neighborhoods.”
The good news is that permanent supportive housing serves everyone’s interests, according to Kushel.
“Some of the rhetoric I hear is that we don’t want homeless people in our community — so what a great reason to have housing in your community,” she said. “It turns out people who are in supportive housing are no longer homeless.”