The elevator in South of Market’s Hillsdale Hotel worked on Tuesday, but that’s rather unusual.
In fact, frequent elevator breakdowns that plague the 104-year old building and many of San Francisco’s some 180 single-room occupancy hotels — commonly referred to as SROs — prompted a group of residents and community activists to rally Tuesday morning outside the hotel at 51 6th St. and demand more city funding to improve and replace SRO elevators.
“This hotel is notorious for its elevator breakdowns,” 12-year resident and community activist Doug Hosterman said. When the elevator breaks, he’s able to descend a steep staircase that winds around the elevator shaft, but very slowly with an unsteady gait.
Going up the stairs to his single room and private bathroom on the seventh floor is a big problem. The climb takes him 30 minutes.
“How are you going to get the gurneys down when somebody has a heart attack up there?” Hosterman asked.
Half of the buttons on the Hillsdale’s old machine no longer light up. It opens with a heavy gate that pinches fingers, misaligns its metal parts and closes on passengers’ bodies as they enter, Hosterman warned.
“I moved in 12 years ago. The elevator didn’t work at all. For four-and-a-half months, I climbed the stairs, at that time to the sixth floor. I was in better shape then. My disabilities have taken hold 12 years later,” Hosterman said.
The 1912 hotel houses 84 residents, more than half of whom are seniors or people with disabilities, health troubles and mobility issues. Elevator breakdowns mean residents in wheelchairs and walkers become confined to their rooms and hallways. Meals on Wheels can only deliver food meant for residents to the second-floor offices of their case workers.
“The elevator is a lifeline,” said Tony Robles, who advocates for senior and disabled housing. “When people are stuck in these elevators, it leads to isolation and missed appointments.”
Robles started the rally five minutes after 10 a.m. and asked the small crowd to envision being an SRO tenant. “Imagine what it’s like living in an SRO hotel and having to wait 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes stuck in an elevator that will not move,” he said.
As he sat in his walker and spoke to the small crowd, resident Mel Beetle held a sign that read: “Don’t let Grandpa get stuck in an elevator.”
“Read the sign I’m holding,” he said. “It’s me. I was, a few years ago, stuck in the elevator in our hotel for one hour.”
Beetle is a resident of the Raman Hotel at 1011 Howard St., where most residents are seniors age 65 and older, according to San Francisco Homeless Resource.
“Given The City’s affordability crisis, many seniors live in SRO hotels because it is the only housing that they can afford,” Robles said.
Mona Lisa Caldwell became the Hillsdale’s property manager in January as an employee of the John Stewart Company, which manages 39 properties in San Francisco. In the six months since she started, she estimated $10,000 has been spent in elevator repairs.
“Most of the time it is due to tenant negligence,” Caldwell said, like not waiting until the elevator comes to a complete stop or beating on the doors.
“It’s expensive to do it … doesn’t matter if you’re just replacing a screw,” she continued. Though Caldwell has hired various elevator repair companies, they often charge overtime or take hours to arrive, and sometimes the antique parts must be custom-made.
The Hillsdale lease is held by the Episcopal Community Services, which operates 11 San Francisco SROs and the Navigation Center at Mission and 16th streets, plus various community buildings and programs.
SRO property owners can receive free, no-strings-attached elevator assessments through the Mayor’s Office on Disability, though not for repairs, which can cost each facility as much as $300,000, deputy director Arfaraz Khambatta said.
The Board of Supervisors set aside an assessment fund of $250,000 in 2014 that is available on a first-come, first-served basis to property owners who reach out to email@example.com or call (415) 554-6789.
Khambatta said SRO tenants should ask their property owners and managers to take advantage of the assessment program.