Safe SROs are vital to SF’s low-income housing option

San Francisco’s single-room occupancy hotels house thousands of residents and provide a vital link in The City’s low-cost housing continuum — offering some stability to individuals and families that often have no other housing options.

San Francisco’s Department of Public Health last week released its report, “Improving the Health of Residents in SRO Hotels,” which included distressing statistics about the health risks associated with such buildings.

The most common violations were for animals and pests, mold, refuse, sanitation and structural conditions, and the biggest health risks associated with such buildings included respiratory illness, gastrointestinal illness, injuries and mental illness.

The safety and health risks extend beyond the 19,000 residents living in these SRO units spread out across some 580 buildings. Half of all San Francisco residents — if they are not living in an SRO — live within a quarter-mile of one. An estimated 1,000 public school students live in these buildings, which are concentrated in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, Chinatown, South of Market and the Mission.

The findings were, in Health Commissioner Cecilia Chung words, “disheartening.”

As the report points out, this is a particularly vulnerable community of residents who tend to be older, low-income people living in communities of color. Despite this, SROs are a big step toward stable and safe housing for those transitioning off the streets and are also an important source of housing for those who might otherwise be homeless.

It is alarming to have such a sizable portion of The City’s population, especially one with limited resources to live elsewhere, exposed to such risks.

Cynthia Comerford, impact assessment project director for S.F’s Department of Public Health, cited “rising rents, affordability issues with building repairs, increasing homelessness and also a spiraling drug epidemic,” as among the many challenges facing SRO tenants and operators.

The report’s recommendations include mandatory training for SRO operators to better work with their tenants and address health risks, regular publishing of all housing inspection data and improved inspections by building inspectors, fire and health officials.

The Health Commission is scheduled to vote on the recommendations Sept. 6. These measures should be merely a start for ensuring the safety and stability of a crucial part of The City’s low-income housing options. Without ensuring the safety and security of these buildings, which protect so many from falling into homelessness or help them climb out of it, San Francisco’s pledge to get people off the streets will continue to falter.

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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