Jordan Davis sits on her mattress explaining her 12-day hunger strike and activist push for lower rent in single room occupancy hotels like hers on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. (Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)

SRO resident on hunger strike for rent relief

Activist putting her body on the line in push to cap rents for residents in city SROs

Stickers plastered to the door of Jordan Davis’ room in a Tenderloin Single Occupancy Room hotel speak to some of the causes that the formerly homeless activist is willing to risk her health for. “Stop Killing Trans People” and “Housing is a Human Right” are among the slogans to be found there.

But the words are more than slogans for Davis. Tuesday marked the twelfth day since the SRO Task Force member launched a hunger strike for rent relief, not just for herself but for the more than 3,000 people living in hotels throughout The City that are master-leased under the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

Other than a mattress and a few personal items strewn across the floor, Davis’ room is void of furniture. Davis said she can’t really afford much more with half of her roughly $1,000 monthly income going toward her rent — a financial burden on low-income SRO residents like herself that she is fighting to address.

While the rents are set by The City, there is no uniform policy on rental caps at these hotels, leaving tenants — a majority of whom, like Davis, are on a fixed-income, disabled and formerly homeless — spending as much as half of their monthly earnings on rent in the nation’s most expensive city to rent in.

“I want to see that gap get closed all across the board at HSH hotels,” said Davis, who has long advocated for better conditions inside of The City’s SROs.

She said she stopped eating in protest of “a real issue” that The City “can and should fix.”

On Tuesday, Davis said that while she hasn’t eaten in over a week, she continues to consume liquids. The ordeal has taken a toll on her health, and Davis said that she has spent recent days close to home.

“I’ve been reading up on the health implications and hunger strikers, if they are taking enough fluids, usually can last for 30 days,” said Davis, adding that the first few days were the most challenging. “I want to end this.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines “rent-burdened” families as those spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, while those who pay half of their income on rent are defined as “severely rent-burdened.”

Davis is calling for a 30 percent rental cap at all master-leased hotels. The change should be a no-brainer, she said.

“[Regulating] housing prices is complicated. But this is low hanging fruit,” Davis said.

Davis described her hunger strike as “very symbolic.” Like many of her neighbors, Davis said she often goes hungry at the end of the month.

Unlike public housing, SRO hotel rooms typically don’t have private bathrooms or kitchens, and Davis said she and many other tenants in her hotel rely on a weekly food bank to get by. While Davis is a vegan, she said that other tenants with fewer dietary restrictions than her also struggle with securing nutritious meals.

Davis, who is transgender, was homeless in San Francisco for six months after relocating from Pennsylvania in 2014, where she faced discrimination and struggled with access to critical services.

Following a five-month stay in San Francisco’s first Navigation Center at 1950 Mission St., Davis said she initially felt that she “lucked out” when she was offered housing in the SRO.

But not long after, Davis said that she was “sticker-shocked” when she learned that her landlord, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which offers housing, legal and supportive services to formerly homeless adults,charges a $500 flat fee for rent.

“With most homeless programs, if you’re taking someone who is disabled off the street, rent is usually set at 30 percent of their income,” said Davis.

Randy Shaw, THC’s executive director, said the nonprofit’s rates are set by The City, and that its budget priority is “getting critically needed raises for our unionized workers.”

He added that “the amount currently allocated to nonprofit groups serving homeless persons for the 2019-20 budget is millions of dollars short of what is needed.”

A few days after Davis began her hunger strike, Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, submitted a $7.5 million budget request to bring rents at master-leased SROs down to 30 percent of residents’ incomes — a small slice of the proposed total budget, which is expected to rise to $12.3 billion next fiscal year.

“Try surviving on $500 — it’s incredibly difficult,” said Haney. “Nobody should pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, especially people who we know don’t have other sources of income.”

Haney called the issue a “crisis that has real human impact,” and said that he believes a broader policy change is needed in the future to “set the standard” on rental caps at city-leased hotels.

“It is going to cost a little more money on an ongoing basis,” said Haney. “But it’s even more expensive when we fail these folks and they end up back on the street and have medical or mental health emergencies.”

While Haney said that he isn’t sure why the issue of capping rents at its SROs hasn’t been addressed, Davis explained it as a matter of priorities.

“There are so many other competing budget priorities,” said Davis, adding that many community groups “tend to not have the capacity to take on” the issue.

The proposed budget is currently under review by the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance committee.

Haney said that the budget is expected to be approved next week. He added that he hopes that Davis “will take care of herself and her health.”

“This will be a longer fight and could ultimately require legislative change,” said Haney.

Davis said that she plans to turn down food until she sees a firm commitment from The City.

“We have the funds to do it, it’s not impossible — but we have got to have the will,” Davis said.


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Jordan Davis explains that she previously pushed for the communal bathrooms in her SRO to be non-gender specific, and they have since been updated thanks to her efforts. (Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)

Jordan Davis shows the front door to her room at a single room occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. (Lola Chase/ Special to SF Examiner)

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