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New Housing Comes to SOMA; Neighbors Peddle in Scare Tactics

Submitted by News Desk on Thu, 02/11/2010 - 2:17pm

A landlord at 5th and Clara (near Harrison) is planning to transform a dilapidated tourist hotel that has been vacant for four years into housing for 47 low-income tenants. But a group of SOMA residents have leafleted the neighborhood with dire warnings that an “SRO next door” will bring “more crime,” “more drugs” and “more danger” – and have launched a website to rally opposition at the Planning Commission. These neighbors say they would rather keep the status quo of a vacant building, because SRO’s are “magnets for the homeless, drug addicts, sex offenders and drunks.” Ironically, a hotel with long-term residents would be a more stabilizing force for the neighborhood than the transient hostel it is currently zoned for. And the owner doesn’t even need permission from the City to convert the building to residential use. The only reason the Planning Department has to get involved is because he’s seeking to transfer SRO units from one of his Union Square properties – in a deal that will benefit San Francisco’s housing stock.

In 2006, the Global Village Hostel at 374 5th Street burned down – and has been vacant ever since. And there’s no question that what existed before was a blight. Zoned as a tourist hotel and functioning as a youth hostel, the building was under bad management – and justifiably received scathing reviews from unsuspecting travelers. When I was a community organizer several years ago, some of my clients stayed there temporarily – and I visited on a few occasions.

But what’s being proposed is not a return to what it was before. The Hotel Conversion Ordinance (HCO), which regulates San Francisco’s SRO housing, zones every hotel by its number of residential vs. tourist rooms. “Tourist rooms” just means the landlord can rent out rooms on a nightly basis – as opposed to monthly or weekly. Under the HCO, a landlord can petition the Planning Department to “switch” residential rooms in one hotel with tourist rooms in another – which is what is being proposed now.

Here, there are two buildings – Foley’s Inn on O’Farrell Street by Union Square (which has 23 residential rooms) and the vacant building on 5th Street that has 47 tourist rooms. If the Planning Commission allows Foley’s Inn to go completely tourist in exchange for making 374 5th Street entirely residential, the City will see a net gain of 24 rental SRO units. This will provide badly needed rental housing for low-income people in San Francisco, where it would be illegal for the landlord to rent on a nightly basis.

As anyone who works in the Tenderloin can tell you, the worst run SRO’s are the ones with a high number of legally designated tourist (really transient) rooms. Take, for example, two approaches that the City took to address homelessness - and what a difference tourist vs. residential rooms bring. In the 1980’s under Mayor Feinstein, the Homeless Hotline housed people for one night in an SRO – which was a disaster. But under Care Not Cash, the City has given thousands of homeless people permanent rental housing in an SRO. The answer should be obvious – long-term SRO housing is a good thing for the homeless.

If I lived near 5th and Clara, I would rather see the building at 374 5th Street get re-opened as a residential hotel than revert to its prior use – as it would bring more permanent neighbors to the block. But that’s not how this vocal group of SOMA residents see it, as they appear to prefer keeping the building vacant than converting it to an SRO. They hear that the owner wants to re-open 374 5th Street as an SRO, and only believe the worst prejudices about what kind of people it would attract. If they understood it would open up as an 100% residential hotel, they should support it.

“We already have problems with drugs and petty crime in the area,” said Azmeer Salleh in a statement to neighbors. “By having an SRO established at 5th and Clara, we can expect that it will magnify these problems tenfold. We will have more break-ins, more petty larceny, more public urination and defecation. It will make it more dangerous to walk the streets at night …it means that our enclave within SOMA will become less 5th Street and more 6th Street.”

Sadly, we’ve seen such ignorant statements before. In 2006, when our organization - the Tenderloin Housing Clinic - opened the Sister Bernie Galvin Apartments at 7th and Brannan, a nearby resident complained that our building (which houses former SRO tenants) would attract “dumpster divers” to the neighborhood. The building opened, 56 tenants moved in and today we rarely get any complaints from neighbors at all.

“It’s a shame that the folks who are running this campaign haven’t given the owner a chance to explain what he is planning to do,” said Jeff Kositsky, executive director of Community Housing Partnership, a non-profit housing provider. “Talk to the neighbors of our buildings, and they will tell you we have a great relationship. We’re talking about housing for low-income people – whether that’s an SRO, or a one-bedroom or a five-bedroom apartment. It seems like these folks just don’t want poor people living near them.”

Sam Patel is planning an upcoming meeting with the neighborhood residents to explain the details of his project. Hopefully, the neighbors will understand that re-opening 374 5th Street as an SRO will be a positive asset - not a negative - on the community.