Listen to the 6th Street Community!

root - Posted on 02 June 2003

SRO Tenants win electricity funding from the city

by Christina Heatherton/PoorNewsNetwork Community Journalist

There was never any fire, but the toxic stale smell of singed clothes and carpet lingered in the apartment for days. A burnt brown shirt fished out of the smoky pile and held in my mom's tensed hand shook me out of my ambivalence. Things were not going to be alright. In our newly fatherless apartment, our lives lay in cluttered heaps on the floor. We'd pull out the appropriate articles as we dashed off, mom to work, sister and I to school, leaving behind unpaid bills, unfinished assignments, unwashed dishes, and uncertainty to be dealt with later. All the while, tension smoldered like the lamp we had accidentally left lit under a pile of clothes. There was never any fire, but for a long time, the disaster that we were always waiting on gained a persistence we could breathe.

Listening to the testimonies of the 6th Street SRO tenants last Tuesday night made me think of my family’s own combustible combination of poverty, stress, and electricity. An unusual coalition of 6th street SRO (Single-Room Occupancy) hotel tenants, owners, activists, community organizers, and developers congregated.. at the meeting of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, sporting neon pink stickers proclaiming “Listen to the 6th Street Community!” The coalition urged members of the agency to divert $500,000 from the SRO Rehabilitation Loan Program to upgrade wiring and increase the number of outlets in hotel rooms. Nearly forty people showed up to City Hall in support, half of them testifying publicly before the agency.

Sam Dodge of the Central City SRO Collaborative, one of the main organizers of the event, described the “pandemic” problem of outdated wiring in the SROs. Their electrical facilities are often only up to 1911 standards. The problem significantly contributed to a rash of fires that destroyed hundreds of units. Updated wiring would save lives. “Poor wiring”, he explained “leads to fights, fires, and instability” enabling “no stable community environment.” Many other SRO residents echoed this sentiment.

Phyllis Trammell spoke movingly of the constant fears she must battle after being an SRO fire survivor and current SRO resident. “I wonder when I wake up each morning if I’ll have to leave. I hear fire trucks 2-3x day and I don’t know if I’ll have a room when I get back. I have three grandchildren and I’d like to see them grow up...All we want is electricity in our rooms. We’d like to listen to the radio, use the TV or a phone. We’d like sprinklers in out rooms. We’d like to know that we are going to survive. We don’t want to die....We are a family. We want electricity and we want it bad”

Another resident, Terrie Frye testified to how electricity improved her quality of life. After living in an SRO for 7 years, she developed a gastrointestinal disorder, not having enough electricity to cook in her room. On Feb 2nd she got Section 8 housing and has been able to prepare her food on her stove at home. She hasn’t had to take her stomach meds since. “It’s amazing how much electricity can help.” She said with a smile.

Residents and owners testified to breakers short circuiting anywhere from once to twenty-five times per hour. Not only does this constitute an unbelievable nuisance but, as one tenant explained, it is also a security issue. When a breaker needs to be reset the person at the front desk has to leave to fix it. With the front person gone, other residents can not be attended to leading to further instability. Additionally, the hotel becomes more vulnerable to vandalism and robbery.

Many tenant groups, housing and SRO advocacy groups have been trying to attack the problem of wiring for a while. The Central City Collaborative, along with a host of other groups engineered a strategic partnership with SRO owners to address the issue. The money taken from the SRO Rehabilitation Loan Program comes in forgivable loans which have limited repayment restrictions. This grant-like financing gave owners an incentive for making the necessary upgrades to the SROs.

Since September, owners, tenants groups, and community organizations have worked on the issue with SOMPAC, the south of Market Planning Area Committee, which advises the Redevelopment Agency. The diverse interests reached a historic and unprecedented consensus. This put pressure on the Redevelopment Agency to acquiesce.

Ironically, it was the agency that ultimately untied the owners and tenants. "The “deal breaker” that most speakers on Tuesday spoke out against was something called the “right of first refusal”. This was restriction in the loan where the owners who accepted loan money would be required to offer the city the first bid on their property if they ever sold it. The clause is basically an attempt by the agency to “steal buildings” and makes owners feel “disrespected by the city” said Dodge. Owners and tenants all testified passionately against this restriction.

Many including Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic argued that the board should defer to the united sentiment of the people of 6th street. “This vote will allow you to make the greatest difference in people’s lives more than anything you’ll ever vote for.” Arguing against them, he said, would set a dangerous precedent. Lauren Alden, an SRO tenant added “failure to fund this project sends a clear message of indifference to a community that deserves far more.”

In the end, after over 2 hours of testimonies and deliberations, the 5 member committee voted to approve the loan money minus the “right of first refusal” condition. The decision was a huge victory for the tenants, owners, and organizers who have been battling with this issue.

The most pressing argument for the funding was never brought up during the meeting. Most 6th street tenants have not actually benefited from any of the redevelopment agency’s money. $90 million dollars has been spent on the redevelopment of 6th street SROs so far. Almost all of this money has gone to a handful of hotels and the benefits have been extremely limited. Sam Dodge commented before the meeting, "Look up and down 6th Street and you know that they've spent $90 million dollars. But ask any tenant how has his life improved and he'll laugh at you." Many groups have been organizing around the mishandling of this money. Tuesday’s victory was only part of this larger battle.


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