We Waited, and Waited, and Then We Won!!

root - Posted on 13 March 2002

The West Cork Hotel Found to Be Illegally Housing Tourists by The SF Board of Appeals after countless continuances and delays!

by Gretchen Hildebran/PoorNewsNetwork

The SF Board of Appeals hearing room was packed and just like last time, we were asked to move to the overflow room down the hall. We were asked many times but nobody wanted to budge. Commissioner McInerney, the one who left us waiting for hours last time, asked the board to be recused from a case yet again. The tenant advocate sitting next to me muttered under his breath, "He better not leave." The SRO resident sitting behind me was more straightforward. He yelled out to the wayward commissioner, "You stick around now, we’re waiting for you!"

I had arrived at the Board of Appeals hearing room at five, to wait with the SRO tenants, housing advocates and homeless folks, for the law to be laid down on the West Cork Hotel case. We waited for over four hours in December and another two hours last Wednesday night for a vote that finally took about ten minutes to debate. After 6 months of illegal operation as a tourist hotel, West Cork was officially found to be in violation of the law that protects Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms from being converted to other uses.

The stakes were high. The 88 rooms of the West Cork are a precious resource for folks that can only afford an SRO room. These rooms were vacated twenty years ago when the city shut down the hotel (formerly the Empress Hotel) for countless health and safety violations. In May of last year they opened again—to tourists.

For this community, reclaiming the West Cork is not a symbolic act, but one that will save lives. If the West Cork landlords can turn their SRO into a tourist hotel and charge double or more the nightly fees and get away with it, other landlords will certainly follow their lead. And with downtown businesses already eager to turn the TL into a shiny tourist trap, this case could set a dangerous precedent. I recall the Redevelopment Agency meetings I have attended, where the value of an SRO was measured against parking spaces and luxury lofts. It scared me that these decisions aren’t in the hands of folks who live in SRO’s, who don’t get to choose where they park or where they sleep.

The waiting got to me and I finally did leave my seat, and in the overflow room I met Shorty, an energetic SRO tenant and activist wearing a bright bandana. He reassured me that we were going to win. "This will serve as a warning to other landlords as well, that they will be sued by people who need this housing." And after all, the law created to protect low-income housing stock backed us up, right?

Laws, however, are always up to official interpretation. We rushed back to the hearing room for the very brief statements of the Board (McInerney decided to show up this time) on the matter. Board President Arnold Chin and Commissioner Allam El Qadah both sympathized more with the investments of the West Cork landlords than the housing rights of tenderloin residents. Luckily the importance of low-income housing was not lost on Commissioner Saunders who said her decision was influenced by SF’s current housing crisis. She also noted that the West Cork landlords "are not new to the process or naive to the city’s policies." Commissioner McInerney then surprised the crowd by siding with Commissioners Saunders and Cullum in voting to uphold the six-month old ruling against the West Cork.

While the case against the West Cork officially had been argued by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, it was people power that finally convinced the Board to get on with it and do the right thing. This had been the fourth time we had packed the room to see justice done. This time, when the hearing room emptied out after the ruling, we celebrated in the knowledge that we didn’t have to come back again, at least not for this case.

Larry Edward sat energetically and patiently through the two hours of delay before the case was heard. As we were jubilantly leaving City Hall he was passing out snacks declaring, "It just goes to show, when oppressed folks come together they can win." Edward described himself as currently homeless but said he was here because "SRO rooms and homeless folks, we’re all on the same ticket." He was feeling positive about his option to move into a decent room after this decision. A fellow celebrant then chimed in that another SRO owned by the same landlords, the Alder Hotel, had been cited for over 100 code violations in the past six months, most of them fire safety violations.

On the steps of City Hall the air was cool and fresh and people were jumping with the energy of the recent victory. I asked Randy Shaw of the THC whether we would have to fight this again in court. As far as he knew, the landlords had recently changed their tune and instead of readying a legal challenge they were courting a non-profit to lease and manage the building. Hopefully the West Cork and all of its now-swanky 88 rooms are on their way to being desperately needed low-income homes for people. If not, Shaw stated, "We will let them know that they are violating the law." And we’ll keep coming back until they stop.


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