History in San Francisco
SROs in San Francisco
Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs) or "Residential Hotels," as they are commonly known, are
a vital part of San Francisco's housing stock and have been throughout
the city's history. Indeed, they have been important in cities across
the United States for more than two centuries. A typical SRO is a
single 8x10 foot room with shared toilets and showers down the hallway.
Though not the expansive suburban family home of the American ideal, these dwellings
have been essential to many important San Francisco social groups. Once know as the "Hotel City" when SROs were the predominant housing type, San Francisco still has hundreds of SRO hotels that are home to more than 30,000 tenants or approximately 5% of the city.
|The floor plan of the National Hotel on Market
Street in San Francisco
|SROs in San Francisco's Tenderloin
Traditionally SROs were populated by low-wage workers, transient
laborers and recent immigrants. In San Francisco, SRO tenants included gold prospectors in the mid-19th
century, seafarers who spent their months at shore
in the hotels of the 'Barbary Coast,' fruit and vegetable pickers
who would migrate to city residential hotels in the winter months,
and laborers who would pick up short term jobs as they came. (Groth
For immigrant populations in cities across the US, SROs were especially
vital. In San Francisco immigrant single adults and families made
their first foothold on America's west coast in SROs. Chinese immigrants
found homes and community in Chinatown residential hotels. The same
went for Filipino immigrants in Manilatown, Japanese immigrants
in Japantown, and Latinos in Mission district. Many migrants from
within the United States also found their first dwelling place in
San Francisco in SROs as was the case for many African Americans
in Western Addition and Fillmore SROs having come from the American
South and East. Today immigrants still find SROs as some of the
only truly affordable housing for the low-pay jobs that await them.
In many Tenderloin, Chinatown and Mission SROs, immigrant workers
may be found living three or more to a single small room.
An Epidemic of SRO Demolitions and the Rise in Homelessness in America
One of the principal causes of the widespread homelessness endemic in the
United States today was the wave of SRO hotel demolition that swept the country during the second
half of the 20th Century. Across the US an estimated 1 million SRO
units were destroyed between the mid-1970's and 1990's. The bulk
of these demolitions happened in relatively short, intense periods.
Chicago lost 80% of its 38,845 units between 1960-1980 (31,396 total
units.) (Hoch and Slayton pg. 121) New York lost 60% of its units
between 1975-81 (over 30,000 units.) Seattle lost 15,000 units
between 1960-81, San Diego lost 1,247 units between 1976-84, Portland
lost 1,700 units, and Denver lost nearly two-thirds of its SROs
during the period. (Wright and Rubin pg. 7)
In all of these cities, including San Francisco, there was concurrent demolition and conversion of many low-income apartment buildings.
In San Francisco, between 1970 and 2000, almost 9,000 low-rent apartments
were demolished or converted. Between 1980 and 2000 another 6,470
were converted to condominiums.
Rising Poverty, Declining Public Housing
During this period very little affordable housing was built to
replace the lost SROs and the US saw a dramatic increase in the
number of people living below the poverty line. Between 1978 and
2002 there was a 25% increase in the number of households living
below the poverty line while US office of Housing and Urban Development
funding declined 59%. This period also saw a shift in allocation
of funds from public housing development to Section 8 subsidies
that go into the pockets of landlords as well as tax deductions for mortgage interest payments
for homeowners. Thus, while there were 55,000 new units of public
housing authorized in 1979, in 1984 the number authorized was zero.
As a result of these collective forces, by the mid-1990's there
were almost twice as many very low-income families as low-cost housing
units to accommodate them. (Wright and Rubin, PPG 12-13)
Over the past two decades, the number of Americans who spend more
than half of their income on housing or live in seriously substandard
housing almost doubled, from 7.2 to 13.7 million. With so many living
on the edge, nearly two million people will be homeless at some
point during the year.
"Blight Removal" and the San Francisco Redevelopment
Agency: Devastation of the SRO Stock
|"Under the rubric of 'slum clearance' and 'blight
removal,' the (Redevelopment) agency turned to systematically sweeping
out the poor, with the full backing of city's power elite."
-Chester Hartman from "City for Sale: the Transformation
of San Francisco"
A housing crisis developed in San Francisco in the late 1970's
that was a product of the city's enormous popularity and dynamic economy
which attracted people to high paying jobs. The city's natural geographical
boundaries limit outward expansion and its politically influential
neighborhood organizers have successfully limited upward growth in
most residential areas. Wealthy arrivals drove up market rental costs,
which led to a severe shortage of affordable housing. Many low-income
people who had previously occupied apartments were forced to make
SROs their permanent homes. However, even as the need for this type
of housing grew, public and private forces combined to intensify SRO
demolitions, further exacerbating the crisis and displacing entire
communities out of the city.
South of Market Hotel Resident
Ken Roth watches the demolition of his neighborhood in the
1970s to make way for the Redevelopment Agency's Yerba Buena
SRO neighborhoods were targeted for elimination because their populations
did not fit into the long-term plans of the economic-political elite.
Justin Herman, executive director of San Francisco Redevelopment
Agency from 1960-1971 expressed the attitude existent in these circles
when he said infamously, in reference to the downtown SRO neighborhoods
of the South of Market, "This land is too valuable to permit poor
people to park on it." According to Paul Groth, author of "Living
Downtown; The History of Residential Hotels in the United States,"
SROs, including residential hotel units and rooming houses, may
have numbered as high as 90,000 in San Francisco at the inception
of the 1930's, meaning they were nearly as prevalent as apartments.
By the early 1990's the number of SRO units in San Francisco had
been reduced dramatically, to approximately 20,000.
The wave of SRO demolitions began with the construction of the
Bay Bridge and its ramps in the early 1930's. With the public policy
of urban renewal in the late 1940's, the San Francisco Redevelopment
Agency became an important player in this onslaught calling for
"blight removal" and revitalization essential for the city's survival.
In the early 1970's an estimated 4,000 SRO units were demolished
by the Agency. Many of these demolitions occurred in the South of
Market neighborhood with Redevelopment's Yerba Buena Center project.
Thousands more SRO units were razed for redevelopment of the Embarcadero
Center and Western Addition neighborhoods. Citywide, landlords eliminated
another 6,085 SRO units in between 1975-2000. (Housing Element of
the General Plan, 2002) Fires have also contributed to the devastation
of the SRO stock in San Francisco. Between 1989 and 2002, more than
1,700 SRO units were destroyed by fires in San Francisco (SRO Collaborative.)
Despite decades of this public-private program of SRO demolitions
and conversions, SROs remain a significant housing resource in San
Francisco. The city's 518 SRO buildings are home to more than 30,000
people (some estimates run much higher.) By contrast, the San Francisco
Housing Authority, which administers federal public housing, operates
a total of 6,096 permanently affordable units. It also places approximately
6,000 people in the tenant based Section 8 program and another 4,000
in a for-profit project based section 8 program. Added together
these programs offer substantially fewer units than the SRO stock.
Organize and Fight Back
urban renewal gathered momentum, tenants in SROs began to
and defend their homes
The International Hotel
The historic efforts of the tenants of the International Hotel to save their home
is archetypal of the conflict between low-income communities and elite developer interests. Manilatown in the 1960's was a vibrant
though impoverished downtown community that was home to the bulk of the
city's Filipino residents. In the 1950's and 60's Manilatown was decimated
by urban renewal. Housing (mostly SROs), businesses, and services for
a community of some 10,000 people was demolished.(Soloman pg. 96-97)
The International Hotel, an SRO inhabited by 196 tenants, mostly poor
Filipino seniors, was one of the last Manilatown buildings standing when
the owner took out a demolition permit in September of 1968. The residents
refused to move out, and along with students, activists, and other community
members they rallied to save their home.
For almost a decade the battle raged on the streets and in the courts.
On the night of the evictions in 1977 thousands of people joined the tenants
to form a human barricade around the block but eventually police used
brutal force to get into the hotel and remove the tenants. Though the
building was eventually demolished, the fight to save the I-Hotel was
a formative lesson that helped transform the public conscience and craft
the will to preserve low-income housing and maintain a culturally diverse
As a postscript, the I-Hotel struggle didn't end with the demolition.
Due to persistent community activism, a parking garage slated for the
site was never built and a new International hotel, a 14-story housing
development for low-income seniors, will replace the old I-hotel.
International Hotel surrounded
by protesters in 1977
|'Fight for the International Hotel' organizing flyer
Redevelopment Hits the South of Market: Yerba Buena
Soon after the struggle to save the I-Hotel began, a similar affair
transpired in the South of Market neighborhood. The San Francisco
Redevelopment Agency, pressured by a coalition of the tourism industry
elite, large corporations, financial institutions, other downtown
business leaders, and City Hall put into motion the Yerba Buena
Redevelopment Project. At the time the site contained more than
4,000 SRO units, as well as many low-rent apartment buildings and
the businesses that serviced the community. To lobby in support
of the Redevelopment project the socioeconomic elite formed the
San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association (the "Renewal"
has since been changed to "Research".)
SPUR summed up their motivations for their support of redevelopment
in a 1966 'Prologue for Action.' The document, released as the Yerba
Buena Project was being considered for approval, offers a stark
glimpse of the designs the elite held for the largely poor, immigrant
and minority SRO population. "If San Francisco decides to compete
effectively with other cities for new "clean" industries and new
corporate power, its population will move closer to standard white
Anglo-Saxon Protestant characteristics� Selection of a population's
composition might be undemocratic. Influence on it, however, is
legal and desirable for the health of the city." (Hartman, p. 65)
The Yerba Buena plan called for acquiring and demolishing the SRO
communities, by eminent domain if necessary, and replacing them
with a convention center, tourist hotels, high-end housing, and
shopping. It was approved unanimously by the planning commission,
and by a 9-2 vote at the Board of Supervisors in 1966.
In the face of these powerful forces , community members marshaled
opposition. They formed the Tenants and Owners in Opposition to
Redevelopment (TOOR.) Through lawsuits, lobbying and advocacy TOOR
and its supporters were able to delay but not stop the Yerba Buena
Project. Importantly they were able to achieve a settlement that
led to the production of approximately 1,600 low-income housing
units as replacement for demolished SROs. (Hartman, PPG 115)
Perhaps the most significant victory that arose from the organizing
of the I-hotel and TOOR tenants was the passage into law 1981 of
the Residential Hotel Demolition and Conversion Ordinance. Organizing
pressure compelled the Board of Supervisors to pass this law which
banned demolition and conversion of SROs unless an in lieu fee is
paid to the city's affordable housing replacement fund. Continued
community activism led to the strengthening of the ordinance in
1990 as the Board of Supervisors increased the amount of the fee
and gave neighborhood nonprofits legal standing to enforce it.
South of Market in
the early 1950s
|Low cost SROs line Third Street in the
1950s. Virtually every unit above the first floor is an
The same neighborhood
today is dominated by the Yerba Buena convention center
and Metreon mall and theater complex
Confronted with Manhatanization, Gentrification Tenderloin
Throughout the 1970's a constant drumbeat of demand sounded from
the politically influential tourism and conventioneering industries
calling on city government to increase the supply of tourist hotels.
In 1980 three corporations proposed to construct 3 luxury hotel
towers with more than 2,200 tourist rooms, in the largely SRO lower-Tenderloin
neighborhood. Tenant activists in the neighborhood were concerned
about the "Manhattanization" of their neighborhood and ensuing gentrification
effects, as well as other environmental impacts on traffic and air
quality incurred by these towers.
The tenants formed the North of Market Planning Coalition (NOMPC)
which organized with the Gray Panthers and other neighborhood activists
to create the Luxury Hotel Task Force. The Luxury Hotel Task Force
saw the three tourist hotels as an immediate threat, but also as
the tip of a much larger iceberg. The out-of-character heights proposed
for the tourist hotel developments were legal according zoning regulations,
so Manhatinization could conceivably proceed unchecked. To confront
these manifold threats the tenants organized with the short-term
goal of community mitigation from the tourist hotel developers,
and a long-term goal of down-zoning the neighborhood to head off
future fights of the same nature.
The Ramada Hotel in the
lower-Tenderloin in 2003
Their successful organizing won unprecedented mitigations, including
a fee of $0.50 per hotel room rented, to be set aside for low-income
housing development, amounting to approximately $320,000 per year
for 20 years. They also included a contribution of $200,000 from
each hotel for community service projects. Furthermore, the hotels
were required to sponsor a $4,000,000 grant for the acquisition
and renovation of four low-cost residential hotels for the city,
a total 474 total units. (Shaw, p.11) The extent of this mitigation
package was unprecedented at the time; since then it has become
commonplace to see such settlements when neighborhoods are confronted
with such out-of-scale development. Typical of the city's pro-development
mainstream media, the San Francisco Chronicle was brutal in its
criticism, calling the mitigation package "a shake down" by "bank
robbers" (Shaw, PPG 11)
Having achieved the first part of their agenda, NOMPC and their
coalition partners moved on to their long-term goal of downzoning
the neighborhood. Tenants and activists circulated petitions and
pressured city government to rezone the neighborhood to prohibit
new tourist hotels and put in place height restrictions of eight
to thirteen stories. Their work paid off with rezoning signed into
law on March 28, 1985. (Shaw, pg. 13)
A New Crisis in Residential Hotels, Central City SRO
In the late 1990's San Francisco experienced another acute housing
crisis. Once again many people including those on fixed incomes,
seniors, couples and families were forced out of apartments and
into SRO's along with the traditional population of single working
people. Market prices for an SRO unit in the Central City went from
approximately $200 in 1990 to over $500 in 2000. (Sources: Tenderloin
Housing Clinic Modified Payment Program) The overall lack of affordable
housing created a sense of desperation and people were forced to
put up with appalling conditions, while paying extremely high percentages
of their income for their unit. Although demolitions did not take
place as in the 70's, many landlords endeavored to evict or bully
long-term tenants from SROs and illegally convert buildings to tourist
hotels. Many others took advantage of the housing crisis to reap
higher profits by neglecting routine maintenance and repairs.
In the face of this latest crisis, tenants and activists founded
the Central City SRO Collaborative in 2001. The SRO Collaborative
is a partnership of SRO tenant activists, the Tenderloin Housing
Clinic, Conard House, and the Mental Health Association of San Francisco.
In forming the Collaborative, members set out to organize with SRO
tenants with goals of improving living conditions and safety, and
advocating to maintain and increase low-income housing options.
The organizing model grew out of the experience and success of
the Tenderloin Housing Clinic with more than 20 years providing
free legal services to, advocating for, and organizing with low-income
tenants in the Tenderloin and South of Market. In the years leading
up to the establishment of the Central City SRO Collaborative, similar
Collaboratives were founded to work with the SRO tenants in Chinatown
and the Mission District. Please view the 'Past Campaigns' and 'Programs'
pages to read about the organizing successes of the Central City
Lower Eddy neighborhood
1) Wright, James D. and Rubin, Beth A. "Is Homelessness a Housing Problem?"
Tulane University, Philadelphia 1997
2) Groth, Paul. "Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in
the United State." University of California Press. Berkeley, 1989
3) Hoch, Charles and Slayton, Robert A. "New Homeless and Old; Community
and the Skid Row Hotel." Temple University Press. Philadelphia, 1989
4) Shaw, Randy. "The Activist's Handbook." University of California Press.
5) San Francisco General Plan, Housing Element, 2002 edition
6) Hartman, Chester "City for Sale; The Transformation of San Francisco."
University of California Press. Berkeley, 2002
7) Soloman, Larry. "Roots of Justice; Stories of Organizing in Communities
of Color." University of California Press. Berkeley, 1998