San Franciscans have long known that the single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) that dot the Tenderloin and the area around Sixth Street in SoMa are chaotic, substandard places to live. But now the Chronicle has crunched some numbers and gone inside a handful of these buildings to show just how terrible the situation really is.

As big cities with big homeless populations go, San Francisco is uniquely rich in SRO units, in part because politics and the finances around addressing homelessness have helped preserve many of these buildings pretty much as they were decades — if not a century — ago. Today the SF Chronicle brings us a lengthy investigative feature, clearly months in the works, that takes a long look inside a group of these buildings, and talks with tenants who have been placed there through the city's supportive housing infrastructure. And in many cases, the picture that's painted is one of third-world squalor, surrounded by the tragedies and chaos that come with drug addiction, extreme poverty, and mental illness.

Essentially, the piece is exposing the fairly open secret that a large chunk of San Francisco's supportive housing stock — funded by many millions of taxpayer dollars every year through the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) and managed through a web of nonprofits — is dilapidated, full of cockroaches and rodents, and is barely a step up from being unhoused.

You can read it for yourself and see the brief portraits of some people who are either presently living in these conditions or who have recently moved out or been kicked out for one reason or another — one big takeaway is that many of the residents of these buildings have significant case-management needs that aren't being met.

But below are some key points:

  • Gavin Newsom, when he was mayor, helped to usher in an era in which the city serves as master lessee for a swath of these buildings, under the infamous Care Not Cash program. The program took cash subsistence payments to the indigent and homeless out of the equation, swapping them for housing vouchers, and millions of dollars were funneled into supportive housing. The city now farms out the maintenance and management of many of these buildings to nonprofits, the largest being the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.
  • Mayor London Breed, the report suggests, has focused on funding new projects, like the Garland Hotel on O'Farrell, where SRO units all have private bathrooms and kitchenettes (which most of the city's SROs do not). Breed vaguely says she wants to move toward a model like that, where all residents can live "with dignity."
  • Shireen McSpadden, who became director of HSH in May 2021, admits that the SROs have been chronically underfunded over the years, but she says that a roof over peoples' heads is better than no roof, even if a building "isn't quite as good as it could be."
  • Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, defends the buildings that his organizations manages. But he shifts some blame to problem tenants, including those with hoarding issues (which attract vermin), and those who are otherwise mentally ill or drug-dependent. "We throw all these people into our hotels who have no demonstrated ability to live independently, who have severe problems and need to be elsewhere," Shaw tells the Chronicle. Shaw added, "Is every person a victim? There’s no question that there’s a greater challenge housing our population because of the difficulties with the tenants themselves.”
  • There is extremely high turnover among case managers, many of whom aren't making a living wage and are on the verge of homelessness themselves. And there aren't enough case managers to go around, with most managing dozens more cases per year than is federally recommended.
  • The city is better positioned when it actually owns a building and can control of maintenance, but it doesn't seem financially feasible to buy up this large number of buildings. Meanwhile, some landlords are getting $1 million or more in rent per year from the city, and the landlords blame maintenance issues like broken elevators — which can trap elderly and infirm residents on upper floors of SROs, unable to get their own meals — on the age of the building and the difficulty getting repair work and inspections done quickly.

It isn't a pretty picture, but it helps shed some light on where San Francisco is spending the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends on supportive housing every year. The HSH budget for 2020 was $600 million, as the Chronicle lays out, with a huge portion of that going to lease and maintain its supportive housing stock. And thanks to FEMA money during the pandemic, the HSH budget was $1.1 billion in 2021.

Broken Homes [SF Chronicle]