San Francisco is facing a serious housing affordability crisis. We can all agree to that fact and I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to hear. With homelessness increasing by 15-30% last year depending on who you talk to, and the cost of rental housing at an all-time high, everyone in San Francisco is feeling the effects of the crisis. So why, given the level of suffering we see on our streets every day, would the Planning Commission be considering granting the owner of 68 desperately needed Single Room Occupancy Residential units a conversion to turn them into upscale tourist hotel rooms?
But that’s just what Mr. Mosser is asking for at his property at 54 4th Street in downtown San Francisco. With folks sleeping on the sidewalk, 68 SRO units have been left empty while Mosser seeks the conversion. And more are to follow. Other private SRO landlords are waiting in the wings to follow Mosser down this road of profit over people. The SRO Conversion law only allows the conversion of empty SRO units giving landlords a real incentive to leave SROs vacant with the delayed payoff of converting them to tourist rooms. Of course the law also requires landlords to replace the units with equivalent units somewhere else or pay a fee to the city equal to 80% of the cost to replace those units. Money that could later be used for affordable housing.
But there’s a problem with that plan. The replacement units may or may not be built. Mosser, for example, is only planning on paying a fee rather than actually creating any new units. And once SRO’s are gone they are actually never replaced with the same kind of low-income SRO housing that the most vulnerable among us once counted on for housing. Newer, upscale SRO or micro-units may be built at “affordable” levels, but they are not affordable to the people who have historically occupied our SRO housing in the City. And those new units are always more expensive than existing SROs. The current proposal by Mr. Mosser, which will be heard at the Planning Commission in March, has kept 68 SRO residential units vacant for a year or more already and wouldn’t actually build or replace these units once converted. Meanwhile, people are literally forced to sleep on the sidewalk in the alley next to that very same building. Clearly for some people, profits are more important than people. San Francisco, once we lose our lowest income units like our SROs, there is no way to actually ever build or replace those units. They are gone for good. And so are the people that once lived in them. We can do better San Francisco. And we owe much better to the people we have forced to live on the street next to Mr. Mosser’s building.
The Planning Department itself has been working on a “Community Stabilization Plan” with recommendations aimed at reducing displacement and protecting SRO and other low-income housing. It includes suggestions like a Vacancy Tax on all empty rental units to reduce the incentive to leave units empty similar to the Vacancy tax planned for vacant commercial spaces. Of course to determine what’s empty and what’s not, a Rental Registry would be required to be created so that the City would actually know what kind of housing we have available in the City, where it is located and how much it costs. Currently, we have no idea. But neither the Rental Registry nor the Vacancy Tax on housing units has gained much momentum and doesn’t seem likely anytime in the short-term.
But we do know that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of empty SRO units in the City right now. And thousands of people without a home. One shortage we currently don’t have is tourist hotel rooms. Yes, tourist rooms have high occupancy rates in San Francisco. We are a popular tourist destination. But with AirBnB and other platforms competing for the same tourists, I don’t see the likelihood of any tourists not being able to find a place on any given night. But we don’t have enough low-income housing. And thousands of San Francisco residents are unable to find a place every night. So exchanging our SROs for tourist rooms is not only counter-productive and utterly unnecessary, I believe it’s also inhumane and immoral. I for one will be at the Planning Commission in March to tell them “No Way” for the conversions of our SRO’s to tourist rooms. If we don’t stop this here, many more SRO buildings will follow and the suffering on our streets will continue to get worse.