If you are placed in supportive housing, it will likely be a single-room occupancy (SRO) unit, and you will also come into contact, in various contexts, with the SRO Collaboratives. They tend to get tenants plugged in by holding dinners, giving out free ice cream and getting them involved in neighborhood issues, and yes, an SRO Collaborative got me interested in these oft-ignored equity issues. However, if you dig deeper, you will find conflicts of interest, influence peddling and the same corruption that has plagued the Department Of Building Inspection (DBI) in recent years, all of which funded by the City, and my experience has made me believe that there needs to be major changes to how the city helps empower low-income tenants to deal with issues in their building.
So, what are SRO Collaboratives, you might ask? SRO Collaboratives are groups that are funded by DBI through contracts with nonprofit organizations that help SROs achieve code compliance, ostensibly with a focus on helping SRO tenants assert their rights. That in and of itself is not nefarious, but where it gets problematic is that the nonprofits who act as fiscal agents are and have served as landlords in permanent supportive housing and affordable housing.
When I asked a source DBI who does not want to be named why nonprofit landlords are basically the intermediary between the City and SRO Collaboratives, they stated that they needed “established” nonprofits to make this work. I felt no satisfaction in that response. The source also stated that the SRO Collaboratives were funded only to do code enforcement, although DBI would “look the other way” when it came to other things.
First, let’s look at Central City SRO Collaborative, which is a program of major supportive housing provider Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC). Its main program is hiring tenant organizers for $200 a month for not only private SROs, but SROs operated by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. It’s like having a major private landlord like Veritas reducing a tenant’s rent to organize their building however Veritas wants.
The organizers in each building are picked less for their abilities than how well they can tow THC’s line. I have seen buildings go without tenant organizers for months just so they could find someone who would say what the bosses want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. In addition, some of the organizers had claimed that rents would go up if we had laundry facilities in our building (which is not true as rents are subsidized by the city) and have told people that while District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney was making a visit, they didn’t want the tenants talking about issues in the building, rather about issues outside the building, which is beyond the scope of a program centered around building code enforcement. Also, Central City SRO Collaborative will not let Mission SRO Collaborative go into THC buildings in the Mission, which is sketchy due to THC’s director Randy Shaw being an outspoken supporter of the type of development that the Mission has protested.
And then, there is the Mission SRO Collaborative, run by Dolores Street Community Services (DSCS). To be fair, DSCS was a big supporter of #30RightNow and wanted to see tenants at its sole supportive housing site, Casa Quezada, pay no more than 30% of income towards rent. MSROC was also where I got my start with tenant organizing, and who initially recommended me to the now-defunct SRO Task Force. However, when I wanted to see organizing around the various issues in nonprofit SROs like THC, MSROC staff would regularly block me from talking about it, and when I reapplied to the Task Force, another staffer with the organization told me that Dolores Street told them not to send letters of recommendation about me because of my organizing around nonprofits and the issues I expressed around the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s reps while on the Task Force.
Then, there is the Chinatown SRO Collaborative, which is funded through the Chinatown Community Development Center, which manages various affordable housing sites. Recently, District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s legislation expanded the rights of tenants to organize in their buildings, however, tenants in nonprofits were carved out of a major provision that would have provided recognition from tenant associations. I received an email from a stakeholder in the legislation that CCDC sought to carve out nonprofits from that critical provision. This was a real case of “rules for thee, not for me”.
The problems posed by these conflicts of interest are not abstractions; they cause real harm by interfering with and co-opting tenant organizing and creating a culture where tenants can only tell the nonprofits what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. The nonprofits may assert that the city funds these programs and that they are just the intermediary, however, there remains a perverse power dynamic that stifles any tenant activism that goes against the interests of management, even at the expense of the tenants.
So, what is the solution? I do not advocate necessarily for the dissolution of the SRO Collaboratives, nor the dissolution of housing nonprofits. However, nonprofit landlords cannot be the fiscal agent for SRO Collaboratives, and if they must exist, they should be placed under a nonprofit that does not manage any SROs. The City should review the contracts between DBI and the nonprofits who run the collaboratives and re-evaluate their role in tenant organizing and code enforcement. If the City is going to help develop tenant organizers, it must give them the skills and tools to be independent of nonprofit landlords and be able to organize on their own terms.
Jordan Davis (she/her) is a supportive housing tenant who fought for 30% rents and continues to fight for supportive housing tenants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org