Op-ed: Budget Advocates Missed an Opportunity to Root Out SRO Collaborative’s Conflict of Interest

by Jordan Davis

It seems that every year, the budget process in San Francisco is a peculiar song and dance you will not find in any other county—or in very few cities— in California. We could have a professional city manager working with the Board of Supervisors and community to create a workable budget, but there ends up being unpleasant surprises on June 1, and we have to scramble, culminating in Pride Weekend also being at the height of budget season/addback process. I have always supported the entirety of the Budget Justice Coalition’s asks every year.

But, however, there was one addback that I felt hesitant to support.

I was not happy when Mayor London Breed decided to eliminate $4.8 million from the Code Enforcement Outreach Program, which has helped many tenants achieve habitable housing, and the contractors included many respected groups like Causa Justa/Just Cause and the Housing Rights Committee. I also am OK with the part where the Apartment Association gets funding, as long as it is solely used to help landlords know the law.

However, what I am not OK with as it relates to the Code Enforcement Outreach Program and the SRO Collaboratives, where several landlords who run SROs used for permanent supportive housing and other forms of low income housing get contracts to basically run tenants rights groups, leading to a perverse dynamic where landlords such as the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who runs the Central City SRO Collaborative, are in charge of ensuring code compliance in privately run SROs while ignoring what is going on in their backyard, leading to the “Broken Homes” series from the Chronicle.

When I went to City Hall to give public comment in early June, right after the cuts were announced, I did my best to point out this dynamic without alienating myself from other housing rights activists, and add to this issue the nuance it deserves.

However, during this entire process, I feel that activists and stakeholders missed an opportunity to reform the SRO Collaboratives so that SRO landlords, no matter how ethical they may be, are not the contractors that administer the programs. The collaboratives could potentially be housed under any non-profit, as the Department of Building Inspection provides the funding and it would be the non-profits prerogative to determine how the funds are used to help achieve code compliance and empower tenants in the best way possible.

I’ve explained in a previous Street Sheet article about how this dynamic has been an issue in the past. This has been known for a long time, in fact, the issue has been pointed out by more conservative influencers, such as blogger “bluoz,” a blogger who has frequently criticized the Coalition on Homelessness and homeless people. They posted a posthumous statement by late tenant’s rights activist Jeoflin Roh in 2008, in which he recalled a conversation with Anne Kronenberg, a deputy director of the Department of Public Health who was in charge of oversight with contractors in the 2000s. On the night before the Central City SRO Collaboratives was to be funded, according to Roh, Kronenberg told him  that putting the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in charge of the collaborative would be a bad idea. If I find myself agreeing with this new wave of conservatism more than progressives on the ethics issues around Collaboratives, then it must be a real problem.

And two decades later, it is still a bad idea. On April 27, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins posted a tweet about meeting with the Central City Collaborative on issues around drugs in the neighborhood. Regardless of what you may think about crime issues in San Francisco, it is not an appropriate use of DBI code enforcement outreach funds to deal with issues totally outside of housing. It’s no secret that Randy Shaw, who runs both the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and by extension the collaborative,  is tight with Jenkins in her campaign on ratcheting drug enforcement in the Tenderloin. Shaw has been a critic of previous DA Chesa Boudin, who wanted to prosecute bad landlords.  Also, to my knowledge, Shaw’s collaborative never invited Boudin to a meeting. 

The only time that SRO Collaboratives should meet with the District Attorney is to prosecute bad landlords, not for anything else related to the neighborhood.

If an equity program gets defunded, it is up to budget justice advocates to make sure that the program avoids the appearance of impropriety, uses best practices, and stays independent of political agendas. This was a missed opportunity to reform a program that could do good, but can’t due to constraints and conflicts of interest created by the City.