Why I Quit the SRO Task Force and Why It Should Be Abolished

On Tuesday, October 20, Supervisor Matt Haney introduced legislation stating that all permanent supportive housing, where the vast majority of people exit homelessness, should have rents no more than 30% of income. This was lead by the #30RightNow Coalition, led by many of the affected tenants, plus organizations such as the Supportive Housing Providers Network, Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association (HESPA), Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing (DISH), Episcopal Community Services, Housing Rights Committee, Coalition on Homelessness and so many more.

But, I wish to talk about how it almost never happened, thanks to the Single Room Occupancy Task Force, an advisory body of City appointees dealing with SROs where I served for several years, and where I introduced a resolution that passed, by only one vote, calling for a 30% standard in City contracted hotels. Over the two and a half years I served on that body, I had come to realize how this City-run backwater commission has failed low-income tenants for over two decades, and why it needs to be abolished.

Started in 1999 in response to a rash of fires in hotels, the SRO Task Force was formed to develop policies that would help make SROs habitable and safe places to live, and is often mentioned in the same breath as our SRO sprinkler ordinance — more than that later. The SRO Task Force was also tasked with developing SRO visitor policies, which are enforced by the rent board. However, in practice, the committee does not do much, due to a bias towards landlords, a glut of departmental representatives, a lack of capacity from certain seats, attendance issues and bad appointments.

When I first got on the SRO Task Force in May 2017, there were two tenant seats —I occupied one of them — two landlord seats, one non-profit employee-officer seat, and one seat from each of the SRO Collaboratives (Mission, Central City, Chinatown, and SRO Families), all appointed by the Board of Supervisors. In addition, there were several departmental representatives from the Departments of Building Inspection, Public Health, and Homelessness and Supportive Housing. My second meeting, I helped pass a recommendation for gender neutral restrooms in SROs, and … it wasn’t unanimous by any means. Two landlord reps voted against it, as well as my fellow tenant representative.

Over the next few years I served on that body, there wasn’t much done. Sometimes it felt like the Republicans in Washington: a lot of obstructionism, conflict of interest, a lot of loud anti-tenant Archie Bunker-esque rhetoric from landlord rep Bruce Burge and tenant rep Dan Jordan, who was directly employed by Clifford Gilmore — the Task Force’s Central City representative. The Mission, Chinatown and SRO Families reps were fine, but they were overextended and missed many meetings, leaving me to fight alone. But nobody else would pursue pro-tenant policies, and it became nothing more than a glorified country club for discussion of SRO issues rather than a meaningful body for advancing recommendations.

And when the Task Force came up for reappointment in 2019, I recruited several people to run — a queer Democratic Socialist member who helped hand out N95s and desired to create a more activist board, and a queer supportive services person who has extensive background in mental health and senior/disability issues. Both were shot down in favor of RJ Sloan, another employee of Clifford Gilmore’s, and Dion Roberts, a boutique hotel operator person with mayoral connections. Rules Committee chair Hillary Ronen claimed it was about “balance,” but the task force already had an employee of Clifford Gilmore, who tends to be more pro-landlord. That made no sense to me.

I talked a lot in a previous article about the 30% resolution in supportive housing, and how I was gaslighted, tripped up, mistreated, and had to deal with Reagan-esque rhetoric, how I went on a hunger strike because of that. The resolution miraculously passed, but the whole process left a bad taste in my mouth. But it wasn’t until a few months later until I realized how much I was bamboozled all these years.

After a transphobic remark by another member at the October 2019 meeting, the same queer tenant leader who was rejected and I were talking with task force chair Jamie Sanbonmatsu, who represents the Department of Building Inspection. He said that the body never actually came to a consensus about the sprinkler ordinance, that landlords and tenants will never agree on everything, how the Task Force was created because the City never wanted to deal with the issue, and how he didn’t even want to deal with this, given that he was chief housing inspector and it took energy away from his job “fining landlords.” Shocked, we all came to an agreement that the Task Force needed to be “nuked,” and the commission never met again.

A few months later, I went into City Hall, walked up the steps, went to Supervisor Ronen’s office, and delivered my letter of resignation, in which I also called for the dissolution of the Task Force. We are fortunate in this city to have a lot of advisory bodies for different interests, but when they are balanced against community and have representatives from people with traditional institutional power and there is no capacity, they then become like a more toxic version of “The View” supported by unpaid labor from City staff.

Autumn is coming, and as trees shed leaves, so should the City shed her unworkable advisory bodies and seek to create commissions that are truly active in fostering community power and good government, whether advisory or oversight. We have to pull the plug on the SRO Task Force, and create new conduits for inside-outside strategy and participation for low-income tenants. As it stands, outside organizing will win many battles for low-income tenants. This is our time, and we shouldn’t be held back.