KPIX: Affordable Housing Advocates Question Safety Of San Francisco SROs Amid COVID-19 Crisis

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – It’s one of the oldest forms of affordable housing in San Francisco, SROs, short for single room occupancy hotels. Now, the very people who fought to preserve this housing of last resort are calling it dangerous.

“As many as eight or nine people are sharing one 10 by 10 foot room and that is just unbelievable,” Mattias Mormino said.

 Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (CBS)

For decades, SROs have been defended by affordable housing advocates like Mattias Mormino. The Director of Policy and Government relations at Chinatown’s Community Development Center, Mormino said the pandemic has changed his mind about whether SROs are really sustainable.

“I think COVID really accelerated that and made us realize that places where folks have to share bathrooms have to share kitchen facilities, really have some inherent problems that make them, you know, dangerous in an epidemic… We had multiple people tell us that they were going to the bathroom inside the room if they had a sink, which not a lot of families do, or in a bucket,” Mormino said.

“For a family with children, it’s really hard,” Yongyu Situ said.

Situ has lived in an SRO on Washington Street for five years with her 65-year-old mother, her husband and their six-year-old son. When she moved here from China, she had grand ideas about what the United States would look like, but now she says it’s a little disappointing.

“The living environment (in China) was better,” Situ said.

At least in China she had her own bathroom, sink and small kitchen. In San Francisco she has to share those things with 30 of her neighbors during a pandemic.

“More than ever I want to move out of SRO to have a bigger space, enough space for us,” she said.

Situ is one of 30,000 San Franciscans living in an SRO, hers doesn’t have a window, any natural light or a sink. Like most SROs, it is a 10×10 foot space with her family of four and COVID-19 has made that small space feel even more crowded.

“It’s a really small room there are four of us. We have a bunk bed, my mom was on the upper bunk, I was in the lower, me and my son and my husband needs to sleep on the floor,” Situ told KPIX 5.

SROs were created around the turn of the 20th century and meant to be transitional housing. They’re now supposed to be reserved as the housing of last resort, but with so few affordable options SROs are often used as permanent spaces that are consistently overcrowded. Families in SROs are known to openly disregard fire codes and crowd multigenerational families into a tiny space.

Twenty-seven percent of San Francisco’s SRO buildings have had positive cases of COVID-19, 50% of families living in SROs have lost work due to COVID, 48% of families in SROs have had their income dropped to zero.

“Both my Mom and husband are unemployed now,” Situ said.

Situ is now the breadwinner for the family. She works for the Chinese Progressive Association and helps essential workers who also live in SROs.

Nurses and first responders when they come home, they stay in a guest bedroom. They shower before they even get into the house, those are things that are just not possible in SRO hotels,” Mormino said.

Situ has applied for other affordable housing options that would give her family more space but every single year she is turned down, it’s the same story for her mother.

“We have lots of people waiting my Mom has been waiting but there’s no chance of getting in because too many people,” Situ said.

Ninety-five percent of families in San Francisco’s SROs fall into a very specific gap, they don’t make enough money to qualify for affordable housing. The rung down is supportive housing but that’s reserved for people who are homeless or in a shelter, so the longer Situ stays in this SRO, the more difficult it is to get out of it.

Mormino says it’s time for this city to start thinking about that and where the 30,000 people living in these buildings can go, because he doesn’t think it’s safe for them to stay much longer.

“I think it’s the consensus is it’s not enough. It’s not okay and we are starting to be pressed by time,” Mormino said.

By: Susie Steimle, October 1, 2020