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City looks to crack down on illegal SRO tourist rentals

Despite SRO woes, lawmakers want to keep them open—as long as they rent to residents

Lanterns hanging between two buildings in a Chinatown alley.
About two thirds of SRO-occupying families live in Chinatown.

San Francisco’s 19,000 or so single-room occupancy (SRO) units are often tiny, crowded, expensive relative to the amenities provided, and may accumulate building inspection warnings as quickly as dust bunnies.

But generations of San Francisco lawmakers and anti-poverty activists have labored to keep them operating, simply because most of the city’s 30,000 to 45,000 SRO tenants (many of them families, the overwhelming majority concentrated in Chinatown) wouldn’t have anywhere else to go.

Of course, the SRO owners’ end of the deal is that San Francisco expects them to continue housing residents. It’s more profitable, however, to rent rooms on a week-to-week basis to out-of-towners, even beyond the building’s zoned limits for visitor rooms.

On Monday, the city’s Land Use Committee passed a law that, if enacted, would outlaw short-term SROing, extending the minimum rental period to a month (32 days) and presumably eliminating almost all tourist demand.

“The amount of precious affordable housing units we have lost over the last several decades is almost twice our current homeless population,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the bill’s sponsor, via press release.

Beyond Chron’s Randy Shaw—who himself owns several SROs in the Tenderloin—points out that the internet has made it easy for landlords to lure tourists into potentially illegal SRO stays, often without visitors knowing what kind of building they’re booking in.

The new law would also put some teeth into the city’s existing laws by upping penalties for violations.

SROs, most of them built as inexpensive and efficient housing for laborers and migrants in the years after the 1906 earthquake, have always been the bottom floor of San Francisco’s housing market.

Today they may rent for as little as $500 to $600/month. The arrangement creates housing options for residents who would otherwise face only homelessness or relocation (which is often not financially viable itself), but in the worst cases it can also create a scenario in which people end up trapped in substandard conditions, afraid to report landlord violations for fear of eviction.

Most SRO renters have no lease. A 2016 report from the Department of Public Health found that SRO buildings in most neighborhoods have less than one health code violation per year, some—particularly those in the center of the city—average as many as five, usually for vermin, mold, or insanitary conditions.

Still, many current and former SRO tenants showed up Monday to support the new law and testify for SROs as their only lifeline in the city. “I was born here and I would just as soon die here,” a representative from the Central City SRO Collaborative told lawmakers.

Tourism predation, in short, is the last thing that most SRO renters want to have to worry about.