The San Francisco Fire Department has rescued 14 people from dilapidated elevators in the city’s supportive housing facilities in the two months since city officials pledged $10 million in funding for repairs.
The $10 million for elevator repairs, designated as part of a July 26 ordinance, sits in purgatory because city officials opted to take out debt—instead of using money from the general fund—to pay for the repairs. In the meantime, the malfunctioning elevators continue to trap residents of the city’s single-room occupancy hotels, many of whom are disabled or elderly and fear getting stuck even when elevators are running.
“We become prisoners in our own room,” said Cheryl Shanks, a resident at the West Hotel. “It’s mental, emotional, physical and financial abuse.”
Shanks said that her building’s elevator has gone out for weeks at a time, forcing disabled residents to slide up and down the five sets of stairs in order to leave the premises. Since becoming paralyzed in 2020 due to peripheral artery disease, Shanks has been relearning to walk again and says she can hardly afford a delivery service to bring groceries up the stairs.
Tenants and others involved in the city’s supportive housing voiced doubts that the elevator funding promised in July would be sufficient to fix the problem.
The funding was part of a budget deal negotiated between Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors, which involved funds tied to Prop. I, a 2020 transfer tax intended to fund affordable housing. The $10 million in elevator repairs was included in a broader package of funds for affordable housing acquisition and maintenance.
That package, which was passed in a separate ordinance, totaled $146.8 million in “certificate of participation” proceeds—a debt instrument akin to a bond—including $112 million in housing funds and $34.8 million in financing costs. Issuing those certificates is a “complex process” that could take months, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.
The fire department has visited the Cadillac Hotel three times in the last month to rescue tenants from one particularly problematic elevator.
“I’m making decisions based on the fact that I can’t trust the elevator,” said Mark Parsons, a 68-year-old Cadillac Hotel resident of 14 years. “I'm afraid if I go down it either I’ll get stuck in it, or I’ll get stuck on the ground floor.”
Parsons contends that the data on fire department rescues hardly paints a full picture as some tenants have learned to “unjam” the elevator themselves.
Asked how much the elevator rescues cost, the fire department said that the service is included in your taxes and that they “do not and will not place a number on someone’s life or emergency.” However, department spokesperson Jonathan Baxter also said in the statement that each elevator rescue takes five staff members and approximately 30 minutes.
When The Standard visited the Cadillac Hotel on Friday, an elevator repair crew was on the premises looking to install a new part.
The crew invited The Standard into the basement to examine the mechanics of the 30-year-old elevator in the basement.
Kathy Looper, executive director of Reality House West—a nonprofit that operates the Cadillac Hotel—was incensed over The Standard’s unannounced visit to the SRO and initially threatened to “file trespassing charges.”
“I’m in enough trouble with the elevator,” Looper said in a subsequent phone call. “It's not like I'm a neglectful landlord. But does my elevator break down? Yes.”
Looper said she shared her residents’ frustrations over the persistently broken elevator, claiming to have paid $150,000 over the last 18 months in repair costs. She also questioned whether the $10 million allocated by city officials would be enough to solve the issue.
“If you do 10 elevators you think you’re accomplishing something?” Looper said. “Eighty percent of these old SROs need elevator repairs or new elevators.”
A survey conducted in 2012 by the Seniors and Disability Action group found that half of surveyed SRO residents said they did not have a consistently working elevator in their building.
Seniors and Disability Action has since organized around the issue and advocated for repair funds to be included during recent budget deliberations.
What they didn’t expect was that the elevator funding might take so long to actually see the light of day.
Kyle Smeallie, a legislative aide for Preston, said that their office made many unsuccessful attempts to sway the mayor into including the affordable housing funds in the budget. The mayor’s office objected to using the city’s general funds for that purpose on the grounds that it could deplete the city’s fiscal reserves.
The deal that was ultimately agreed upon used the “certificates of participation” to raise $112 million in housing funds, including the elevator repairs. The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, the Controller’s Office and the Office of Public Finance are still working out the schedule for the funding.
“We were left with a choice of either not pursuing these funds, which was really never an option, or finding a creative way to finance the allocation of these uses,” Smeallie said.
Edith Castorena, an organizer for Seniors and Disability Action, said that since the funding was approved it’s been difficult to get a straight answer from city officials about when the elevators will be fixed.
Up until the pandemic, the city had an elevator rebate program that would reimburse SRO owners up to $100,000 for repairs to malfunctioning elevators. And since the program quietly ended, Castorena worries that the urgency of the issue has fallen on deaf ears.
“Not having access is equal to death in many instances,” Castorena said. “It seems like we’re all waiting on the mayor’s office.”
Annie Gaus contributed additional reporting for this story.
David Sjostedt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org