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SRO tenants fear San Francisco budget cuts will kill hopes of escaping cramped quarters

Lixiang Yang poses for a portrait at an SRO in Chinatown on Tuesday. In the latest City Hall budget proposal, two key programs supporting low-income tenants are being cut. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Lixiang Yang and her two children are ready to move out of her 100-square-foot home.

A single mother with a visual disability, Yang, 49, has been living in the single-room-occupancy (SRO) building in San Francisco’s Chinatown for over a year. On each floor, tenants share one bathroom and one kitchen, and each tiny unit often fits a whole family.

The Yangs are moving out soon because they received a Section 8 federal housing voucher, which helps low-income families secure enough funding to rent decent-size housing. As a monolingual immigrant from China, Yang would never be able to apply for the voucher without the help from tenants’ rights advocates, who have guided her through the complicated American bureaucratic system.

“Without their help, I would be living here forever,” Yang told The Standard in Mandarin. “There’s no way I can afford to move out.”

Yang was lucky to secure a voucher when she did. Many San Francisco families just like hers may lose their best hope.

Tenants on the same floor of Chinatown SROs in San Francisco often share one bathroom. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

An Unprecedented Cut

San Francisco is staring down a huge budget deficit, and City Hall’s latest budget proposal cuts more than $5 million from two key programs that support low-income tenants. One is the SRO Collaborative, which hires SRO organizers to provide assistance to vulnerable families, and the other is the Code Enforcement Outreach Program, which helps tenants work with landlords on housing problems.

In Chinatown, language obstacles are the biggest challenges that low-income immigrants face.

“Many first-generation Chinese immigrants don’t speak English, and they can’t even negotiate with their landlords if they are having troubles,” said Becca Huang, a Chinatown SRO organizer who was hired under the collaborative program. 

Huang, who communicates with tenants on a daily basis to help solve all kinds of issues, said some large families face extremely harsh situations and they need help to apply for assistance.

According to the Chinatown Community Development Center, which helps operate the collaborative, both programs have long been guaranteed in the city budget and this is the first time both programs are facing a complete cut in a decade.

Huang said many of the families they serve have young children and their situations are already undesirable. In a city with a massive homelessness crisis, the cut may eliminate one of the best tools to ensure that some of its most marginalized residents have a roof over their heads.

City Officials Respond

Mayor London Breed, who proposed the first draft of the city budget, described the cuts are “tough choices.”

Her office explained that both programs are under the Department of Building Inspection, which is a self-funded city agency and is facing a severe budget deficit caused by the downturn in the construction industry.

“This means that in order to maintain staffing levels to deliver on core functions, certain programs cannot be supported as in previous budget cycles,” Breed’s office said.

But the Board of Supervisors may take on the fight to save those programs.

“Our SRO Collaboratives are the reason that so many vulnerable communities made it through the pandemic,” Aaron Peskin, the supervisor representing Chinatown and the president of the board, said in a statement. “[I]t’s unconscionable that these extremely successful and essential programs have been proposed for complete elimination.”

Peskin said that during the pandemic, when city departments were unwilling or unable to go into SRO buildings to test residents, deliver meals or coordinate distance learning, it was the collaboratives that “stepped up in the darkest days.”

After Breed’s introduction, the budget is now in the board’s hands for final revision.

More than 100 SRO families are expected to rally in Chinatown at noon Wednesday to protest these cuts. Some will head to City Hall afterward to speak at the supervisors' Budget and Finance Committee meeting.

Lixiang Yang washes dishes at an SRO in Chinatown on Tuesday. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Tuesday afternoon, in her floor’s busy communal kitchen, Yang quickly prepared two dishes for her children and returned to her tiny room.

“My children will come back home soon from school,” Yang said. “I have to cook now, before the kitchen gets too crowded.”