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Politics & Policy

San Francisco gives hope to vulnerable tenants of residential hotels

SRO families rally at Portsmouth Square to protest proposed budget cuts in San Francisco on June 14, 2023. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

San Francisco City Hall’s budget drama came to an end this week as supervisors finalized their amendments to the $14.6 billion document. Among the many last-minute changes, supervisors restored about $5 million to support for residents of single-room occupancy buildings, or SROs, which house some of the city’s most vulnerable tenants.

This represents a very different picture than only a few weeks ago. In late May, to help close an enormous $780 million budget deficit, Mayor London Breed had proposed cutting two longtime tenant assistance programs for SRO residents, many of whom are monolingual immigrants living in very small single rooms and sharing kitchens and bathrooms with other building tenants.

Breed’s decision sparked a wave of controversy because the SRO Collaborative and Code Enforcement Outreach programs pay for organizers who provide assistance to tenants when they face housing difficulties or have issues with their landlords.

Many Chinatown SRO tenants rely heavily on bilingual organizers to help them solve daily problems and sort out city bureaucracy. Organizers can be instrumental in helping tenants apply for housing assistance—especially Section 8 housing vouchers, often the best way for people to move out of substandard living situations.

Lixiang Wang, left, talks with Becca Huang, right, in her SRO room in Chinatown on June 13, 2023. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

In the city’s finalized budget, supervisors added back some $4.8 million to the SRO tenant programs, among other changes, and the funding will be managed by the Department of Building Inspection.

Supervisor Connie Chan, the budget chair, said in a statement that “we crafted a budget that meets the demands of all San Franciscans, especially our most vulnerable.” 

Chan’s office said it identified different funding sources in the budget to ensure that SRO programs were not eliminated.

In a statement, the Mayor’s Office conveyed her appreciation over the collaboration with the Board of Supervisors. Breed was pleased the city was able to “increase general fund revenue and helped identify additional savings that enabled the Board’s spending plan.”

That now includes the SRO Collaborative for the next two years.

An SRO room in Chinatown | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Claire Lau, the advocacy manager of the Chinese Progressive Association, which oversees some SRO organizers, said that the win shows that the city leadership has “heard us loud and clear that we cannot cut vital services that are the lifeline to working-class San Franciscans.”

Li Qin Wu, an immigrant mom living with her child in an SRO, said both programs are very important to hundreds of households with kids growing up in SRO.

“The budget add-back is good news to all monolingual low-income families,” she said. “I am glad to learn the city still cares about us.” 

In mid-June, SRO families held a rally in Chinatown to protest the cut and spoke up at the City Hall meeting.

The full board will vote on the finalized budget in mid-July, which will go into effect after Breed signs it.