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‘Nobody wants this’: Opposition mounting in Chinatown to sober housing plan

A woman in a hoodie stands on a city street with signs and lights in the background.
Kathy Fang, a celebrity chef and second-generation owner of House of Nanking, speaks out against the sober housing plan in San Francisco's Chinatown. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Celebrity chef Kathy Fang, second-generation owner of the popular restaurant House of Nanking, generally is in the know about what’s happening in Chinatown. 

But in early February, she received a shock from news reports: The city was planning to open a sober housing project for formerly homeless people with drug abuse issues on the same block as her restaurant.

“We were a little shocked because it is literally two doors down from us,” Fang said. “It's mind-boggling and baffling to put something there that could have detrimental impacts and perhaps even kill this iconic place.”

In a surprise to Fang and many others in the neighborhood during Lunar New Year celebration, Mayor London Breed and drug addiction recovery advocates gathered at Hotel North Beach at 935 Kearny St. and announced the plan to transform the hotel into a sober living facility, creating 150 rehabilitation housing units.

A bustling city street with historic and modern buildings, pedestrians, and vehicles under a clear sky.
The proposed sober housing, Hotel North Beach, right, is across from the iconic Sentinel Building. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The private hotel sits between the touristy areas of Chinatown and North Beach and is across the street from the iconic Sentinel Building, a copper-green Flatiron-style structure long known for housing Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope film studio.

In the week since, pushback has only grown, forcing the mayor into damage-control mode. 

Lack of transparency

At the Sentinel Building, Lidia Valledor, who works for the Coppola Group and is a manager of the ground-floor restaurant Cafe Zoetrope, slammed the city for its lack of transparency regarding the sober housing project and questioned the selection of the location.

"We have a lot of people here in the neighborhood that need assistance,” she said. “Why are they bringing people from another neighborhood into here?" She said she hopes to hear more details about who would be held accountable if the project doesn’t work and causes problems.

An opposition letter, led by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and signed by other major Chinatown associations, is being circulated and will be sent to Breed to protest the situation.

Like Fang, other business owners in the area say they never heard anything from the city before the Feb. 8 event. 

“This is a famous tourist spot. Does the city want the tourists to see this [housing project] here?” asked the owner of Toppu Ramen and Dim Sum House, which is next to the hotel site. She would only identify herself by her surname, Li. 

The owner of Mona Lisa Hair Salon, which is also on the same block, said she was unaware of the plan until she saw the news, and no one had reached out to her since then. She declined to be named.

What is sober housing?

Transitional housing for drug addiction recovery is not new in San Francisco. But the Hotel North Beach proposal is the first permanent housing project, which means tenants won’t need to move out after a certain period of time.

The city selected Tenderloin Housing Clinic as the nonprofit operator if the project moves forward; it still needs approval from the city’s homelessness oversight commission.

Much of San Francisco’s street drug crisis is concentrated in the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods. Addiction experts and advocates have long complained that many of the service providers trying to help drug users are situated in areas that are full of dealers and other negative influences that can make staying sober extremely difficult. 

a man walks past an awning and a sign reading Hotel North Beach
Myron Grant, a formerly homeless resident with drug addiction issues, and other recovery advocates believe the new sober housing plan would help support people's recovery from drugs. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Randy Shaw, the director of Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said the whole idea to put the site in the Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods is “you don't want people who want sobriety to be walking out of their hotel and have drug dealers.” He emphasized the site is not a homeless shelter but permanent housing for those who have already been housed for at least a year.

"This is going to be a completely safe environment,” Shaw said, promising screening for tenants, on-site services and 24-hour security.

Shaw also said the rent for the property was attractive. Including operation costs, the total annual cost for the facility is estimated at $3.7 million.

Richard Beal, director of transitional housing at Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said that the nonprofit has many years of experience running transitional sober housing projects and it has been very successful. He said he expected 80% of the tenants to finish the program.

As for the criticisms about lack of outreach, Shaw said his organization had reached out to some community groups starting last year but received few responses. He also accused Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Chinatown, of knowing about the plan since last year but being silent until now, putting Breed in a dilemma.

Peskin said he objected to the project weeks before Breed’s Feb. 8 meeting. He provided an email to The Standard that he sent to the city’s homeless department expressing his explicit opposition to the project on Jan. 16, about three weeks before Breed’s press conference.

Breed’s tough sell

Since the press conference, Breed has returned to Chinatown repeatedly and apologized to community members for the lack of outreach regarding the plan. She also acknowledged that it was poorly timed, arriving when the community was celebrating the Lunar New Year.

The Mayor’s Office later sent out a Chinese-language press release, saying the mayor has been in talks with many community members and promising adequate community engagement before final decisions are made.

“In most cases, they still don't want to see it happen,” Breed told the press on Thursday, acknowledging the challenges. “But they still appreciate the fact that the dialogue is finally starting to happen.”

A woman in a red jacket and blue top stands at a podium, flanked by two men in a formal room with onlookers in the background.
Mayor London Breed, left, and Randy Shaw, the director of Tenderloin Housing Clinic, announce the plan to open a sober housing program at 935 Kearny Street in San Francisco on Feb. 8. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The city and Tenderloin Housing Clinic have scheduled a town hall meeting on March 21 to hear from the community. According to Breed, alternative plans for the site are being considered.

Shaw said that any affordable project to help solve the city’s homelessness and drug crisis is a tough one because of stigmatization.

“We're talking about people who want to turn around their lives,” Shaw said. “They want to be in the sober environments so they don't regress. And so we can get them jobs.”

But for Fang and Chinatown, the plan is definitely not welcomed.

“The general consensus is that nobody wants this,” Fang said. “Putting something like this in our neighborhood, in our backyard, leads to risks.”