It’s no secret  that tenants living in single room occupancy hotels (SROs) often grapple with health and safety issues, from bedbug infestations to plumbing problems.
At a committee hearing this afternoon, members of the Board of Supervisors will consider legislation  [PDF] introduced by Sup. Eric Mar that would amend the housing code to require owners of SROs to install grab bars in common-area bathrooms, and to provide working phone jacks in each SRO unit.
These measures may seem relatively small, but Tony Robles of the Senior & Disability Action Housing Collaborative says installing grab bars can go a long way toward preventing falls, a leading cause of injury deaths for people older than 65.
In SROs, “there’s a lot of folks who have mobility problems,” Robles explains. “Many are disabled, or elders." He said knows an elderly woman living in an SRO who recently fell and now faces hip surgery.
“This legislation is about safety, and it’s about quality of life,” Robles said. “It’s not just affluent folks who deserve to live in reasonably habitable conditions.”
Last June, advocates with Senior Action Network and several SRO collaboratives published detailed findings  [PDF] from an in-depth survey of 151 SRO residents living in Chinatown, the Mission, SoMa and the Tenderloin. Most respondents were older than 55, and 62 percent identified as having a disability.
The in-depth study found that safety issues topped the list of residents’ concerns. Many respondents said they feared falling on the stairs or in the shower, and less than half reported having grab bars in their bathrooms.
The legislation, which was co-sponsored by Supervisors Jane Kim, David Campos and David Chiu, would also require SRO operators to install working phone jacks in residents’ rooms, which can be critical for tenants who need a way to communicate in case of an emergency.
According to the study findings, these low-income tenants face a host of other issues too:
"About one-third or more of survey respondents said their hotel had a problem with bedbugs, other infestations, visitor policy violations, electrical problems, unsanitary bathrooms, and harassment/ disrespect. One-fifth of respondents also cited problems with heat, plumbing, personal safety, fire safety, and maintenance and repairs. More than half (53%) had no access to a kitchen in their building, and 18% of respondents said they skip meals due to lack of resources or facilities."
San Francisco has more than 500 residential hotels, according to city records, with more than 19,000 units. An estimated 8,000 seniors and adults with disabilities live in SROs.
Robles remarked that it took courage for the SRO residents to speak up in hopes of improving their living conditions. “Tenants in theses SROs oftentimes are intimidated to say anything,” he said. “Some folks might have feared reprisal.”