History of S.R.O. residential hotels in San Francisco

Single-Room Occupancy hotels (S.R.O.’s) or “Residential Hotels,” as they are commonly known, are a vital part of San Francisco’s housing stock and have been throughout the city’s history. Indeed, they have been important in cities across the United States for more than two centuries. A typical S.R.O. is a single eight (8) x ten (10) foot room with shared toilets and showers down the hallway.

Though not the expansive suburban family home of the American ideal, these dwellings have been essential to many important San Francisco social groups. Once known as the “Hotel City” when S.R.O.’s were the predominant housing type, San Francisco still has hundreds of S.R.O. hotels that are home to more than 30,000 tenants or approximately 5% of the city.

Traditionally S.R.O.’s were populated by low-wage workers, transient laborers and recent immigrants. In San Francisco, S.R.O. tenants included gold prospectors in the mid-19th century, seafarers who spent their months at shore in the hotels of the ‘Barbary Coast,’ fruit and vegetable pickers who would migrate to city residential hotels in the winter months, and laborers who would pick up short term jobs as they came. (Groth pg. 133-137)

For immigrant populations in cities across the U.S., S.R.O.’s were especially vital. In San Francisco immigrant single adults and families made their first foothold on America’s west coast in S.R.O.’s. Chinese immigrants found homes and community in Chinatown residential hotels. The same went for Filipino immigrants in Manilatown, Japanese immigrants in Japantown, and Latinos in Mission district. Many migrants from within the United States also found their first dwelling place in San Francisco in S.R.O.’s as was the case for many African Americans in Western Addition and Fillmore S.R.O.’s having come from the American South and East. Today immigrants still find S.R.O.’s as some of the only truly affordable housing for the low-pay jobs that await them. In many Tenderloin, Chinatown and Mission S.R.O.’s, immigrant workers may be found living three or more to a single small room.

An Epidemic of S.R.O. Demolitions and the Rise in Homelessness in America

One of the principal causes of the widespread homelessness endemic in the United States today was the wave of S.R.O. hotel demolition that swept the country during the second half of the 20th Century. Across the U.S. an estimated 1 million S.R.O. units were destroyed between the mid-1970’s and 1990’s. The bulk of these demolitions happened in relatively short, intense periods. Chicago lost 80% of its 38,845 units between 1960-1980 (31,396 total units.) (Hoch and Slayton pg. 121) New York lost 60% of its units between 1975-81 (over 30,000 units.) Seattle lost 15,000 units between 1960-81, San Diego lost 1,247 units between 1976-84, Portland lost 1,700 units, and Denver lost nearly two-thirds of its S.R.O.’s during the period. (Wright and Rubin pg. 7)

In all of these cities, including San Francisco, there was concurrent demolition and conversion of many low-income apartment buildings. In San Francisco, between 1970 and 2000, almost 9,000 low-rent apartments were demolished or converted. Between 1980 and 2000, another 6,470 were converted to condominiums.

Rising Poverty, Declining Public Housing

During this period very little affordable housing was built to replace the lost S.R.O.’s and the U.S. saw a dramatic increase in the number of people living below the poverty line. Between 1978 and 2002 there was a 25% increase in the number of households living below the poverty line while U.S. office of Housing and Urban Development funding declined 59%. This period also saw a shift in allocation of funds from public housing development to Section 8 subsidies that go into the pockets of landlords as well as tax deductions for mortgage interest payments for homeowners. Thus, while there were 55,000 new units of public housing authorized in 1979, in 1984 the number authorized was zero. As a result of these collective forces, by the mid-1990’s there were almost twice as many very low-income families as low-cost housing units to accommodate them. (Wright and Rubin, pg 12-13)

Over the past two decades, the number of Americans who spend more than half of their income on housing or live in seriously substandard housing almost doubled, from 7.2 to 13.7 million. With so many living on the edge, nearly two million people will be homeless at some point during the year.

“Blight Removal” and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency: Devastation of the S.R.O Stock

“Under the rubric of ‘slum clearance’ and ‘blight removal,’ the (Redevelopment) agency turned to systematically sweeping out the poor, with the full backing of city’s power elite.”

-Chester Hartman from “City for Sale: the Transformation of San Francisco”
A housing crisis developed in San Francisco in the late 1970’s that was a product of the city’s enormous popularity and dynamic economy which attracted people to high paying jobs. The city’s natural geographical boundaries limit outward expansion and its politically influential neighborhood organizers have successfully limited upward growth in most residential areas. Wealthy arrivals drove up market rental costs, which led to a severe shortage of affordable housing. Many low-income people who had previously occupied apartments were forced to make S.R.O.’s their permanent homes. However, even as the need for this type of housing grew, public and private forces combined to intensify S.R.O. demolitions, further exacerbating the crisis and displacing entire communities out of the city.

South of Market Hotel Resident Ken Roth watches the demolition of his neighborhood in the 1970s to make way for the Redevelopment Agency’s Yerba Buena Project

S.R.O. neighborhoods were targeted for elimination because their populations did not fit into the long-term plans of the economic-political elite. Justin Herman, Executive Director of San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1960-1971 expressed the attitude existent in these circles when he said infamously, in reference to the downtown S.R.O. neighborhoods of the South of Market, “This land is too valuable to permit poor people to park on it.” According to Paul Groth, author of “Living Downtown; The History of Residential Hotels in the United States,” S.R.O.’s, including residential hotel units and rooming houses, may have numbered as high as 90,000 in San Francisco at the inception of the 1930’s, meaning they were nearly as prevalent as apartments. By the early 1990’s the number of S.R.O. units in San Francisco had been reduced dramatically, to approximately 20,000.

The wave of S.R.O. demolitions began with the construction of the Bay Bridge and its ramps in the early 1930’s. With the public policy of urban renewal in the late 1940’s, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency became an important player in this onslaught calling for “blight removal” and revitalization essential for the city’s survival. In the early 1970’s an estimated 4,000 SRO units were demolished by the Agency. Many of these demolitions occurred in the South of Market neighborhood with Redevelopment’s Yerba Buena Center project. Thousands more S.R.O. units were razed for redevelopment of the Embarcadero Center and Western Addition neighborhoods. Citywide, landlords eliminated another 6,085 SRO units in between 1975-2000. (Housing Element of the General Plan, 2002) Fires have also contributed to the devastation of the S.R.O. stock in San Francisco. Between 1989 and 2002, more than 1,700 SRO units were destroyed by fires in San Francisco (S.R.O. Collaborative.)

Despite decades of this public-private program of S.R.O. demolitions and conversions, S.R.O.’s remain a significant housing resource in San Francisco. The city’s 518 S.R.O. buildings are home to more than 30,000 people (some estimates run much higher.) By contrast, the San Francisco Housing Authority, which administers federal public housing, operates a total of 6,096 permanently affordable units. It also places approximately 6,000 people in the tenant based Section 8 program and another 4,000 in a for-profit project based section 8 program. Added together these programs offer substantially fewer units than the S.R.O. stock.

S.R.O. Tenants Organize and Fight Back!

As urban renewal gathered momentum, tenants in S.R.O.’s began to organize opposition and defend their homes.

The International Hotel

The historic effort of the tenants of the International Hotel to save their home is archetypal of the conflict between low-income communities and elite developer interests. Manilatown in the 1960’s was a vibrant though impoverished downtown community that was home to the bulk of the city’s Filipino residents. In the 1950’s and 60’s Manilatown was decimated by urban renewal. Housing (mostly S.R.O.’s), businesses, and services for a community of some 10,000 people were demolished. (Soloman pg. 96-97)

The International Hotel, an S.R.O. inhabited by 196 tenants, mostly poor Filipino seniors, was one of the last Manilatown buildings standing when the owner took out a demolition permit in September of 1968. The residents refused to move out, and along with students, activists, and other community members they rallied to save their home.

For almost a decade the battle raged on the streets and in the courts. On the night of the evictions in August of 1977, thousands of people joined the tenants to form a human barricade around the block but eventually police used brutal force to get into the hotel and remove the tenants. Though the building was eventually demolished, the fight to save the I-Hotel was a formative lesson that helped transform the public conscience and craft the will to preserve low-income housing and maintain a culturally diverse city.

As a postscript, the I-Hotel struggle didn’t end with the demolition. Due to persistent community activism, a parking garage slated for the site was never built and a new International hotel, a 14-story housing development for low-income seniors, will replace the old I-hotel.

Redevelopment Hits the South of Market: Yerba Buena and T.O.O.R.

Soon after the struggle to save the I-Hotel began, a similar affair transpired in the South of Market neighborhood. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, pressured by a coalition of the tourism industry elite, large corporations, financial institutions, other downtown business leaders, and City Hall put into motion the Yerba Buena Redevelopment Project. At the time the site contained more than 4,000 S.R.O. units, as well as many low-rent apartment buildings and the businesses that serviced the community. To lobby in support of the Redevelopment project the socioeconomic elite formed the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association (the “Renewal” has since been changed to “Research”.)

S.P.U.R. summed up their motivations for their support of redevelopment in a 1966 ‘Prologue for Action.’ The document, released as the Yerba Buena Project was being considered for approval, offers a stark glimpse of the designs the elite held for the largely poor, immigrant and minority S.R.O. population. “If San Francisco decides to compete effectively with other cities for new “clean” industries and new corporate power, its population will move closer to standard white Anglo-Saxon Protestant characteristics. Selection of a population’s composition might be undemocratic. Influence on it, however, is legal and desirable for the health of the city.” (Hartman, pg. 65)

The Yerba Buena plan called for acquiring and demolishing the S.R.O. communities, by eminent domain if necessary, and replacing them with a convention center, tourist hotels, high-end housing, and shopping. It was approved unanimously by the planning commission and by a 9-2 vote at the Board of Supervisors in 1966.

In the face of these powerful forces, community members marshaled opposition. They formed the Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment (T.O.O.R.) Through lawsuits, lobbying and advocacy T.O.O.R. and its supporters were able to delay but not stop the Yerba Buena Project. Importantly they were able to achieve a settlement that led to the production of approximately 1,600 low-income housing units as replacement for demolished S.R.O.’s. (Hartman, pg 115)

Perhaps the most significant victory that arose from the organizing of the I-hotel and T.O.O.R. tenants was the passage into law 1981 of the Residential Hotel Demolition and Conversion Ordinance. Organizing pressure compelled the Board of Supervisors to pass this law which banned demolition and conversion of S.R.O.’s unless an in lieu fee is paid to the city’s affordable housing replacement fund. Continued community activism led to the strengthening of the ordinance in 1990 as the Board of Supervisors increased the amount of the fee and gave neighborhood nonprofits legal standing to enforce it.

Confronted with Manhattanization, Gentrification Tenderloin Residents Organize

The Ramada Hotel in the lower-Tenderloin in 2003

Throughout the 1970’s a constant drumbeat of demand sounded from the politically influential tourism and conventioneering industries calling on city government to increase the supply of tourist hotels. In 1980 three corporations proposed to construct three (3) luxury hotel towers with more than 2,200 tourist rooms, in the largely S.R.O. lower-Tenderloin neighborhood. Tenant activists in the neighborhood were concerned about the “Manhattanization” of their neighborhood and ensuing gentrification effects, as well as other environmental impacts on traffic and air quality incurred by these towers.

The tenants formed the North of Market Planning Coalition (N.O.M.P.C.) which organized with the Gray Panthers and other neighborhood activists to create the Luxury Hotel Task Force. The Luxury Hotel Task Force saw the three(3) tourist hotels as an immediate threat, but also as the tip of a much larger iceberg. The out-of-character heights proposed for the tourist hotel developments were legal according zoning regulations, so Manhattinization could conceivably proceed unchecked. To confront these manifold threats the tenants organized with the short-term goal of community mitigation from the tourist hotel developers, and a long-term goal of down-zoning the neighborhood to head off future fights of the same nature.

Their successful organizing won unprecedented mitigations, including a fee of $0.50 per hotel room rented, to be set aside for low-income housing development, amounting to approximately $320,000 per year for 20 years. They also included a contribution of $200,000 from each hotel for community service projects. Furthermore, the hotels were required to sponsor a $4,000,000 grant for the acquisition and renovation of four low-cost residential hotels for the city, a total 474 total units. (Shaw, p.11) The extent of this mitigation package was unprecedented at the time; since then it has become commonplace to see such settlements when neighborhoods are confronted with such out-of-scale development. Typical of the city’s pro-development mainstream media, the San Francisco Chronicle was brutal in its criticism, calling the mitigation package “a shakedown” by “bank robbers” (Shaw, PPG 11)

Having achieved the first part of their agenda, N.O.M.P.C. and their coalition partners moved on to their long-term goal of downzoning the neighborhood. Tenants and activists circulated petitions and pressured city government to rezone the neighborhood to prohibit new tourist hotels and put in place height restrictions of eight to thirteen stories. Their work paid off with rezoning signed into law on March 28, 1985. (Shaw, pg. 13)

A New Crisis in Residential Hotels, Central City SRO Collaborative Formed

Lower Eddy neighborhood in 2002

In the late 1990’s San Francisco experienced another acute housing crisis. Once again many people including those on fixed incomes, seniors, couples and families were forced out of apartments and into S.R.O.’s along with the traditional population of single working people. Market prices for an S.R.O. unit in the Central City went from approximately $200 in 1990 to over $500 in 2000. (Sources: Tenderloin Housing Clinic Modified Payment Program) The overall lack of affordable housing created a sense of desperation and people were forced to put up with appalling conditions, while paying extremely high percentages of their income for their unit. Although demolitions did not take place as in the 70’s, many landlords endeavored to evict or bully long-term tenants from S.R.O.’s and illegally convert buildings to tourist hotels. Many others took advantage of the housing crisis to reap higher profits by neglecting routine maintenance and repairs.

In the face of this latest crisis, tenants and activists founded the Central City S.R.O. Collaborative in 2001. The S.R.O. Collaborative is a partnership of S.R.O. tenant activists, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Conard House, and the Mental Health Association of San Francisco. In forming the Collaborative, members set out to organize with S.R.O. tenants with goals of improving living conditions and safety, and advocating to maintain and increase low-income housing options.

The organizing model grew out of the experience and success of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic with more than 20 years providing free legal services to, advocating for, and organizing with low-income tenants in the Tenderloin and South of Market. In the years leading up to the establishment of the Central City S.R.O. Collaborative, similar Collaboratives were founded to work with the S.R.O. tenants in Chinatown and the Mission District. Please view the ‘Past Campaigns’ and ‘Programs’ pages to read about the organizing successes of the Central City S.R.O. Collaborative!


1) Wright, James D. and Rubin, Beth A. “Is Homelessness a Housing Problem?” Tulane University, Philadelphia 1997

2) Groth, Paul. “Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United State.” University of California Press. Berkeley, 1989

3) Hoch, Charles and Slayton, Robert A. “New Homeless and Old; Community and the Skid Row Hotel.” Temple University Press. Philadelphia, 1989

4) Shaw, Randy. “The Activist’s Handbook.” University of California Press. Berkeley, 1996.

5) San Francisco General Plan, Housing Element, 2002 edition

6) Hartman, Chester “City for Sale; The Transformation of San Francisco.” University of California Press. Berkeley, 2002

7) Soloman, Larry. “Roots of Justice; Stories of Organizing in Communities of Color.” University of California Press. Berkeley, 1998

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