Community advocates concerned short-term rentals are edging low-income tenants out of SROs

Cramped single-room-occupancy hotel units in Chinatown, traditionally living quarters for immigrant families, have recently caught the attention of community housing advocates because it appears some are being marketed on websites as short-term rentals, potentially opening a new front in San Francisco’s housing battles.

Chinatown community advocates warn that this latest trend of placing SRO units on short-term rental sites, such as Craigslist and Airbnb, could exacerbate The City’s housing crisis by displacing vulnerable families, many of whom don’t speak English, who have traditionally relied on these less expensive accommodations.

Privately owned SROs have traditionally been rented for $650 to $700 per month and on a word-of-mouth basis, but listings on Craigslist and Airbnb show furnished units going for $800 on average and sometimes more than $1,000 per month, said Tina Cheung, a housing counselor with the Chinatown Community Development Center. Those listings, and others, could be violating San Francisco law.

“Folks that we normally serve would not know to access Craigslist, nor can they afford to pay that much for a single room,” Cheung said. “So we can speculate who those rentals are going to. They’re definitely not going to people we normally serve.”

The Department of Building Inspection is charged with investigating violations to The City’s administrative code, and Chapter 41A prohibits any building with four or more units to engage in short-term rentals.

More than a decade ago, a hotel conversion ordinance was passed, allowing SRO hotels to rent up to 25 percent of vacant residential units for tourism on a short-term basis between May and September, but on the condition that they don’t displace residents to do so. Cheung said she is concerned that these units are now being pushed out of the reach of families who need them.

“It was drawn up originally to make sure that there was residential housing and that a lot of things didn’t get converted for only tourism purposes that would take away from residential housing stock,” said William Strawn, a Department of Building Inspection spokesman.

So far this year, nine complaints citywide have been investigated for Chapter 41A violations and five proceeded to administrative hearings, a noticeable increase from the 15 years prior in which three complaints were reported and none had merit, according to Andrew Karcs, senior housing inspector for the Department of Building Inspection.

Meanwhile, the city’s Planning Department, which has its own process of investigating short-term rental violations, has received about 119 complaints this year. San Francisco law prohibits residential units in buildings with four or more units from being rented for less than 30 days.

New legislation by Supervisor David Chiu, scheduled to go before the Planning Commission on Thursday, would amend city code to permit permanent residents of residential units in buildings with two or more units to rent their unit as short-term rentals for up to 90-days per year.

The legislation, Chiu said, is designed to reinforce the prohibition of “hotelization” – when residential units are converted into full-time, de-facto hotels.

Cheung said she found a Craigslist post, which has since expired, that advertised an SRO unit at 705 Vallejo St. in North Beach on the Chinatown border for $215 per week, with a photo that showed a bed, desk, chair, lamp and microwave and promised free in-room Wi-Fi.

Such furnished listings suggest the SRO units are targeted at students, said Angela Chu, a community organizing manager for CCDC.

Another concern for housing advocates is seeing SROs on Airbnb, which allows tenants to lease their residences on a short–term basis.

Two Airbnb listings online Tuesday showed accommodations available at the Balmoral Hotel, showing a building at 640 Clay St. in Chinatown, for $40 a night and $280 per week, with a minimum stay of seven days.

Cindy Wu, the CCDC’s community planning manager and president of the Planning Commission, said she has noticed the Craigslist and Airbnb “phenomenon” since last year.

“Every one of these postings to me is like a small red flag,” she said. “Where is the tipping point?”