hotel rooms
Photo by Loi Almeron

First, the good news: San Francisco has not devolved into a charnel house; we have not become New York City. Our first-responders have (ostensibly) not been exposed to COVID-19 at the levels city officials weeks ago feared would come to pass. They have not booked, en masse, into hotel rooms set aside for them: as of May 7, only 136 of the 936 hotel rooms set aside for first-responders are occupied. That means 750 are empty — an 80 percent vacancy rate. 

And we’re paying for that. 

On average, the per-room rate listed in the city documents we requested is $110. With food, security, and cleaning, that swells to $237 — but you don’t need those things for rooms nobody is staying in. 

During hearings on April 29 and April 30, Supervisor Aaron Peskin posited that the city was spending $40,000 a day on unused first-responder hotel rooms — but he now says that figure is low. It might be quite low. 

Rough, back-of-the-envelope math ($110 x 750) puts the city total paid for unoccupied rooms at perhaps $82,500 a day. 

The contract for the 380-room Mark Hopkins hotel, designated for first-responders, lists room rates at between $130 and $150; city officials have said this hotel is sitting up to 90 percent vacant. Supervisor Matt Haney says the city may be spending $100,000 a day or even $140,000 a day on empty hotel rooms.

Our messages for Human Services Agency director Trent Rhorer, HSA finance and administration director Dan Kaplan, spokesman Joe Molica, and the general HSA press address have not yet been returned. 

Regardless, this is a suboptimal situation. Front-line workers have complained to Mission Local that landing a room in a city-funded hotel is an onerous and opaque process, and others have bemoaned a less-than-robust information campaign among their colleagues.

Not even every qualifying first-responder who’d want a room appears able to get one — let alone the city’s homeless population. 

Bottom line: The city is paying for rooms it is not using, while thousands of homeless people, residential hotel-dwellers, and others are languishing outside or in unsafe conditions indoors. City officials have decried the ruinous costs of proactively placing the homeless in hotels — while, again, shelling out for 750 rooms that nobody is using. 

That has to change, and city officials admit as much.

The Mark Hopkins Hotel. Photo from Wikimedia commons.

[dropcap]“W[/dropcap]e wanted to give first-responders the time to make use of these rooms. That hasn’t happened at the level we thought it would,” the HSA’s Dan Kaplan told the supes on April 30. “We acknowledge that at this point.” 

Kaplan agreed that the Human Services Agency wanted to “get out of” its early deals for the InterContinental and Mark Hopkins hotels. 

Mission Local has learned that, in the interregnum, the city has indeed made a shift. The 554-room InterContinental — which is owned by the same group as the Mark Hopkins — will be opened up for low-wage workers and their family members (we do not yet know how these people will go about getting rooms). This move was, in part, inspired by the results of UCSF’s four days of COVID-19 testing in the Mission — during which 95 percent of the people testing positive turned out to be Latinx

In the meantime, rooms in this hotel, which had been largely empty, are being billed to the city at a minimum of $109 nightly. The city pays for 250 rooms, minimum, even if fewer rooms are occupied. Even, it seems, if far fewer rooms are occupied (In those recent Mission tests, 74 people came up positive — which wouldn’t figure to swamp  the cavernous Intercontinental. UCSF’s Dr. Diane Havlir has stated that “three or four” of the test subjects are now utilizing the hotel program).  

So, this is a positive development, especially for the Mission’s put-upon low-income workers. 

But the city has still spent handily on rooms that went unused, while denying rooms to people who could use them. Whether to put San Francisco’s worst-off inside during a pandemic has been the subject of legislative warfare over the past month and change, with Mayor London Breed blowing off emergency legislation approved by all 11 supervisors. 

Yet, aside from that ongoing debate over who should get a room, the city didn’t need to pay for hundreds and hundreds of rooms it wasn’t going to use. 

During that April meeting, Peskin expressed dismay that the city out-and-out grabbed entire hotels for first providers instead of the model he, weeks ago, thought everyone had agreed upon — assuring hoteliers a guaranteed minimum payment for around 5 percent of the rooms and then agreeing rooms would be available to obtain in blocks of 100 as needed. 

Kaplan acknowledged that the deal for the InterContinental was originally structured in this manner. But it appears the final deal was not, nor was the pact for the Mark Hopkins.

“I can’t believe we’re renting the entire hotel,” replied Peskin during the meeting. “My support for this was premised on maintaining a minimal guarantee and then scaling up. It’s not as if anybody else is renting hotel rooms. This seems to be an outrageous giveaway, frankly.” 

The InterContinental Hotel. Photo from Wikimedia commons

But, here’s the thing — these may yet be the halcyon days of San Francisco’s COVID-19 era. 

All of the work and spending and effort San Francisco has made thus far — which has, incidentally, highlighted the ludicrous nature of addressing serious, overarching national problems on a county-by-county basis — has been premised on the belief this would be a monthslong situation; we’d sit out the maelstrom and get back to business. 

But what if we don’t? 

City officials are, increasingly, taking on the mindset that this will be a far, far longer slog. And, when the fiscal year ends on June 30, we’ll be facing crushing deficits and a bleak new financial reality. 

Bottom line: Our long-term problems may yet make these short-term problems seem trifling. 

And the only way out is through. 

Update: The Human Services Agency provided answers for some of Mission Local’s questions. but not all of them.

At the April 30 GAO committee meeting, you said there would be a meeting that day to determine what direction to take with regard to first-responder hotels, and what to do with some of our existing leases. 

What was determined at that meeting? 

We determined that we would attempt to repurpose the rooms at one of the two First Responder Hotels to make use of the rooms for vulnerable individuals in the community at high risk of exposure. 

Today, the hotel ownership group agreed to our proposed use of the hotel rooms. The priority for this resource will be low wage workers and/or their family members, due to their increased risk of becoming infected.  This is the population that the UCSF-Mission testing study revealed is at greater risk of exposure. There are 600 rooms at this hotel for this purpose. The transition to this population is in the early planning stages and will require the development of a site staffing plan and an outreach and referral process for eligible San Francisco residents.  

Also, is there an accurate way to calculate the amount of money spent daily upon the unoccupied first-responder rooms? 

We cannot share this information specific to the first responder rooms, as it would reveal the negotiated hotel room rates, which we are keeping confidential until the hotel procurement is completed so we don’t compromise future hotel negotiations. This is consistent with our response for this information from other media outlets and in consultation with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.

Finally, I would like access to the contracts for both first-responder hotels and vulnerable population hotels. I believe these to be public records. How do I go about getting that? 

Our position on this to date is that we will not release contracts as we are involved in a rolling procurement/contract negotiation and that we do not want to release terms of existing deals because this may affect future negotiations. This is consistent with our response for this information from other media outlets and in consultation with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.

Keep Mission Local’s reporters on the story.

Follow Us

Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

Join the Conversation


Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Thanks Joe for your tireless efforts to dig out facts that are being hidden from the public. Looks like we need some help from whistleblowers to find out what is going on at City Hall. When our District Supervisors and the press are having trouble keeping track of money, there is little reason to trust the system that is in perpetual planning mode. We don’t need to spend time and money on planning. We need to feed and house and heal the city residents now. We don’t need to have our nails done. We need to have our citizens shelter in place of the streets.

    We have seen a number of these graphs and can’t be sure if these are up to date but they illustrate the problem. A number of citizens and groups have requested copies of the hotel contracts or agreements and so far no one has been successful in obtaining any documents.

    Making the rooms available without a process to get people into them is a waste of taxpayer money and should raise a lot of alarm bells the next time any government agency asks the public for additional taxes, fines or fees for anything There is no guarantee the money will be used as we are promised. NONE!

    People have attempted to sign into hotels, move into vacant buildings, and called for street actions and demonstrations, one of them in front of the Mayor’s home. It feels like public shaming is the only way to go to go.

  2. Regrettably, what the hotel managers say, about not releasing contract info., is POTENTIALLY consistent with a provision in the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. [ See Chapter 67.24 of the city’s Admin. Code, especially & possibly sections (b ) and (e) ].
    Notice how the hotelier’s response cites a general support from the City Attorney’s office.
    From a veteran of 7 – 1/2 years of the SOTF, and a frequent complainant about problems with compliance by city agencies with the S.O.

    1. I agree, Mr. Planthold,

      I personally really like Dennis Herrera but he has always
      seen his role with the Sunshine Ordinance as to teach his
      lawyers to train various commissions and authorities how
      to avoid complying with Sunshine.

      “Bring piles of files on wheels that are irrelevant.”

      Yeah, that was one thing I heard from someone who was there.

      As Truman Capote more or less said …

      ‘Ah, San Francisco.

      A mahvelous place for coincidences.”

      Go Giants!


  3. How will homeless people be prevented from smoking in these hotel’s all non-smoking rooms?

  4. Joe,

    You are the right person at the right time at the right place.

    Loving it.

    Just learned that City is now claiming to deliver free drugs
    and booze and pot to your door along with 3 meals.

    I mean, like, whooooaaa!?

    Follow the money.

    Did the group that owns the International and Mark Hopkins
    give anything in anyway at any time that helped London?

    “And, another thing I would like to clarify is …>

    How can farewell be fair”

    I regressed 60 years to play that and get away from the plague for 2:35

    Go Giants!


  5. One primary purpose of this program is subsidizing hotels to stay in business and mitigate losses due to government mandated mobility restrictions. That’s not openly acknowledged. But everyone involved, including the BoS, knows it’s a fact. So the money for rooms left unused isn’t being “wasted”. It’s being used to fulfill another purpose.

    1. And one purpose for NOT housing the homeless (or many other marginalized) is also not acknowledged generally; though Randy Shaw on 5/5 stated:

      “First, cities moving people from shelters to hotels face a big fight over returning them to the streets or shelters after the pandemic. There will be mass protests against this. And they will occur in Democratic cities in the months leading up to the November elections.

      Democratic politicians do not want this to happen.”

      So much for the BOS legislated 8000 rooms.

      I do agree Peskin has a bit better sense on approaching this than Rhoor or Breed. Leasing a small bit at a time is better than taking a huge bite. However, an ever better approach would have been to say to the hoteliers: “we know you are hurting w/ 90% vacancy rates. We will lease out your rooms for $75/100/125 per in blocks of 20/50/100 with full recompense for damages and guarantee return of your rooms after a certain period. Then let all 30,000 hotel rooms in SF bid on getting one of those leases.

      Secretly negotiating contracts with businesses (that fund IEs) is as prone to debacle and corruption as secretly negotiating with municipal labor unions (who support GOTV campaigns).

    2. Sebra,

      Their ‘control’ is potential.

      Their power to use the next couple of weeks lining up Charter Amendments
      to make the offices of Police Chief and City Administrator into elected positions.

      They voters would give those moves an 80% approval.

      They did 20 years ago when the Class of 2000 put the lumber to Willie Brown.

      You want to see all of these contracts with the big boys?

      Wave a few Charter Amendment proposals in front of London.

      Avalos in D-11!

      Gascon for DA in LA!

      Go Niners!


      Not a Native,

      That’s what I suspected.

      Problem is that, like Trump, Breed is giving most of the
      cash to the elite.

      I got my $1,200 and put the first $200 in my account.

      Donated other pieces in hundred dollar lots to neighbors
      who are laid off with no unemployment.

      Did more good than the Mayor with her 12 billion dollar budget.

      Avalos in D-11!

      Fielder for State Senate!

      Gascon for DA in LA!

      Ain’t politics great?


      Go Giants!

    3. Thanks for clarity, Not A Native,


      Clearly, you’re right.

      Breed re-directed the FEMA pay-outs to biggest hotel corporations she could find.

      Love the way you succinctly tie it together for what it is …

      “subsidizing hotels”

      No interest in helping the homeless.

      On upside, weather is beautiful.

      As people flood public spaces we’ll see if Trump’s predictions are correct.

      Didn’t he say that warmth and sun would kill the virus?

      Millions of people around the country are checking that out.

      On the beaches.

      And, boardwalks.

      And, parks.

      My rant this week is on Jaco Pastorius.

      He dug out the frets to his bass guitar.

      Filled in the gaps with wood putty.

      Sanded the surface.

      Made sounds never before possible.

      Seem to recall someone with the Dead doing that to a guitar.

      Lon, long ago.

      Go Giants!


  6. Do not ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetenc, and minor corruption in Breed’s administration.

    Also, don’t expect a mea culpa.

    1. It is not Breed in this case. It is the BOS. They are reckless in their decision making and have no fiscal restraint. They live in an alternate reality. They behave like the Hilton children no pun intended – they spend other peoples money with no regard for consequences and no appreciation for value. It is sickening.

      1. “They live in an alternate reality.” Perhaps you do? The rooms don’t even cost much, nor are they the bulk of the cost.

        The cost of transporting 1 homeless to the emergency room just once (up to what, 10 a day?) blows away the per diem here.
        It’s not close.

        You want to do nothing, that’s a non solution. You want to criminalize homelessness, that’s a non solution.
        Both cost money also. You have no alternative solution nor are you attempting to find one, it appears frankly.

        Sounds like Fox News ranting rather than substance. Breed is responsible for what Breed is responsible for.
        The BOS is responsible for their own bailey. Yes, I blame them too although she’s the figurehead and they have 9 names.
        I blame Newsom also. Care not Cash was never succesfully implemented, it was a joke stopgap that fell apart.
        And who is left picking up the pieces? The people you whine about, the non-profits and piecemeal services.

        They aren’t getting “rich” off the backs of other people, they’re trying to make this city liveable and solve a problem.
        Take a page from that instead of rhetorically backing a pre-indictment bribery figure rolled up in an FBI investigation….

      2. Misdirected here. The Peskin statements show a sense of fiscal responsibility in this issue, while the changes in the city payments plan for hotel rooms show lack of fiscal responsibility.
        Maybe criticize the Supes. for many things, but not for this fiscal foul-up.

        1. Hey Bobby,

          Good to see your name.

          It’s kind of like a mini-version of Trump’s small business ‘bailouts’.

          Set up to give almost all of the money to big corporations.

          I assumed it was bad but I thought they’d at least be giving the
          serious cash to the smaller boutique hotels.

          Naw, even worse than I thought.

          They (Breed) is giving the money to the giants w/out shame.

          Board’s biggest whiff here for me is not using their power to
          place Charter amendments on the ballot as a stick to get
          her attention.

          If she doesn’t back down, put the measures on the ballot.

          They don’t have much time.

          June is deadline for them.

          Hope you’re holding up well.


      3. How can it be the Board of Supervisors when they have no control over the room and they have to request details on the deals that were made?

        1. Sebra,

          Their ‘control’ is potential.

          Their power to use the next couple of weeks lining up Charter Amendments
          to make the offices of Police Chief and City Administrator into elected positions.

          They voters would give those moves an 80% approval.

          They did 20 years ago when the Class of 2000 put the lumber to Willie Brown.

          You want to see all of these contracts with the big boys?

          Wave a few Charter Amendment proposals in front of London.

          Avalos in D-11!

          Gascon for DA in LA!

          Go Niners!


          Go Giants!

    2. Imagine thinking corruption at City Hall began with the current mayor. It’s a nice thought — a simple vote might end it instead of a systematic cleansing of inept and criminal bureaucrats and politicians.