“Sorry, can’t ride the elevator.”
These words echoed through City Hall Wednesday afternoon as 14 disability activists blocked politicians and staffers from entering three of the building’s elevators for an hour.
“If we let you in, will you listen to what we have to say?” asked one protester in a wheelchair of a staffer trying to get into one elevator, to which the staffer replied: “I just want to get to work!”
Members of the activist group Senior & Disability Action filled three elevators on the east side of City Hall on Wednesday to demonstrate the neglected elevator conditions in Single Room Occupancy Hotels, or SROs, and prevented about 20 politicians and other City Hall workers from using them.
“Disabled [people] and others cannot get on their elevators properly,” SDA board member Cora McCoy told Mission Local. “It takes them six weeks to one year to get fixed. If the elevator is filled and they can’t get on, they’ll understand what the disabled go through.”
The protesters complained of broken or nonexistent elevators at SROs around San Francisco, and long wait times to get them fixed, preventing the elderly and disabled from accessing medication or even leaving their rooms.
The majority of the protesters were in wheelchairs, had canes or were senior citizens. Those who work at City Hall expressed frustration at what seemed like a game of whack-a-mole, where as soon as one elevator full of protesters disappeared, another one popped up.
“We’d like to let this gentleman on,” said community mental health advocate Liza Murawski cheerfully as she escorted District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman to the elevators.
But as soon as the doors opened, protesters held up their signs and said, “Nope!”
Mandelman hastily walked away.
SDA members demanded an add-back of $10 million specifically for SRO elevator repairs to the mayor’s budget plan, which would allow 10 elevators in different city SROs to be fixed.
Currently, the mayor’s proposed budget plan for the 2022-2023 fiscal year includes $10 million for general maintenance repairs in the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD)’s existing nonprofit housing stock, which includes SROs.
Fixing elevators in SROs is expensive, with each repair costing up to $1 million. Many of the elevators in SROs are also old and require parts that are not easy to obtain, making for long wait times. The accessibility of these repair parts was only further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Malfunctioning or defunct elevators in SROs are not a new problem. In a 2017 health impact assessment report from the Department of Public Health, elevator repairs were cited as a significant health challenge for those who lived in SROs. The report also stated that in 2009, half the residents living in SROs in San Francisco noted that their elevators were not consistently working.
SDA also conducted its own report in 2012 and found similar results. Only half of the respondents said their building had an elevator that worked consistently. SDA took another survey in August, 2021: An overwhelming majority said that elevator repairs were a top priority for them, according to SDA housing organizer Yesi Koopman.
“This is a serious issue,” said Murawski who participated in today’s sit-in. “If something happens [to a resident], no one knows. It’ll be days before someone notices.”
Murawski also noted that broken elevators make it difficult if not impossible for elderly people to get their food, medication and other essentials. “It’s not just a day. It’s months that people will go without leaving their apartment.”
SDA member Jordan Davis, who lives in an SRO run by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said that she experienced the elevators in her building going out, which caused disruptions in both her own life and in the lives of other residents. In some cases, residents would have to sleep in the lobby due to elevator outages.
Davis also recalled a blind neighbor, Stevie Newson, who fell to his death after an out-of-order elevator opened into an empty shaft.
Eric Marcoux, SDA member of three years and part of its SRO Working Group division, said that the elevator issue is brought up every month with the working group. Marcoux, who has a wheelchair and lives in an apartment, said that when he had to wait three weeks for his elevator to be repaired it “opened his eyes” to just how essential consistent elevator access is.
“We have so much money floating around this city,” Marcoux said. “I don’t see why this is so big of a problem.”
The city has tried to address the problem before. Prior to the pandemic, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development had a rebate program funded by a Board of Supervisors addback in the 2018-19 fiscal year, but the program was cut during the pandemic.
During its time, the program faced various obstacles, said MOHCD communications manager Anne Stanley, but “most significant were owners having to front the very costly elevator repairs to get the minimal rebate.”
MOHCD plans to add an Existing Nonprofit Owned Notice of Funding Availability later this year, which would fix elevators in various non-profits and SROs, Stanley wrote in an email to Mission Local. The last time the city issued an ENP NOFA was in 2016; at least two elevator repairs were funded.
“Personally, I can’t solve the issue, but that’s why I’m at City Hall,” McCoy said. “We need to be heard.”