The Altamont SRO Hotel, 3048 16th St
The Altamont SRO Hotel. Photo by Mark Rabine. Taken Jan. 17, 2022.

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For three months, 61 tenants of the four-story Altamont Hotel on 16th Street have lived without an elevator. 

Hope rose briefly at a hearing last week, when the city threatened penalties if the managers failed to fix it by Feb. 12. But as the virtual hearing wore on, it became clear that the threat did little to assure skeptical tenants that timely and adequate repairs would be made. 

Repairs are “in the process, the work has started,” Jessica Hickerson, the director for the Altamont told tenants and Department of Building Inspection chief electrical inspector Ken Burke, who oversaw the hearing. But, Hickerson acknowledged, the lack of parts means that it could take two months to fix.

Tenants listening in argued the explanation wasn’t good enough. “The elevator has been down multiple times last year,” said one resident, Ralowe Ampu. “We are told it’s being modernized. It’s vague. What is going to be modernized? The motor? The car? What’s going to be the timeline?”

While tenants wait, Ampu added, other residents “who have mobility issues are in intense pain going up and down the stairs.”

Others called in to detail how the elevator exacerbated their injuries. Burke interjected, and asked Hickerson, “Ma’am, the elevator work is under way?” 

Hickerson confirmed that was the case.

More tenants called in to complain, but Burke had heard enough. He was ready to rule in favor of the tenants: “We don’t need to get into this. Pull a 30-day order of abatement.” The hearing was over. 

Ampu’s question about what happened if the elevator broke again went unanswered. 

That hearing was a director’s hearing, in which DBI inspectors review outstanding habitability or building code complaints to enforce city health and safety codes. 

Last year, about eight habitability complaints were cited by inspectors last year at the Altamont Hotel, including one about a broken elevator, filed June 13, 2022. The inspector reinspected it on June 21, and reported the elevator was “completely corrected.” By October, it was out again. 

That time, the complaint rose to a director’s hearing, because repairs hadn’t been completed in the allotted time. Burke’s decision at the hearing means an order of abatement will be issued: This acts similarly to a lien, and may dissuade banks from issuing loans. It is stricken when the violation is fixed and penalties are paid.  

Orders of abatement are one of the Department of Building Inspection’s strongest tools to get property owners to comply with building and safety codes. Few of the hundreds of housing code complaints get to this stage, because many are either abated, inspectors close it for lack of access, or tenants give up and fail to press the issue. The only enforcement tool stronger than an order of abatement is to involve the City Attorney, which is difficult and rare. 

For the tenants, the order of abatement offers little solace. They wait, without access to an elevator, to see if it happens, and then they wait again after the order is given, to see if the landlord acts more quickly. In all, the Altamont tenants may end up being without an elevator for nearly half a year. 

For the landlord, there is little consequence for failing to act quickly. An abatement order will come and then go quickly once the problem is remedied. Meanwhile, tenants depend on a landlord who has already failed them. 

Effects on health

As tenants wait, health and wellness issues are only exacerbated. 

“I’m suffering from a swollen, painful hernia,” said a tenant who identified himself as Mr. Morales at the Jan. 12 hearing. “I’m really swollen, and in pain, going up and down the stairs. It is really hard to deal with it.” 

Out of 61 total tenants, four with “mobility limitations” received offers for temporary housing, according to Julio Lara, a spokesman for Altamont’s owner, the Mission Housing Development Corporation. 

But there are others who did not.  

“It’s been a challenge,” said Altamont resident Richard Phillips from his colorfully decorated room. Phillips injured his left leg, and he said on a pain scale of 1 to 10, taking the stairs is a 7. Just before the elevator broke down in October, it shut down while he was inside, trapping him for 10 to 15 minutes. 

Another resident, Joshua Switzer, told Mission Local he has ulcers on each foot. The affliction has sent him to the hospital before, and climbing the stairs has “prolonged something that could have healed sooner.” 

Phillips and Switzer said they did not receive an offer to relocate. 

Even if they had, they are reluctant to do so, mainly because the replacement rooms offered are at Mission Housing’s “sister hotel,” the Apollo.

The Apollo, which Caritas also manages, is where tenants might be placed, but it experienced elevator issues of its own a few years ago and shepherded its residents to the Altamont, said Switzer and Ralowe Ampu, another tenant.

“We’re just getting shifted back and forth,” Ampu said at the hearing. 

Mission Housing acquired the Altamont and the Apollo in 1996. 

The Altamont is a Single Room Occupancy property, organized as a nonprofit public benefit company that is subsidized by Section 8 housing funds. Caritas Management, an independent subsidiary of Mission Housing established in 1983, is in charge of the day-to-day operations. Hickerson is the director of both hotels and is a Caritas employee. 

Caritas appears to be the first line of defense for tenants’ complaints. However, some tenants feared retaliation for speaking about issues. Caritas topped the city’s list for the most eviction notices in subsidized housing, Mission Local found, issuing  919 eviction notices in the past five years, resulting in 203 evictions, according to city data. Two tenants Mission Local interviewed about the elevator allege they face eviction threats. 

Caritas failed to answer media requests by Mission Local, as it had for a San Francisco Chronicle SRO investigation that revealed its penchant for SRO evictions. The Altamont ranked third among SROs with most evictions last year, and the Apollo tied for eighth. 

Lara, from Mission Housing, said the Apollo is at the “tail end” of a $4 million renovation, which includes a “modernization” of the elevator. 

For its part, The Altamont is in the midst of a three- to four-year modernization plan, which includes upgraded kitchens, bathrooms and key systems. Mission Local witnessed a clean, refurbished kitchen on the second floor. The windows, however, would not close all the way.  Tenants are not particularly impressed with the upgrades. 

And, moving tenants between buildings during elevator repairs is not what they want. 

“Saying we have another place for people to live is not sufficient,” said Rebecca Ruiz, who identified herself as a friend of Altamont residents, and who called into the Jan. 12 hearing. “It has them move far from work when they have mobility issues. I want them to take this seriously; people are in pain. This feels like a basic safety issue.”

Those without specific limitations are still frustrated and inconvenienced by the situation. Resident Janie Sue said her mother couldn’t visit during the holidays because she needs an elevator. 

Sue and Kamilla Cox, both of whom live in the hotel, sell merchandise for work, and often bring inventory up and down the elevator to and from their apartments. They worry that if they can’t carry it all in one go and leave items unattended in the lobby, they will be stolen. “I have to carry everything. It’s very heavy, and no one is going to help me,” Sue said. Tenants allege that items have been stolen before, and management does not help find the culprits. 

Caritas and Mission Housing hired a “runner” to deliver items to tenants who don’t wish to go downstairs. Though residents appreciate the runner, the hours don’t always align with their schedules. “The runner starts at noon and ends at four, so sometimes I don’t schedule something until the afternoon,” said one tenant who has arthritis in the knees and requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. 

‘They’d rather put a band-aid on it’

After Caritas indicated that the repairs could take as long as 60 days, the frustration among tenants was clear.

“Every time it seems that we have to wait for parts … for three weeks, three months. They’d rather put a band-aid on it instead of correcting it,” said the tenant with arthritis.  

Ampu estimated that, even before the recent failure in October, the elevator had broken down three other times during the year. At the hearing, she said, “What are going to be the repercussions for Mission Housing or Caritas if this is not [fixed] in that timeline? If [it] breaks down?” 

The repercussions for going beyond mid-Februrary without a fix would be an order of abatement on the property that acts much like a lien. The property owner would also foot the bill for DBI inspectors, at a rate determined by the city. In 2015, that was $158 per hour for inspections, and an extra charge of a few hundred dollars for residential code enforcement.  

As to the delays, Lara blamed them not on construction issues, as Hickerson had, but on a “dearth” of  funding. It’s expensive to fix elevators, he wrote in an email to Mission Local. An elevator repair can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Altamont’s age further complicates an elevator repair that needs “many custom parts” and during a time with “major supply issues,” Lara said. “The elevator is also at the mercy of the inspection agency and their backlog of requests. We’re working diligently to resolve these issues.”

It’s unclear if Mission Housing has repair money in hand. Lara would not say how much Mission Housing receives to upkeep the Altamont. Generally, the Altamont’s housing program, Project Based Section 8, means the apartment is valued at the market rate, though tenants pay 30 percent of their income, and the government pays the rest. 

Generally, apartments are priced based on the market. However, many SRO hotels in San Francisco lack adequate funds, according to the Chronicle, which can delay repairs. 

Lara said the subsidies are inadequate. “Mission Housing continues to advocate for this vital housing but we need rental subsidies that adequately fund the operations and recognizes the gap between the cost to operate and the vulnerable population being housed.” Moreover, he added, The Altamont “is ineligible for many HUD refinancing products,” that would presumably free  up money. 

A 2017 Department of Public Health report on SROs agreed that financing issues led to deferred maintenance for faulty elevators, putting seniors and those with disabilities especially at risk. In 2009, more than half of the SROs had inoperable elevators, and tenants complained of falling down the stairs. 

Last year, senior and disability advocates demonstrated at City Hall for an add-back to replace SRO elevators. Instead, supervisors pledged $10 million in elevator repairs. But, as the SF Standard reported, the repairs have not yet started. 

Regarding the Altamont, Ampu said she doesn’t feel anyone is taking it seriously. “It’s heartbreaking.” 

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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6 Comments

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  1. Only let handicapped and elderly live in SRO’s with elevators. 4 stories or less should be built sans elevator to produce more housing and less expensive upkeep. Bottom of the barrel housing should not have any perks to keep costs down.

    That being said, due to the managers dragging their fett, a lien against the property owners and fix the elevator is the best course of action in this case.

  2. Annika, thank you for explaining how an Order of Abatement works.

    Our city’s largest and most notorious slumlord/real estate speculator receives these, too. I agree with Gareth’s suggestion that The City should step in and help such long-suffering citizens, as these housing conditions are brutal and unhealthy. And the fines for these ongoing violations need to be increased to a level that motivates landlords to do right by their tenants.

  3. I live in an SRO run by Caritas Management, and they do an excellent job. Our office staff responds almost immediately to our needs, the janitorial staff does a great job every day too, under trying conditions considering the health issues the tenants have and our Building Engineer responds within the hour. It doesn’t get any better than this. These people take care of us. We don’t have an elevator so this story’s subject is not our problem but this elevator problem is a city-wide problem. Buildings all across SF have elevator issues, not just SRO’s.

  4. I believe the city should immediately go in and fix the elevator and put a lien on the property for the costs, payable in full in 90 days. Unfortunately, the city has no guts to do the right thing in a timely manner and act in the best interests of the elderly tenants.

    1. The city only has a 14 billion dollar budget and 47,061 employees. Yet they can’t even fill pot holes and we have the worst streets in the entire nation. They are sure are not going to lift a finger to do anything else…