Bonta Bill Tries to Keep Low-Income Residents in Oakland's Dwindling SRO Hotels

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Orlando Chavez in Hotel Travelers, the SRO where he has lived for nearly nine years, on Feb. 16, 2017. He is one of a few tenants who are holding onto their rent-controlled units while the building's owner is conducting extensive renovations. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

To get to his room at the Hotel Travelers in downtown Oakland, Orlando Chavez has to climb two flights of stairs and pass through hallways completely gutted by construction, lined with plastic sheeting and debris. At the end of a corridor, tucked into a corner, is his room, one of only two rooms on the floor that are still intact.

"There are three people left in the building," said Chavez. "Everyone else is gone."

Chavez’s room smells overwhelmingly of mildew after a recent plumbing leak. It’s a small room, crammed with his belongings and a huge teddy bear on the bed that Chavez says he found on the street and rescued "from eviction".

Chavez, 65, says he has lived in Oakland since 1953. The hotel is convenient for him: It's about a block from BART, which he rides to get to the GLIDE clinic in the Tenderloin, where he works with drug users. He's lived here eight years, and he pays $686 a month.

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"I moved in here because it had affordable rent, I was on disability at the time, and I was paying twice as much somewhere else," Chavez says. "Even though it wasn’t the Taj Mahal, it was a place of refuge."

Orlando Chavez in Hotel Travelers, the SRO where he has lived for nearly nine years, on Feb. 16, 2017. He is one of a few tenants who are holding onto their rent-controlled units while the building's owner is conducting extensive renovations.
Orlando Chavez in Hotel Travelers, the SRO where he has lived for nearly nine years, on Feb. 16, 2017. He is one of a few tenants who are holding onto their rent-controlled units while the building's owner is conducting extensive renovations. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs, typically don't require a deposit, proof of income, a credit check or a long-term lease, so they have long been last-resort housing for people who have nowhere else to go. But in Oakland, many SROs are now being sold and rehabbed for tourists, student housing or market-rate housing.

Last spring, new owners took over the Hotel Travelers. The way Chavez tells it, they shut down the elevator and the Wi-Fi, and got rid of the maid service and the doorman. He thinks they were trying to get people out.

"They actually would approach you with a stack of cash, with a wad of cash, in their hand and the contract in the other one," Chavez says.

One of the new landlords is Danny Haber, co-founder of the company The Negev, which advertises as catering to people who want to live in "personality-based housing," renting rooms to people with similar interests in the same buildings. Haber and his colleagues have gained notoriety for renovating buildings like the Hotel Travelers on both sides of the bay, and they've been accused of pushing out low-income renters before. But they see the renovations in an entirely different light.

"No one was forced out!" said Edward Singer, an attorney for the landlords. He says the building was in disrepair, with no sprinklers and a failing elevator, and his clients are doing the right thing by bringing the building up to code, making it safe. He recognizes displacement of low-income people is an issue in Oakland, but he says it’s unfair to make only residential hotel landlords responsible for fixing it.

"This is not a nonprofit," Singer said. "It’s being driven by the ability to make the building more attractive to tech workers who want to live in downtown Oakland and take care of all the cultural amenities down there."

On rental sites like Hotbeds.com and Trulia, the owners are advertising renovated rooms at the Travelers at $1,100 a month, more than one and a half times what Chavez pays now.

"We’ve lost, in the last several years, many SRO hotels," said Elissa Dennis, an affordable housing advocate with the nonprofit Community Economics. "We lost Lake Merritt Lodge to become student housing, we’ve lost the Will Rogers to become the Clarion, we’re losing the Travelers here. There are rumors that the Sutter is going to become a boutique hotel."

City law considers guests who stay longer than 30 days permanent residents with rent increases tied to inflation and some protections from eviction. According to a 2015 report by the city's Housing and Community Development Department, 50 of the 70 residents at the Hotel Travelers at the time were considered permanent.

But Dennis says Oakland’s policy doesn’t have the teeth to prevent residential hotels from being converted to move in people who can pay more. And when low-income tenants are pushed out of these hotels, they often end up on the street. So advocates started looking at ordinances in other cities, like San Francisco, which requires hotel owners to replace affordable units if they convert, or pay to replace them.

"We said, 'Hey, let’s do that here in Oakland,' " Dennis said. "And we felt we had political will to do it, but ran into legal issues with the Ellis Act."

Orlando Chavez points to a sign warning of an unstable floor in Hotel Travelers, the SRO where he has lived for nearly nine years, on Feb. 16, 2017. The building is being gutted and renovated and Chavez says he and the other few remaining low-income tenants are facing pressure to leave.
Orlando Chavez points to a sign warning of an unstable floor in Hotel Travelers, the SRO where he has lived for nearly nine years, on Feb. 16, 2017. The building is being gutted and renovated, and Chavez says he and the other few remaining low-income tenants are facing pressure to leave. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

California's Ellis Act allows landlords to evict tenants if they convert their building to a different use. Currently, only cities with more than a million residents, and San Francisco, which is its own county, are able to get around the Ellis Act to prevent evictions from residential hotels.

A new bill introduced by Democratic state Assemblyman Rob Bonta would add Oakland to that list. The California Apartment Association, which represents landlords and usually defends the Ellis Act, has not yet taken a position on Bonta’s bill. The California Hotel and Lodging Association and the California Association of Realtors did not respond to requests for comment.

Orlando Chavez says he supports the bill.

"I think we need to do something really quickly or it’s going to be game over for affordable housing for seniors and low-income people," said Chavez. "I see what happens to people that get kicked out of hotels every day. The line goes down the block. They end up in the emergency rooms and the jails and the shelters and in the morgue.

"Who pays for that?" he asks. "Who pays, and who profits?"