An air-quality sensor hangs in Father Alfred E. Boeddeker Park in San Francisco's Tenderloin, an effort to measure the air near impoverished communities. (Photo courtesy Brightline Defense)
Wildfires are choking the air across the Bay Area. But while people fearing blackened skies are rushing to buy masks and air filtration systems, low-income communities and communities of color suffer unhealthy air year-round.
An effort led by the California Air Resources Board to improve air in those communities is now expanding into San Francisco, accelerated in response to the worsening air from the lightning-sparked wildfires.
Brightline Defense, an environmental nonprofit, is leading the San Francisco effort to install air-quality sensors near single-room occupancy hotels and to survey residents on their health in collaboration with SRO hotel tenants, themselves.
Gail Seagraves lives in one of those SRO hotels in the Tenderloin, on Turk Street. She says tenants there live on the margins and are often "invisible."
"We have to fight for every single thing," Seagraves said. "This is really exciting for us that tenants are involved, and someone wants to listen to them."
"It just makes us feel like somebody cares," she said.
In the Bay Area, the program is also in Richmond and West Oakland, the latter of which resulted in an October 2019 "action plan" that identified diesel from the Port of Oakland and particulates from nearby waste treatment facilities as sources of air pollution in disadvantaged communities. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District provides technical assistance to those efforts.
Those communities suffer higher rates of asthma and bad cardiovascular health, the report noted. Air quality data collected in West Oakland led to recommendations like moving the Port of Oakland's truck operations to zero-emissions by 2035 and to fund cleaner tugboat engines.
Now that effort is expanding into low-income San Francisco communities. On Thursday, Brightline Defense Executive Director Eddie Ahn climbed ladders and clambered onto rooftops in San Francisco's Tenderloin, Mid-Market and South of Market neighborhoods, working to install more than a dozen air-quality sensors near SRO hotels, and some parks — like Boedekker Park in the Tenderloin — where SRO tenants frequent.
The device is rectangular and white, about half the size of a shoebox but similar in shape, with antennae and a solar panel attached to it. Ahn zip ties the device to nearby poles, and links it via the internet to a web page that shows refreshed air-quality readings once every hour.
Measuring the air near SRO hotels is especially important, Ahn said, because they can be so densely populated. San Francisco has hundreds of SRO hotels, which each can have as many as 200 living units, many with families packing into a single room. These impoverished communities are located very close to congested traffic, which chokes their air far more regularly than wildfires.
With wildfire smoke, "you can even feel it inside your apartment building, you don't even have to step out into the street. But also, the other major issues identified today have been traffic congestion, construction impacts," Ahn said, so "knowing the air in which they breathe, in which they absorb over a very long period of time and how it shapes their long term life expectancy, is something that everybody should have a right to."
Ahn said Brightline Defense's effort to measure air quality near SRO hotels may also expand into Chinatown with the help of the Chinatown Community Development Center, which operates SRO buildings in the neighborhood.
Any effort to improve air quality would be welcome by Jun Tan, a father of a 7-year-old who lives with his wife and daughter in a Chinatown SRO. A custodian, Tan said sheltering-in-place in his single room, with his family, led to hotter-than-usual conditions.
"It is hard with the current bad air quality and ashes," Jun said, "because now we have to close the only window we have."