After SF residents’ actions improve dismal SRO units, they could be without homes 

click to enlarge Winton Hotel
  • Nathaniel Y. Downes/special to the s.f. examiner
  • Bernard Strong stands in his unit at Winton Hotel, the SRO where he has lived for over 16 years.
For four years, William Masone, a laid-off social worker for San Francisco who relies on Social Security disability checks, lived in a 10- by 12-foot unit at the single-room-occupancy Winton Hotel among cockroaches, bed bugs, mold and many other hazardous conditions.

But he wasn’t exactly in a place where he could risk eviction by making complaints about the Tenderloin home to someone on the outside.

Masone’s requests to building management resulted in a few pest control and maintenance visits, which were ultimately ineffective. He tried to organize tenants in the 110-unit, 445 O’Farrell St. hotel. But amid The City’s skyrocketing rents and affordability crisis, his neighbors were worried about getting involved.

To Masone, it seemed that Winton Hotel operator Bill Thakor and manager Hari Basnyet were feeding off that fear.

“The money comes in, they smile, they take the rent and they just let it run downhill,” Masone said. “What they do is take advantage of people who have no mental capacity to know what’s going on or no family or a drug addiction. It’s basically people who are at their lowest point in their lives, one step away from a cardboard box.”

Masone, 49, finally made a breakthrough when fellow tenant Joshua Day said he, too, should file a lawsuit against property management. Day received legal representation from Steven Adair MacDonald and Partners and sued the hotel in March, a week after the law firm helped another tenant to also sue the building. When Masone filed his complaint on July 29, he was the fourth resident in the building to sue through the firm. “I had kind of been putting it off for a while, watching rents go up like crazy,” he said. “I’m doing it for me but also doing it for others. I just want to see people treat other people better.”

The hard-fought renovations have made the building more attractive to potential buyers who might further shift its residential focus, and the owners are reportedly in talks with new investors. Long-term residents are now fearful their efforts to clean up the property might have been too successful and they might soon find themselves priced out.

CITY TAKES ACTION

Those four separate lawsuits against the Winton Hotel piggyback on a suit in May from City Attorney Dennis Herrera against building operator Thakor, his family and entities that currently or in the past owned or operated at least 15 single-room-occupancy hotels in San Francisco, including the Winton, for “pervasive” violations of state and local laws that are intended to protect tenants’ health, safety and rights.

“Every day we get more reminders that there’s an affordable-housing crisis in San Francisco, and that many vulnerable tenants need the law’s protection now more than they ever have,” said Gabriel Zitrin, a City Attorney’s Office spokesman. “When someone runs afoul of the laws we’ve enacted to protect vulnerable tenants, it’s critical that we enforce those laws to the limit of our ability, and we’re going to continue doing just that.”

The Thakor family owns or controls about 880 SRO units in the Tenderloin, Mid-Market Street, South of Market and Mission neighborhoods, according to the lawsuit.

Through its stabilization program, the Department of Public Health referred homeless and other clients to four of the SRO hotels named in The City’s lawsuit, including Winton, for transitional housing. As of the day the suit was served, “We no longer do that,” said department spokeswoman Rachael Kagan of the referrals.

Winton Hotel management could not be reached for comment for this story.

But Tom Gelini, an attorney who’s representing Winton Hotel LLC, Thakor and Basnyet in the four lawsuits served by Steven Adair MacDonald and Partners, said: “It’s habitability complaints that we’re investigating and hopefully at some point we can come to a resolution.”

WINTON ISSUES PILE UP

The Department of Building Inspection, which sent Winton Hotel to the City Attorney’s Office for litigation, has 10 open violation cases on the building, seven of which are orders of abatement instructing the owners to make repairs and charging them for the department’s inspection time and a $52 monthly fee.

“We actually have quite a few hotels that have serious problems, though this certainly is the only one that has these kinds of problems,” said David Herring, acting senior housing inspector for the department. “They tend to be in that general area – the Tenderloin and also South of Market on Sixth Street.”

Attorney Richard Stratton, representing Winton in The City’s lawsuit, said several San Francisco agencies, including the Building Inspection and Public Health departments, did an extensive inspection June 12 and follow-ups revealed the issues identified had been corrected.

“Mr. Thakor had the work done almost right away in almost every instance,” Stratton said. “Winton Hotel has been in pretty good shape for at least a month or so.”

Some maintenance issues remain. The most recent room-to-room inspection July 28 found incorrect door locks, broken window latches, rusty sinks, and damaged walls, ceilings and floor coverings.

COMPLETELY NEW LOOK

Bernard Strong, 84, is a 16-year resident of Winton Hotel and also the third to sue through MacDonald’s firm. Over the years, he collected bed bugs and taped them to pieces of paper and filmed videos of the dismal conditions. Strong said he’s relieved fixes were made and that some tenants, like the other three plaintiffs, were willing to speak out.

“They’ve repaired the rooms, repainted them, put on new doors,” said Strong. “The building is pretty much good.”

But as living conditions are looking better, Winton’s future is in question.

“Multiple local investors, apparently with knowledge of the niche or possibly some ‘new thinking’ of what to do with the building, are speaking to the owners about a purchase,” MacDonald said.

Craig Ackerman, a broker at Ackerman Realty Group, said the 445 O’Farrell St. property is not on the San Francisco Multiple Listing Service, which feeds into many real estate sites. The listing service discloses property and ownership information that operators of a building plagued with issues may not want to make more readily available.

“It might be that someone is trying to sell this on the down-low,” Ackerman said. “It’s not uncommon for someone to try to do a private sale when there are ‘issues’ with the building.”

Notices of abatement “encumber” a property, making banks wary of loans for buyers, said spokesman William Strawn of the Department of Building Inspection.

But with the recent tech boom and overall surging local economy, many properties are being sold for cash to skip the traditional loan process. A building can be sold with outstanding orders of abatement, though the new owners inherit all the problems.

THE CATCH-22

Now Masone, the Winton resident, said he is worried the hotel may be sold and longtime, disenfranchised tenants will be evicted -- putting on the line their housing situation that was finally turning around after multiple lawsuits.

“I sincerely doubt anybody will buy this building and keep it the same,” Masone said. “If it were me, I would buy it and renovate it and do something else.”

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Bio:
Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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