Tenants Protest Conversion of Tenderloin SRO to Illegal Youth Hostel

by Randy Shaw, 2012-12-07

Over eighty tenants affiliated with the Central City SRO Collaborative and Community Tenants Association held a noisy protest outside the Columbia Hotel (renamed the “Orange Village Hostel”) at 411 O’Farrell St. yesterday, demanding that the owner stop illegal tourist rentals. City inspectors have cited the hotel for repeated violations of the city’s Residential Hotel Ordinance (Section 41.20 of the Administrative Code), as well as for cramming four students into a single room. The hotel is also illegally limiting rentals to students, claiming on its website that “We only offer long term stay rooms for students ONLY.” The rally is the first step in a larger campaign to prevent an SRO long used by low-income residents from converting 85 residential units to tourist use.

I began working with tenants at the Columbia Hotel in 1982, and from 1989 through the early 1990’s most of the hotel’s 123 rooms were rented through the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s Modified Payment Program. But new owners have completely changed the hotel’s occupancy, and anyone viewing its website would assume that the so-called “Orange Village Hostel” is a youth hostel rather than a primarily residential hotel.

Tenants Rally in Protest

The protest at the hotel follows a lengthy investigation of the its practices by the Central City SRO Collaborative (CCSRO) (Disclosure: CCSRO is a project of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, publisher of Beyond Chron). Priya Sawhney, a CCSRO Community Organizer, spent a night at the hotel posing as a student. She uncovered overcrowded units, residential rooms rented to tourists, and floors in the process of illegally converting to tourist use. According to Sawhney, “In what is supposed to be a residential hotel, I came across only one long-term tenant. He managed to stay while other long-term tenants were pressured by the owners to leave their homes.”

Tanisha Blackwell, a resident of the nearby Hartland Hotel, told the rally that “Orange Village Hostel should not be profiting off of illegal tourist rentals. For every room used to for tourists, there are many in the Tenderloin struggling to find affordable housing.”

SRO resident Dan Jordon echoed Blackwell: “I am a counselor at the CCSRO Collaborative and deal with individuals desperately seeking affordable housing on a daily basis. It is very frustrating to see residents of this neighborhood have to resort to living on the streets while hotels such as Orange village hostel are illegally renting rooms to tourists.”

Viewing the hotel’s website, one would be surprised to learn it was not a legal tourist hotel. The website even states that, “We only offer long term stay rooms for students ONLY.” This practice violates local, state and federal laws fair housing laws.

While a handful of longterm tenants remain, most were pressured to move by the new ownership.

The hotel can legally rent 38 of its 123 rooms to tourists year round, but cannot survive as a tourist hotel with such limited occupancy. That’s why DBI inspectors found on October 24 that the hotel was exceeding its legal tourist occupancy, and why it also found that it is boosting its profits by illegally renting permanent rooms to students at double the legal occupancy.

While the hotel can legally rent all of its rooms to students (most of whom are from Korea), this would only bring in $1000 for a single or perhaps $1500 for double occupancy. To make more money, DBI found the hotel is illegally cramming two sets of bunk beds in rooms where only one is allowed.

That means four adults to a room. At $600 per bed, this generates $2400 per residential room, far in excess of SRO rooms that do not violate city occupancy limits.

That’s why they call it a “hostel,” and why signs at the protest described the hotel as “Hostel to Tenants.”

After chanting in front of the hotel, protesters entered the lobby and delivered a letter urging the owner to stop its illegal activities. The General Manager responded by saying they would like to meet to discuss how they can address the problem. CCSRO Director Pratibha Tekkey noted that “this was the first time the hotel responded to any of our inquiries” about its practices.

The rally is the launching point for a broader campaign that will use social media and other tactics to discourage potential tourists from staying at the hotel. Stay tuned for future developments.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron