The Place That Time Forgot

Why things never seem to get better in the Tenderloin, no matter how much money is thrown at it

Shaw and Elberling have been criticizing each other for decades. Elberling's most recent project, the 154-unit Bayanihan House at Sixth and Mission streets, has put them at odds again.

Shaw was quoted in the Examiner as saying the $22 million spent on the Bayanihan House would have been more wisely used on rent at existing single-room-occupancy hotels, in so-called "master lease" arrangements that allow nonprofit groups such as Shaw's to take over management of the hotels. "You have to look at the economics," Shaw was quoted as saying in the article, which derided the Bayanihan House as a poor person's Trump Tower.

When he spoke with me last week, Elberling had drawn criticism for the right reason -- his new building has created bad economic conditions for the area's slumlords. "Hotel owners don't get rich from our projects," he said. "They're going to lose their good tenants. We set a good standard with a kitchenette and more bathrooms. They don't like it. It shows a much higher standard of a decent hotel, with decent amenities in every room, refrigerators so they can cook. We have decent bathrooms. Sheetrocked walls so you can't hear what's going on in the room next to you. They have phone lines, cable television.

"They have the amenities you or I would expect in renting a basic place to live. That's the standard all the hotel owners should comply with."

In my first feature story for SF Weekly nearly seven years ago, I followed the lives of two Skid Row lovers, Jeff and Al, who got by collecting cardboard and cans from San Francisco alleyways. They described to me their lives as residents of what they called the "Patel hotels" in the Tenderloin. (People with the last name Patel, not all of them related, own many of San Francisco's Skid Row hotels.)

Jeff and Al said they had borrowed money from their hotel's owner to support their drug habit, until their entire monthly benefit check was taken up by the $10-per-day interest the landlord charged. To help pay off their debt, they worked at the hotel for $5 per day, an apparent form of indentured servitude. Al told me about a time they were sent up to clean a room after a man had been found dead and decomposing there for several days, his bodily fluids seeping into the mattress.

"The owner told us to just turn the mattress over," Al said.

The abusive behavior of San Francisco slumlords is an old, unchanging story that crops up perennially in newspaper articles, building inspection reports, and S.F. city attorney lawsuits. The discrete elements of these stories -- frequent fires; unheated buildings; blocked fire exits; broken windows; missing door handles; broken lights; collapsed banisters; damaged walls, ceilings, and stairs; smoke detectors sans batteries; filthy carpets and bathrooms; roach and rat infestations; trash in the halls -- add up to a narrative that never moves forward.

In my second SF Weekly story, I profiled Antoinetta Stadlman, a transgender woman who openly fantasized about becoming the queen of Sixth Street. She'd pinned pictures of Louis XVI, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Queen Elizabeth II beside a picture of herself on a wall in her room, and a crown on her door. She allied herself with Randy Shaw and became unofficial manager of the Baldwin House, writing in her diary that "[i]f we played our cards right, we would be a force few people could oppose. We could end up ruling South of Market, and end up directing the inevitable changes that are coming into the area."

When I wrote about her six years ago, Stadlman had failed in an attempt to be elected to the South of Market Project Area Committee, a 21-person group that, under an unusual state law, helps guide millions of dollars in redevelopment spending. Persistent in her quest, Stadlman has since been elected to the Project Area Committee and has become its chairperson. In that position, she is an outspoken advocate of Shaw's "master lease" scheme.

Gasaway says he doesn't hear much from Stadlman anymore. She used to be omnipresent in the building, corralling tenants into meetings to discuss broken light bulbs and the like.

"I don't go to the meetings anymore. Nobody goes to them because nothing's done. The only thing Antoinetta seems interested in now is her seat on the redevelopment Project Area Committee thing, which really don't affect this hotel," Gasaway says, then segues into a description of how time passes at the Baldwin House, a building of 250 tiny hotel rooms.

"In the past five years, on this floor, it looks like almost half the rooms have two people, or in some cases three people. There are only two showers on the fifth floor where I live. If one of the toilets is broken down -- and they are all the time -- you have to wait in line for one of the toilets. Years ago they were doing health inspections every month. I haven't seen the health inspector up here in probably a year. And I've seen no fire or building inspectors. They've given up on that, I think."

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