Another SRO is about to bite the dust. Short for single room occupancy hotels, these cheap hotels have been dropping like flies from 123 in 2012 to 37 in October 2018. It's hard not to see a connection between losing thousands of rooms of last resort and more people living on the streets.
The 1920s Plaza Hotel on Fourth Avenue is just the latest SRO to disappear. Eviction notices sent out in February were rescinded after the San Diego housing commission intervened after being alerted by tenants asking for help.
Tenant Robert Brandy was manning the front desk when I visited the 185-room Plaza Hotel on Sunday. He's lived there since September.
Brandy said about 20 percent of tenants moved out after getting the eviction notice. "One tenant moved out expecting to receive [financial assistance] so he could move into a new place. He ended up having to live in his car."
The hotel is not taking any new tenants.
Brandy said 80 percent of tenants work full-time and range in age from 20 to 80. Some like Brandy are using this low-cost option until they get established. Others have been tenants for a decade or more, one for 25 years.
Brandy said he heard the owner's plan is to take the hotel down to the studs inside but leave the exterior alone. "It's tied to the convention center."
I wasn't able to ascertain anything further from the current or former owners. Hawkins Way Investments from Beverly Hills was listed in disclosure forms with plans to lobby the city about converting the hotel.
Scott Robinson, city communications, said the city doesn't know what the plans are and that the demolition permit application online is just a placeholder requested by the housing commission.
Scott Marshall with the housing commission, said, "The property owner filed an application on February 25 for SRO demolition, conversion or rehabilitation, and [housing commission] staff is reviewing that application."
After that review, the property owner will be required to issue tenants a relocation assistance notice (informing tenants of entitled benefits) and a new 60-day notice. Tenants living at the hotel for at least 90 days are entitled to two months' rent plus a rebate of $210. Per Brandy, no tenants have lived there less than 90 days. Plaza rent is $635 to $780.
On March 8, the housing commission approved a relocation assistance program with a budget of up to $500,000. This is part of the homelessness prevention program launched in 2017. Marshall said this fund will fill the gap that isn't covered by the property owner's relocation assistance and tenants own resources to secure comparable housing.
In October, 20.percent of SROs were exempt from replacement when redeveloped, including the Plaza Hotel. Marshall said it all comes down to the 2003 Ellis Act, a state law that says residential property owners can't be required to continue on in the rental market. Those that gave notice before 2004 of their intent to withdraw accommodations from rent or lease are the ones now exempt.
The Golden West SRO down the street from the Plaza is also exempt. A hotel employee said they have 60 vacancies and are accepting applications from Plaza tenants (rent is $550).
For those that live in their cars, District 2's councilmember Jennifer Campbell has suggested an additional location for the city's safe parking program. The program provides people a place to sleep in their cars at night. Campbell recommended the South Shores parking lot in Mission Bay (next to Sea World).
The mayor is looking to add three new safe parking locations. Four already exist in three neighborhoods: Golden Hill, Valencia Park, and Kearny Mesa.
Since the recent city council vote to repeal the 1980s ordinance that prohibits people from living in their cars, Brian White (president of the Pacific Beach town council) said residents of Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, and Point Loma have seen a significant uptick of car dwellers in residential neighborhoods (especially vans and RVs).
White said the community would like to see them "prohibited from doing so in residential zones or within a one block radius of a park, licensed school, pre-school, or daycare."
The reaction to Campbell's proposal has been mixed. The idea of offering up bay front property for homeless parking doesn't appeal to some. White suggested lots at Sports Arena or SDCCU Stadium as better alternatives.
"The establishment of more safe parking lots is a first step, but alone will not prevent people from camping in residential neighborhoods. Many campers will likely still prefer our residential streets over these designated lots because they can be closer to the beaches. A new restrictive ordinance is needed in conjunction with the safe parking alternatives."
Only the Imperial Avenue lot allows RVs, and only four for now because of zoning issues.
Each safe parking lot has case managers that do background checks. No registered sex offenders or violent felons are allowed. This is a step-up from SROs where violent sexual predators like John Wilson Kreischer are allowed. He moved into the Plaza Hotel in 2013 with a rap sheet going back to the 1970s, his female victims ranged from pre-teens to septuagenarians. He was arrested again in 2014 and sentenced to 25 years to life.
All four safe parking lots have bathrooms or porta-pottys, electricity, a microwave, food and other donations. A couple have refrigerators and the Imperial lot has a grill. The Kearny Mesa lots have showers (onsite or portable).
Each lot opens at 6:00 p.m. nightly and allows people to park until at least 6:00 a.m. (sometimes later depending on the day and lot). All lots are gated and locked by 9:00 p.m. People are allowed to exit but with no same night return privileges.
Dreams for Change operates two of the lots. Teresa Smith explained why someone isn't onsite all night. "For the first 3-1/2 years, we spent the night but we realized we were wasting our time watching people sleep so we stopped doing that."
They instead choose someone they trust staying on the lot to alert them if a situation arises.
"People are so grateful to have that space, they don't want to do things that screw it up. They help keep each other in line."
On Saturday, I visited the two lots operated by Dreams for Change. At the 28th Street lot I met 57-year-old Sandra Benavides as she was walking her three dogs. She became homeless in November after losing her job as a caregiver and not being able to afford her $1500 rent in Vista. She sleeps in her car with her 74-year-old husband (veteran and retired pastor) and their three dogs. During the day, she is at Chicano Park volunteering, hoping she can get a job there.
"I lost everything and I was doing so good. I'm getting tired. There are times when I just go to the bathroom and I just cry my eyes out. I feel like all of this is my fault."
Sandra said the majority of her current income goes toward her car payment, insurance, gas, and storage.
Sandra's 28-year-old pregnant daughter Alexandra Jones is expecting baby girl Darla on April 18. She's been homeless her entire pregnancy. She sleeps next to the parking lot under a bridge in a tent with her twenty-something husband. Currently unemployed, he panhandles and recycles.
Several people sleep under the bridge. One woman has been sleeping under that bridge (sans tent) for 25 years.
The food and meals that volunteers donate really helps. Alexandra said $200 a month in food stamps isn't enough when pregnant.
My next stop was the lot on Imperial. I found the case manager intern April in the little shack facing the street talking to Gwen, an aspiring writer from Michigan who prefers typewriters and identifies as trans gay female.
"California in a very literal sense is a lifeboat for the LGBT community. People literally flee from across the country to get legal protection here in California and don't mind that they are homeless because they can still be legally protected from gay bashing."
April said it's common for people to use the lots until they get established when moving from another state.
On Sunday, I checked out the Kearny Mesa lots operated by Jewish Family Services. My first stop was the lot on Aero Drive where I met Michella and Damian working on their broken-down car. The lot wasn't officially open but a few regulars with similar issues were allowed to be there.
Damian, in his early 40s, used to live in Carlsbad making $5,000 to $6,000 a month in construction until he had a heart attack and everything went downhill. He has been using the lot with his wife Michella (in her 20s) since September.
"It's not the Hilton, but they really do try to make things nice for you. It's better than sleeping with one eye open, waiting for that knock from the police or for someone to try to steal your things in the middle of the night."
He pointed to people parking alongside the lot and said "those are some of the people that were asked to leave this lot for littering or being vulgar."
Damian said he has never seen the lot at full capacity. This is the same thing Sandra told me. All the lots I saw had plenty of empty spaces. They could be called peaceful if it weren't for the heavy traffic and sirens.
Damian said the $1380 he gets from disability doesn't go far. He like Sandra has most of his household items in storage.
"Before this, I'd been gainfully employed since I was 14. It's the same story for a lot of people out here. They lose a job or have some health issue that causes them to fall on hard times and it just snowballs from there. It's depressing."
"The most expensive thing on the street is food. With no refrigerator, it's always on the go. By the time you've eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner you've spent $40 on nothing."
Gas cards and food were the top two needs mentioned on all the lots. Damian added to the list: soft toothbrushes and old socks that have lost their mates.
"In a perfect world, it would be awesome to end homelessness for everyone, but in a perfect world we'd all have a unicorn and Lamborghini too, you know what I'm saying? It's not going to happen. I just don't think that there's just one solution."
The other Kearny Mesa lot on Balboa is where mostly single mothers and families with children and the elderly and handicapped park. This is the lot with real showers.
Campbell's proposed South Shores lot has at least a couple hundred spaces. Signage states clearly that only vehicles there to launch a boat are allowed to park. Even so, RVs were parked on the lot and alongside it. It's the only lot I visited where I found drugs (a little red baggie of pot).
To donate, contact Dreams for Change or Jewish Family Services. Those needing to park, call 211.