By Spencer Michels

San Francisco’s seamy underbelly, the Tenderloin, sits in the heart of the city, flanked by glitzy Union Square hotels and the gleaming, gold-ornamented dome of City Hall. Though just steps away from Twitter’s new headquarters on Market Street, its dirty, crime-ridden 40 square blocks can feel like a world away from affluent San Francisco.

About 28,000 people call the Tenderloin home. Many are homeless, and dealing with mental illness or drug addiction. Some have criminal records or work in prostitution. Others are new immigrants, working to find their place in a new country.

To outsiders, it’s long been curious why such prime real estate is largely left alone in a city facing a massive housing shortage. Gary Kamiya, author of “Cool Gray City of Love,” has written extensively about why he believes the city and the nonprofits that serve the Tenderloin are not improving the neighborhood’s blighted state.

Volunteers prepare meals at St. Anthony's dining hall in the Tenderloin. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Volunteers prepare about 2,500 meals a day at St. Anthony’s Dining Room in the Tenderloin. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“What the nonprofits want to do is maintain their stake here,” Kamiya told me during a “KQED Newsroom” interview. “This is where they have their structures. They’re being part of the solution, but ironically they are also part of the problem.”

Housing advocates argue that conditions are gradually improving in the Tenderloin, but that the neighborhood should continue to serve low-income residents. Redeveloping it would leave thousands of low-income families unable to afford to live in San Francisco, they say.

“Buildings are in better condition than ever before,” says Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a nonprofit that operates housing in the neighborhood. “It’s become San Francisco’s last working-class neighborhood, and the last it will ever have.”

The City’s Role

And why don’t lawmakers step in to clean up the place? This could be one reason:

In the late 1940s, the city decided to redevelop another “troubled” section of town – the Fillmore. Thousands of businesses were forced to close as the city pushed through urban development plans. More than 800 Victorian homes were demolished to make way for new housing and retail – built quickly and cheaply.

Without access to goods, services or jobs, many African American families left the neighborhood, and never returned. It is an urban redevelopment horror story that still haunts the city’s psyche, leaving lawmakers reluctant to stir the pot in the Tenderloin.

“The city is very loath to step in and say, ‘Let’s sweep all this away. Let’s move it somewhere else,’” says Kamiya. “To simply take an undesirable population and go warehouse them someplace, it’s extremely problematic.”

Is Change Inevitable?

While cities like London, New York and San Diego have been quick to redevelop similar neighborhoods, the Tenderloin has so far resisted.

Land-use protections, rent controls, zoning protections and a unique housing stock that has no single-family homes make it almost impossible to redevelop, says Shaw.

The neighborhood has about 100 single-room-cccupancy hotels – known as SROs – that house many of the city’s poor and disabled residents.  These units in particular are shielded from being replaced with upscale apartments, as has happened in other neighborhoods like the Mission District.

Despite the legal protections, longtime resident Judy Young eyes the new high-tech neighbors with suspicion. She wonders if a day might come when the Tenderloin becomes out of reach.

“Families do live here because it is one of the most affordable places in the city,” she says. “If you can find a studio or one bedroom here for $1,200, that’s pretty affordable compared to other places.”

That is an understatement, as a recent city report found that the median rent in San Francisco has reached $3,400 a month.

Spencer Michels reported on this story for “KQED Newsroom,” which is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.

Olivia Hubert-Allen contributed to this article.

  • Annoyed

    Is the TL really the last working class neighborhood? What about Bayview? I thought overall this was an interesting overview though.

    • l.

      It isn’t. It’s just a good soundbite.

  • Frisco Dan

    Randy Shaw is wrong. There are numerous other working class neighborhoods in SF, including the Ingleside, Bayview, Outer Mission. And the Tenderlion has not always been a ghetto for the poor. In fact when Dashiell Hammett lived there, it was a solidly middle class area. It’s time to let productive working folks back into the neighborhood, so they can live close to their jobs

    • Guest

      Randy Shaw is wrong about most things he comments on. You can’t really expect him to be in touch with San Francisco’s changing neighborhoods when he lives in the Berkeley hills.

    • Jean

      Exactly, plus it’s one thing to provide low income housing to those who need it, but why is ok to allow drug addicts and other undesirable people to roam the streets and endanger the hard working population around them? My girlfriend was attacked near the Tenderloin after walking back home from work at Twitter. Why have there been no efforts to at least clean up the streets?

      • somebody_aight

        Haven’t you heard? the homeless people are targeting Twitter employees.

      • C Nelson

        “Drug addict” and “hard working population” aren’t mutually exclusive conditions. Lots of working people *also* have drug addictions, from doctors and judges on down. I suspect what you mean to say is that you’d rather not have to look at the people who can’t afford a place to sleep and a regular shower and laundry facilities — and you haven’t made even an attempt to sketch out where, exactly, you think they should go.

      • robotsrule

        Hmm. So you all moved here in the last couple years, got fancy jobs at Twitter, known or care absolutely nothing about the history of the city you’re calling home, and trying to change it and force people out. Thank god for the tenancy and zoning laws that prevent people like you to push out the “undesirables”. In Germany they used the word “untermenschen” to describe people as subhumans and that is the tenor of a lot of these lily white suburban born gentrifiers. Why don’t you, Peter Shih, and Greg Gopman rent yourself a nice place in Walnut Creek or Burlingame and I promise you’ll never have to see a homeless person again.

  • Well done story, thank you.

  • jimi008

    People who live in the Tenderloin live there because that’s where they can afford to live. If “The City” were to come in and “Upgrade” the neighborhood, driving housing prices up to the insane level that the rest of the city is experiencing, where would those people go?

    You mention the urban renewal efforts that destroyed life in the Fillmore and left us with the disaster that became the Western Addition. I sincerely hope City Hall isn’t stupid enough to make that mistake again, but I’m sure not holding my breath.

    • Chris Parkerson

      Simple: every building has to contain a mix of units. You can’t just build all market rate buildings along Fillmore and low income buildings in the Western Addition. That is indeed a disaster. You have to have buildings that are dense enough to allow for units at all price points – from low income to market rate – and be economically viable for the investment to be made. Neighborhoods are better when people up and down the socio-economic and cultural ladder are living together. This type of social engineering actually works – it’s what is done in every other country on earth but this one. We do stupid things like what happened on Fillmore claiming it’s not social engineering when, in fact, it is – and it’s a really, really, really BAD version of it.

      • Stellaa

        San Francisco has had an inclusionary zoning ordinance since the 80’s. Pretty much all new building has to have a percentage of affordable units, sometimes in the earlier days,they were allowed to do it offsite. Before the Fillmore, there was Yerba Buena and the taking out over 10,000 units of housing

        • Chris Parkerson

          Ahhhhhh… but the City has broken this by allowing developers to contribute to a pie-in-the-sky “affordable housing fund” that enables them to not build any affordable units at all… something that’s happening more and more often because NIMBYs won’t let them build the buildings dense enough to accommodate both market rate and affordable units. That fund just keeps collecting money and nothing is being built.

    • LVLHeaded

      Where did everyone go after they cleaned up Times Square? That place used to be seedy and dangerous.

      Also- Western Addition is really poorly planned affordable housing. The Candlestick Park plan looks much more promising.

  • Adam P

    LOL at so-called affordable housing advocates who restrict the building of new developments and high density housing projects that would help meet the growing demand and lower or at least stave off skyrocketing prices.

    • Chris Parkerson

      Here here! The solution is DENSITY. And density EVERYWHERE – not just the Tenderloin. SoMa, Dogpatch, Mission, parts of Potrero – parts of the City already zoned for the necessary density to allow affordable housing to be built to relieve the current pressure. And give residents of the Tenderloin other options. But the vested NIMBYs in this City and the supposed “homeless advocates” fight the necessary density tooth and nail. I am all for affordable housing. But in order to actually make affordable housing, you have to be able to build a building with enough units in it at all sorts of price points – some subsidized and true low income, others market rate. That’s what makes affordable housing projects economically viable and creates true neighborhoods because people up and down the socio-economic ladder are now living together. The last thing this City needs is another set of tenament projects that just tries to shove all of the low income folks into one place – it’s not fair to them nor is it good for the City. I’m afraid the Tenderloin is de facto becoming exactly that 🙁

  • Stellaa

    One day, one day someone will do a story about the Tenderloin that respects the rights of the residents to exist in the city and does not blame the hard working people of the non profits who devote their lives to making the poor people and forgotten of our society have a meal, clothing, medicine and a place to live.

    • Sporadic Commenator

      And what about the right of other residents to a safe, sanitary city? Moreover, the article didn’t even lay blame on Tenderloin residents. Rather: “Land use protections, rent controls, zoning protections and a unique housing stock that has no single-family homes make it almost impossible to redevelop.”

      “[The Fillmore] is an urban redevelopment horror story that still haunts the city’s psyche, leaving lawmakers reluctant to stir the pot in the Tenderloin.”

      It sounds more to me like the article is merely identifying the inflexibility of the current policy regime.

      • Stellaa

        What makes you think the 28,000 residents of the Tenderloin do not share the dream of safety and security? For decades the residents have been working for making the Tenderloin safer. Before the cutbacks, there were 120 policemen in the Tenderloin, now there are 70. At the same time the city gave tax exemptions to the new neighbors, the tech companies on Market. They demand for safety, yet, no one has saiid how will we get back the police that was cut? For years, the “street activities” were moved from the desireable sections to the TL, the assumption was these folks don’t care. Well, they do care and they have cared for years, but they don’t have the clout.

        The problem is that casual encounters with the Tenderloin lump all the residents into the street life. The land use protections kept the hotel district from demolishing all the SROs, like in Yerba Buena. The TL is the densest neighborhood west of the Mississippi. Time to increase density in some other neighborhoods.

        • Sporadic Commentator

          I wasn’t talking about what the resident of the TL think about safety and sanitation. I was talking about what *you* think of it.

          Of course there are actors outside the TL that negatively affect it. What I find suspect is your strident fingerpointing and lack of criticism for the residents of the TL and the nonprofits and agencies that serve the neighborhood.

          Nietzsche once observed (in an era when animals were viewed as mere chattel) that animal rights activists didn’t really love animals; they actually just hated their fellow humans

          • …..Commenting on a phone is error-prone.

            Point being: I hear a lot of bleating about human dignity and feelings, as though TL residents were being mulched or were being systematically and deliberately harmed by the city as a matter of open policy. What I don’t see is sweeping change despite decades of intervention. As near as I can tell, TL advocates are little more than enablers for the sizeable population of chronically homeless, addicts, petty criminals, and members of the drug trade.

          • Stellaa

            You reduce all the complexity of our social and public policy inadequacies into a bucket of blaming the victims.

          • Sporadic

            Good lord, you have a victim complex of literary proportions. Honestly, being told that I “reduce all the complexity of our social and public policy inadequacies into a bucket of blaming the victims” is one of the most f*ing self-righteous and hilariously idiotic things I’ve ever read. Of course it’s all incredibly complicated! Humans are complicated and build complicated societies!

            Oh, but you had more to say…

            “Of course you don’t talk about the residents of the TL because they are faceless and powerless because they are poor. No one listened to them for years when they complained about these issues, now the suburban kids move into the neighborhood and we all have to pay attention.”


            No, no, no, my dear crazy person, the reason I didn’t attribute a single intention or belief to the entire TL population (or otherwise discuss them) was because that wold be painting in absurdly broad strokes. I was actually talking about *your* views.

            I mean, by god you’re so butthurt. I’d bet dollars to cents you’re not very happy with yourself and playing at being the TL’s advocate is just your way of making the rest of us share your misery.

          • Stellaa

            I will blame the use of your cellphone for the lack of continuity in your thinking and jumping to personal attacks.

          • Sporadic Commentator

            You seem to spend a lot of time blaming things. How’s that working out for you?

          • Stellaa

            It was your excuse: “….Commenting on a phone is error-prone.” and I will end the discussion with you because as you admitted your thinking and commenting is “error prone”.

          • Sporadic Commentator

            Hm, no, I don’t think that’s actually why you’re ending our nice little chat. But hey, good job at redirecting the thread with a non sequitur.

          • Sporadic Commentator

            What on earth are you talking about? I did no such thing — of course it’s all incredibly complicated!

            You have a victim complex of literary proportion. I mean good lord you’re so butthurt.

          • Stellaa

            When you say criticism of the residents, you want to take out and scold the 28,000 residents for the actions of the few? Of course you don’t talk about the residents of the TL because they are faceless and powerless because they are poor. No one listened to them for years when they complained about these issues, now the suburban kids move into the neighborhood and we all have to pay attention.

          • robotsrule


  • LVLHeaded

    so the only way to maintain a “working class” neighborhood is to subject families to a drug den and high crime cesspool to keep prices low? they deserve better. i don’t like the equalization that working class = what you see in the tenderloin. working class people don’t shoot up and poo on the sidewalk. The city needs to allow the SROs to be renovated into affordable housing for working class FAMILIES and not subsidized housing for drug dealers/addicts.

  • Guest


  • Schmerin

    I know this isn’t the focus of the article, but it makes me laugh to see an article that describes ANY neighborhood in SF as a place for low income families, including the Tenderloin. While it is a sketchy neighborhood with drug addiction and prostitution running rampant, unless you’re one of the homeless people living there, you cannot be “poor.” Just for fun, I just looked at available apartments in the Tenderloin on Craigslist. There were 37 listed, and the least expensive place I saw was a STUDIO apartment for $1495/mo. I make a decent living and I couldn’t afford that!

  • Jenna

    My boyfriend and I live in the TL in a studio that I was lucky enough to nab three years ago. We pay a reasonable rate and I am so frightened of leaving it for a larger space because I know everywhere else is at least double and we just cant swing that. Even here everything is 300-400$ more than when I moved in. I love that I live in a small building with maybe 20 apts max and while the world outside may be a bit unsavory Id be devastated if I were forced out by high rises and rising rents. There are other working class areas in the city with similar issues as the TL and the way I see it is, I chose to live here based on money, location etc and knew what I was getting in to.

  • robotsrule

    It’s not real complicated. The investor class is trying to turn San Francisco into a high tech playground for “desirables” and since none of them are from here they can’t wrap their heads around why the city won’t just let them kick out all the poor people and get it done. Money tends to win out but as long as we have rent control we’ll have people with working class values to vote to keep San Francisco a city of diversity and culture.

  • Of course the Tenderloin is resisting an “upgrade.” Recently vacant units in my building at the heart of the Tenderloin are going for $1,450+ for a studio. Go just a few blocks up the hill and you’re looking at $1,800 for a similarly sized unit. Revamping the neighborhood wouldn’t just force out “low-income” people; it would get rid of the last neighborhood affordable to the middle class as well.


    I live in the Tenderloin and moved here about 1.5 years ago. I chose the neighborhood because of the more affordable rent, being close to downtown, and public transportation. I love how diverse it is here. I live on the upper part (Hyde & O’Farrell) and while I have gotten used to the homeless people, the prostitutes, etc. it really is not that bad! I made new friends (neighbors) all working people, some with Masters, PhDs, and I make pretty good money too and I love that I am not spending all of my money on more expensive rent. I think there are certain blocks that are much more dangerous, so if you choose the right building/block, the TL can be a great place….I almost caught myself saying how much I love it.

    • We’re neighbors! I’m at Hyde & Ellis 🙂

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor