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.
“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.