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December 6, 1999
'Slum Landlords' Feels Victimized
R S Shankar
The owners of rundown hotels in a two-block stretch of Sixth Street in San Francisco are convinced they are doing a thankless job, and that they are being punished too much for the negligence of customers -- who are often homeless people or those recovering from the drug habit.
Some hotel owners also hinted they were being victimized because they are Indian Americans. They resented being called "slum landlords" by a city official; some even suggested that charges -- no heat, blocked fire exits, faulty smoke detectors, moldy bathrooms, seriously damaged walls and ceilings, missing windows and torn or non-existent carpets -- against their hotels were either cooked up by overzealous officials or vastly exaggerated.
In the neighboring city of Oakland, south Asian motel and hotel owners have sued the city for allegedly making it difficult for them to run their businesses. They have also complained that the city officials were unfair to them. Perhaps complaints should be lodged in San Francisco, wondered an Indian American hotel owner.
It appears not. For the officials in San Francisco who last week published the list of 10 worst residential hotels, and 90 per cent of them were run by Indian Americans. The officials say they carried out their inspections diligently.
More than 70 per cent of low rate hotels and motels in San Francisco are run by south Asians. There are about 700 rooms in these hotels, used by a wide variety of people -- workers with low-paying jobs and hence could pay only weekly rents, poor families who have children in city schools, people living on federal disability benefits, and starving artists and writers.
Zack Shaikh, who runs the Alder, that has nearly 130 rooms and which inspectors constantly found fault with, called the list a "political stunt" carried out during a mayoral election.
"People are coming and begging for the room," he told reporters.
Naranjibhai 'Nick' Patel, owner of the Henry Hotel, could not believe that his hotel was on the worst offenders' list.
"Oh really? I don't think so," he said.
Jagubhai 'Jack' Patel, owner of the Elm Hotel, was also puzzled.
"Maybe when the inspectors came during the room-by-room inspection they found a tenant who didn't clean their room enough," Patel said.
Sam Patel, who operates the Winsor Hotel, blamed tenants.
"When the inspectors come, they visit the rooms and the hotel, and if work needs to be done, they give us a notice," he said. "They give us a certain time to fix it, and we have to call them when all the work is done. Plus, if we observe something wrong, we fix it." But the tenants lost no time in destroying the rooms," many owners said.
Like many other motel and hotel owners he resented the suggestion that if he could not manage a hotel, he should get out of business. Not many people want to get into this business, he said.
It was the first time the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection has compiled the list of 10 worst residential hotels at the request of supervisor Gavin Newsom, who has championed legislation to improve hotel conditions.
Newsom said he asked the department to produce the list to make a point -- that there are serious problems in the city's residential hotels that need to be addressed.
"What's so significant is that we are subsidizing these landlords with city, state and federal money," Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle.
"We are supporting -- if not condoning by our absence of aggressive action against them -- some of these slumlords. If abuses exist, The city has not only a right, but an obligation, to be aggressive."
Newsom recently asked the city attorney's office to draft a "slumlord ordinance," which would allow San Francisco to post signs in front of blighted properties that state the names, addresses and telephone numbers of their owners.
Despite protests by the hotel owners and managers, several housing advocacy groups and leaders agreed with the city's classification. They also said there were over 20 other hotels that were as bad or worse than the 10 on the list.
Nickolas Pagoulatos, tenant services co-ordinator for a housing advocacy group, said it is "extremely challenging" for poor people to find safe and clean residential hotel rooms in San Francisco.
"The reason those violations have become a practice among hotel owners is because the city attorney and the district attorney never really cracked down on these hotels for habitability problems," he said.
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