The last time I saw Caryl Foster was a little more than four years ago, the day tenants were being evicted from the Maryland Hotel. Foster hasn't changed much-a few more gray hairs but the same big grin.
I tracked him down with the help of Cesar Carbajal, who, like Foster, lived at the Maryland Hotel. A few months ago, Carbajal called to ask if I could find out if another residential hotel in downtown San Diego was closing. Since I first reported on the Maryland in December 2002, I've received probably five such calls from tenants telling me they'd heard a rumor that another building was closing.
Residential hotels, also known as SROs (single-room occupancy), provide downtown's least-expensive form of housing. For $600 to $700 a month, on average, you get a studio apartment, maybe 350 square feet in size. The higher the rent, the more likely it is you'll have your own bathroom as opposed to having to share with other people on your floor. Most of these buildings are old, constructed to accommodate traveling salesmen during the early part of the 20th century. They've since become housing for people who rely on a monthly Social Security or disability check, or working-class folks who want to live on their own but can't afford to rent elsewhere. One downtown SRO, through an agreement with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, caters to parolees who'd otherwise be on the street
The Maryland Hotel was one of San Diego's larger residential hotels, with 271 rooms renting for around $500 a month. In spring 2002, brothers Richard and Michael Kelly purchased the 90-year-old hotel, located at Sixth Avenue and F Street, for $8 million with the intent to convert it into a so-called 'boutique hotel.' Four years and reportedly $75 million later, that hotel opened last month under a new name, The Ivy.
There were 206 people living at the Maryland in December 2002. Each was given a 30-day notice to vacate on Dec. 30, two days before a new state law went into effect that would have required a 60-day notice. The eviction notice said that anyone who was out before Jan. 29 would get $100 (even though rents had been upped by $100 on Dec. 1). All but 34 tenants left; Foster was one of the holdouts and became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by housing and disability-rights attorneys demanding that the Kellys follow the city's SRO ordinance. Under the ordinance-the intent of which was to protect SROs' very-low-income, senior and disabled occupants-tenants should have been given 90 days to vacate and up to $5,250 each to cover relocation costs. The Kellys would also have to replace the affordable-housing units they were taking off the market. Ultimately, a judge gave the remaining tenants another 30 days to find a place to live, and the City Council made a deal with the Kellys: They would pay $300,000 to be divided among the tenants, and that would be the end of it.
Foster was unemployed when the Maryland closed. He remembers walking over to the Baltic Inn, an SRO on Sixth Avenue, and asking if they had any vacancies. They did, but renters needed to show proof that their monthly income was twice the rent, or $1,200. All Foster had was the stub from an unemployment check. He called Paul McNeil, the Kellys' project manager at the time.
'I told him, ‘I'm trying to move out per the judge's orders and this is the quickest way for me to get out of here.''
McNeil put in a call to the Baltic and secured Foster a room. He lived there for a couple of years before being hired on as a front-desk clerk and then as manager of the Simmons Hotel across the street (both have the same owner). A handful of former Maryland tenants live at the two hotels, Foster said. Carbajal lives at the Simmons but said he spent a year living out of his van-despite full-time employment-after the Maryland closed.
For Foster, things have worked out pretty well. He got around $2,500 from the settlement (according to the San Diego Housing Commission, 118 of the 207 tenants got money; others either didn't qualify or moved out and left no contact information).
Foster was manning the front desk at the Baltic when I stopped in last week to chat. Tenants who came by to pay the rent all paid in cash. While we talked, he received one phone call after another asking about vacancies, and to each caller he explained the hotel's income requirement-you must prove your income is double what your rent costs.
'We're trying to give people a cushion so we know you're not spending more than 50 percent of your income on rent,' he said. (The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says housing costs should eat up only about one-third of a household's income.)
We talked about the Maryland Hotel and how the eviction caught tenants off-guard. 'A lot of people moved out after the rent increase,' he said, because they couldn't afford it. Others took the increase as a sign that nothing was going to happen right away. 'When I pay an increase, I'm not expecting a note to vacate.'
He's still upset that the City Council didn't support its own ordinance. Jeff Bricker, Foster's boss, who joined Foster and me at the Baltic's front desk, pointed out that the city generates very little hotel-tax revenue from SROs. After a person's occupied a room for 30 days, he said, the transient-occupancy tax 'goes away.' Foster estimates that 90 percent of SRO tenants are long-term and therefore aren't charged the hotel-room tax.
'The more hotels and expensive hotels you put up, the greater the income stream you're going to generate,' Bricker said.
Foster asked if I'd been over to see The Ivy. I had. It's quite nice and the staff exceedingly polite. He hadn't been over there yet, he said, but planned to within the next couple of weeks. He wants to see whether there are any traces of the Maryland within The Ivy.
Since it opened, The Ivy's been profiled by just about every local publication except this one. The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote about the hotel's high-end butler service. San Diego Magazine wrote about how Michael Kelly gave out gift certificates for hotel stays to a bunch of celebrities at an Academy Awards party. The L.A. Times focused on what Kelly referred to as the 'adult playground' aspects of the place-the $3,000 suite with a stripper pole, group shower and king-size bunk beds, and the 360-degree clear-glass showers in some rooms that put bathing, and anything else that happens in the shower, on display. Those rooms go for around $500 a night. A basic room at The Ivy runs between $350 and $400 a night-about what a room cost per month when it was an SRO. 'Excess cloaked in luxury' is how the hotel's website describes the rooms.
The new hotel couldn't possibly be further from what it once was.
'The history of the Maryland Hotel's evolution is emblematic of the excesses of this period,' pointed out Nico Calavita, a San Diego State University professor of urban studies. 'And excesses-unchecked imbalances between individual gluttony and human suffering-tend to be cut down in the most drastic way. Witness the great depression following the ‘roaring' '20s.'
Calavita's not implying that San Diego's headed for a crash. Rather, it's a question of balance and sustainability. Increasingly, SRO owners are choosing to leave the rental-housing business with the intent to convert the building into something more profitable, like condos or a hotel.
Ann Menasche, a disability-rights attorney who was co-counsel in a lawsuit that tried-but ultimately failed-to hold the Kellys to replacing the lost affordable units, laughs when I bring up The Ivy.
'Obscene, decadent obscene,' she says. She's not been there yet but, like Foster, is curious to check it out. But, she adds, 'I don't know if the city can live on tourists alone' when the people who serve those tourists can't afford to live here.