On Oct. 17, a representative for the owner of the Hotel Churchill asked Bill Elliot to meet with him in the hotel's small eating area. A tenant of the downtown residential hotel for a year, Elliot was told that if he moved out within four days—by Oct. 21—he'd get $500 to cover moving costs. If he was out by Oct. 28, he'd get $320. If he moved out after that, he'd get nothing. Elliot relayed this in a letter sent to CityBeat on Oct. 23. He said the owner's rep told him the hotel, located on C Street in East Village, was closing and the doors would be locked, but he wasn't told when. Elliot said he saw the owner's representative pull other tenants aside—one by one, never in groups.
It wasn't the first time Elliot faced this kind of situation. Three years ago he was living at the Maryland Hotel at Sixth and F streets when the residential hotel's new owners decided to convert it into an upscale boutique hotel and nightclub. Roughly 200 mostly low-income tenants lived at the Maryland, and their eviction underscored the city's need to update laws protecting its diminishing supply of residential hotels, also known as single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs. Tenants of these hotels tend to be elderly or disabled and get by on a fixed income.
Elliot said he listened to what the Churchill representative had to say and then went to find a copy of the city's SRO ordinance. He shared what it said with other tenants, many of whom are elderly and seemed genuinely frightened, he said.
“I told them you really don't have to move out just yet,” Elliot said, “but they were afraid, ‘Well, if I don't move out by Friday, I don't get $500.' And I said, ‘You'll be getting more than that by staying.”
Elliot was able to convince a few people to stay, like five-year tenant Lee Stephens and his wife. Stephens said he got the same offer as Elliot and had begun to pack his belongings. “I almost fell for it before I talked to this guy,” he said, pointing to Elliot as the two talked to a reporter in the hotel's medieval-themed lobby.
Under the city's SRO ordinance, revised last year, if the owner of an SRO plans to demolish or rehab that SRO or “convert” it to another use, certain guidelines must be followed. Charles Christensen, attorney for the San Diego Housing Commission, the agency responsible for administering the ordinance, said selling the property, which requires moving tenants out, constitutes a conversion.
“If in fact they violated this law,” he said, “we're going to make sure that everything they would have been required to do [under the ordinance], they're going to do now.”
Under the ordinance, tenants must be notified in writing and be given up to 60 days to vacate the hotel. An owner also must pay each long-term tenant relocation costs equal to two months' rent (roughly $1,400 for the Churchill) plus $10 for each month the tenant lived there, up to $210. In some cases, the owner must replace each unit that will be taken off the housing market.
William Ravin, attorney for the Churchill's owners, J & J Properties, said he doesn't believe the ordinance applies to his client. He said he hasn't yet spoken to anyone from the Housing Commission. Ravin emphasized that tenants were not served eviction notices but rather were offered relocation assistance. He said his client plans to close the hotel at a date yet to be determined because it's become a money-losing business. “Ultimately [the owner] would like to close the hotel, but at least for the time being we're not evicting anyone,” he said.
Ravin said he believes all tenants were offered relocation assistance such as what Elliot laid out in the letter he sent to CityBeat.
Tenant Joe Luciano, however, said he wasn't offered any relocation money. A frail man in his 70s, Luciano said that when he went to pay his rent on Oct. 22, he was told the hotel was closing and he had to check out. “They gave me the quick shuffle out the door,” he said. When CityBeat spoke to him on Oct. 29, he said he'd been camping out on the sidewalk. A front-desk clerk who declined to give her name said her hands were tied when it came to letting Luciano back into the hotel—it was the owners' decision to ask him to leave, she said.
Elliot, who sent letters to the San Diego Housing Commission, tenants-rights attorney Ann Menasche—who is involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the Maryland Hotel owners—and Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins, estimates 30 to 50 tenants have left so far. Up until last Friday, each day he would see someone's belongings sitting in the hotel's lobby, he said.
On Oct. 26, in response to Elliot's letter, the San Diego Housing Commission sent a cease-and-desist letter to Steve Krabel, the Churchill representative who'd been making the relocation offers to tenants. Krabel directed CityBeat's questions to attorney Ravin.
Even though a majority of the tenants have already moved out, Housing Commission attorney Christensen said that “until someone tells him otherwise,” the Housing Commission plans to try to get relocation money promised under the city ordinance for all tenants, regardless of whether they've moved out.
The problem, however, is finding those people, said Housing Commission spokesperson Bobbie Christensen. The cease-and-desist letter asks Krabel to provide the Housing Commission with a list of Churchill tenants and Housing Commission staff handed out fliers at the hotel last week asking tenants to attend a meeting at their office on Wednesday, Nov. 2.
The cease-and-desist letter also asks Churchill owners to tell the Housing Commission how they plan to replace the units that will no longer be available for rent once the hotel closes. A state law, AB 1217, that went into effect Jan. 1, 2004, says that in San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles, residential-hotel owners must replace any unit lost to demolition or conversion so that the city can maintain its affordable-housing stock.
If it's determined that the owners of the Hotel Churchill must comply with the law, it will be the first time in San Diego that an SRO owner has been legally obligated to replace lost SRO units under AB 1217. The only exemptions from the law are if the hotel opened for business after 1990 or if an owner notified the city prior to Jan. 1, 2004, of plans to convert an SRO.
Menasche, who closely monitors the goings-on of San Diego's SROs, said owners of 22 SROs—representing nearly half of San Diego's SRO stock—submitted letters to the city before Jan. 1, 2004, saying they planned to convert their SRO. So far none have made a move to do so. The Hotel Churchill was not among the 22.
Menasche said it's common for SRO owners to try to wriggle their way out of the provisions of the ordinance. What happened at the Churchill, “really shows you the danger of this,” she said. “A lot of these people will try to violate the law, will try to get around the requirements by getting people out of the building before they convert, and that's what they were trying to do.”
Tenants of the Hotel Churchill who lived there for more than three months are encouraged to contact the San Diego Housing Commission: 619-578-7558 or 619-578-7542.