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Saving a hotel to house poor

Residents and property owners in the North Mission district here are working with a local housing-development corporation to rehabilitate a residential hotel , in what could be a landmark among efforts to preserve affordable urban housing across the country.

The vintage-1907 framework of the hotel, gutted by fire in 1976, still stands at the project site on Woodward Avenue.

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Subsequently, in a cooperative effort to do away with such fires, the fire department told the North Mission Association (NMA), a resident group and sponsor of the West Coast Arson Prevention Training Conference, that if a fire started in the abandoned building, it could spread to the entire block.

Expressing their concern over the fire and safety hazards the building posed, residents formed the Woodward Association of Residents and Neighbors (WARN) to petition for demolition.

WARN presented its petition last October at a court hearing that reviewed an outstanding order to determine whether the building should be rehabilitated immediately or demolished.

When the order passed, WARN member Dorothy Davis said: ''I could just see a nice, clean place next door - rid of all that mess - the threat of fire gone, and a safer place for me and my family.''

Co-owners Thomas Edgar and William St. Clair said they bought the building with the intent of holding onto it until the investment climate would allow them to build standard apartments or condominiums. According to Mr. Edgar, the court order caused him and his partner to turn away from these alternatives.

Instead, Messrs. Edgar and St. Clair sought out a low-interest loan from the nonprofit Mission Housing Development Corporation (MHDC), which tries to promote low-income housing in the area.

''Having it (the building) as a residential hotel made a lot of sense,'' Mr. Edgar said. ''It gave us the ability to move quickly, which became an important aspect of the project.''

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''To demolish old buildings that are structurally sound is a shame,'' Mr. St. Clair reflected, noting that cities should take a closer look at rehabilitating such buildings to preserve affordable housing.

Current zoning laws in San Francisco, which require low-density use, often work against preservation of low-income housing.

But a grandfather clause in the law exempts rehabilitation of old high-density buildings, such as residential hotels. St. Clair noted that if the building were demolished and a new structure built on the same site, the law would permit it to contain only four units.

''We couldn't do it,'' he said. ''The economics aren't there for low-income housing.''

MHDC fiscal officer Jim Cervantes agreed to grant the loan, provided that 80 percent of the people moving into the hotel had low incomes and that the building was well managed.

''This [management] is the mistake of public housing across the country,'' Mr. Cervantes observed. ''Housing is more than a physical structure. Unless you deal with the social environment, in the end it is very likely to be a waste of money.

''To make low-income housing a success, the resident manager must be experienced, competent, and careful in selecting tenants - making sure they have the option to get involved. Tenants should be organized, taking responsibility to look out for themselves and their neighbors.''

Mr. St. Clair, who grew up in the North Mission area in the 1940s, says he is confident the building will be properly managed. A reputable manager in a long-standing Mission-area hotel has agreed to offer assistance, as well a committee of North Mission residents who have management experience.

Having lived in a residence club himself, Mr. Edgar is convinced that the project must satisfy the social needs of the tenants so that the building becomes their home. Plans for community kitchens, recreation rooms, and a community space in the basement are currently being reviewed in blueprints for renovating the 66-unit hotel.

Total cost is estimated at $350,000, with $250,000 expected to come from the city and $100,000 from the state. The owners also have committed $50,000 of collected arson-insurance monies for hotel furnishings.

''This is ideal,'' Mr. Cervantes asserted. ''The owners are cooperative, and the community and mayor's office are supportive. Even with the bureaucracy, people are lining up behind it.''

Hotel construction is slated to begin in mid-July.

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