- Photo by Kelly Davis
Melissa Harris’ room at Hotel Metro is big enough for her wheelchair, a twin bed, a simple kitchenette (mini-fridge, sink and microwave) and not much else. Still, she describes it as “huge,” just fine for her and Peter David, a sand-colored poodle-terrier mix and her constant companion.
“This is a big room; it’s got two windows,” she says of her first-floor corner unit. “I don’t have much of a view, but the air’s good.”
“Big” is relative—Harris’ room is roughly 7-by-12-feet; most rooms at the Metro are a bit smaller. But small and safe is better than the street. Until a month ago, Harris was sleeping in her wheelchair with a blanket over her head. A couple of weeks before she moved into the Metro, a man grabbed Peter David from her side and took off. Police found him a few blocks away; now the small dog won’t let Harris out of his sight.
The Metro, which is actually two buildings facing each other on the south end of 13th Street, Downtown, was built in 1990 to be short-term-stay housing for low-wage workers (the building on the west side of 13th holds 57 people; the one on the east side holds 136). The low rents started attracting folks on fixed incomes—senior citizens, the mentally ill and disabled. In 1999, the Alpha Project, a homeless-services agency, took over ownership of the Metro and currently uses it to transition people, almost all of them chronically homeless, from the street into housing.
From the outside, there isn’t much that distinguishes the Metro—painted in sunset shades of red, tan and orange—from the market-rate projects nearby, but the interior, which can best be described as “institutional,” despite attempts to add some familiar touches like plants and art, is worn down, the result of time and tenants who are sometimes destructive.
“It just wasn’t built to have 193 people in it for 20 years,” says Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy—a fact that’s underscored by a recent maintenance-assessment report. McElroy’s standing on one of the Metro’s common balconies where the paint’s chipping off the railing, but there’s a clear view of the new Central Library.
“At least take care of these people first, and then you can have all the libraries you want,” he says. “You have good people here.”
Technically, the Alpha Project’s on the hook for repair costs, but per an agreement with the San Diego Housing Commission, which owns the land, rents must be kept affordable to people on very-low incomes, meaning there’s no extra money for anything beyond the most basic upkeep. For the last four years, the Housing Commission and the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), which oversees Downtown redevelopment for the city, have been trying to come up with a solution.
“I’m sure [that] compared to the street, it’s far better, but when I walk through, the couple times I toured it, I just kept thinking I would never want a loved one or anybody that I knew living there,” says Jeff Graham, CCDC’s vice president of redevelopment. “I just found it very, very depressing.”
In 2008, CCDC commissioned a study by the Corporation for Supportive Housing to determine the Metro’s immediate and long-term needs and whether the buildings were even worth saving. The study found the Metro to be severely lacking when held up to current supportive-housing standards. The rooms were too small and lacked amenities—like private bathrooms and kitchenettes—that would allow the Alpha Project to secure grants to help fund case-management services for some of the Metro’s difficult-to-house tenants. Having a private bathroom, the report noted, is “the single biggest determinant of whether or not tenants stay in housing.” But, if the units were reconfigured to include private baths, the project would lose 59 of its 193 units amid a high demand for supportive housing.
“The conclusion of that study was that it was constructed so poorly, if you were to convert the units to the current standard… you would lose so many units by doing it that it’s just not worth it,” Graham says.
The plan was to build a new supportive-housing project on a site located a block away. McElroy remembers bringing a preliminary sketch of the new building to show tenants.
“I said, ‘Hey, let’s stick it out a little longer; there’s some hope on the horizon. You’re going to have in-room bathrooms, larger places; we’re going to have a big cafeteria-style kitchen where we can make meals for people. All your case management in the building, clinics, retail on the bottom floor.’ So then we all know what happens, right? Brown gets in there, and all redevelopment goes.”
Last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown moved to eliminate redevelopment and redirect the property-tax money that would have otherwise stayed at the local level to state coffers, the Metro project had yet to be finalized. CCDC staff had come up with cost estimates, Graham says, though the project still needed to be reviewed and approved. Without the money—roughly $26 million—that would have come from CCDC’s affordable-housing fund, the project’s not feasible, Graham says. Legislative attempts to protect redevelopment agencies’ affordable-housing funds haven’t been successful—last week, Brown announced that he’d need all the remaining affordable-housing dollars to close the state budget gap.
In September, sewage started running down the side of one of the Metro’s buildings, prompting the Housing Commission to study the buildings’ most immediate maintenance needs. Completed in March, the study notes that while the Metro’s not in danger of falling apart anytime soon, the plumbing system’s in need of immediate repairs, the showers and toilets and many of the rooms are in poor condition and both buildings fail to meet current code requirements for disabled tenants. The assessment put immediate maintenance needs at close to $400,000.
“If Jerry Brown hadn’t taken the unencumbered money,” Graham says, “there would have been plenty of money left” for those repairs.
A spokesperson for the San Diego Housing Commission said staff was “exploring any and all funding.”
“None of these people complain,” McElroy says of the Metro’s tenants. “Nobody’s complaining. I’m the one who complains because it breaks my heart.”
Pat Brady’s lived in the Metro since 2009. Prior to that, he’d been homeless for 14 years and a chronic alcoholic. His only complaint is roach and bed-bug problems, though he thinks he’s solved both by buying a caulking gun.
“I caulked all around the fixtures, all around the edges; any kind of hole I plugged up so they couldn’t get in my room,” he says, sitting in his tiny fourth-floor room that he acknowledges is no bigger than a one-man jail cell. But, it’s better than the street.
“I know what’s out there,” he says. “I was out there for so many years. I don’t want to make that wrong decision again. I have a place that I can go to where I’m safe. I have my own key, I have my own door…. I’m grateful every single day.”
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