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Community pushback succeeds in slowing city effort to convert Japantown hotel into homeless housing

Community pushback succeeds in slowing city effort to convert Japantown hotel into homeless housing
Photo: Google Street View
By Jay Barmann - Published on September 08, 2021.

One of only two hotels in Japantown, the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel (1800 Sutter St.), has been identified as one of four properties around SF that the city hopes to purchase by the end of the year in order to qualify for state matching funds to convert it into transitional housing for the homeless. The hotel has been housing the homeless throughout the pandemic, and under the state's Project Homekey program, the city hopes to add it to a group of new buildings that will, in total, have 368 new units of housing. But Japantown neighbors are none too pleased.

The city already purchased two hotels in 2020 under the Homekey program, utilizing a $550 million pot of federal funds that would have otherwise expired in December. And last month, after the city announced plans to purchase the Buchanan, members of the Japantown community rallied in opposition, citing the loss of tourism revenue from the loss of one of two hotels — the other being the recently renovated Hotel Kabuki.

As the Chronicle reported in August, a petition opposing the sale of the Buchanan for homeless housing quickly amassed 2,500 signatures — and it now has over 6,500 — marking some of the most vocal opposition among the properties in the proposal. Residents and business owners nearby say that the use of the hotel as a homeless shelter has not been good for the neighborhood, citing increased drug use, alcohol, needles on the street, feces, and burglaries.

The other three properties — a single-room occupancy hotel in the Mission, a motel in the Excelsior/Outer Mission, and an apartment building intended for student housing in SoMa — have received less pushback. At the Board of Supervisors' meeting on Tuesday, Mayor London Breed introduced a resolution to approve the purchase of the Mission and Outer Mission properties, and the SoMa deal is reportedly in the works. The intention has been to approve the deals by the end of this month, and close on the purchases by December, in order to qualify for the state matching grants.

The Buchanan is the second largest of the properties, at 130 rooms. The others are the 52-room Mission Inn motel on Mission Street south of Geneva Avenue; the 25-unit Eula Hotel on 16th Street near Mission; and the 160-unit Panoramic in SoMa, a micro-unit apartment complex that went up in 2015 amid a rush to build such complexes, aiming at newly arrived twentysomethings who wanted to live in the city but couldn't afford a full-sized apartment.

As the Chronicle reports this week, Breed's office has announced that there will be a few more weeks of community outreach about the Buchanan purchase, before a final decision gets made.

Andy Lynch, a spokesperson for the mayor, gave a statement saying, "With so many people living on our streets we are committed to moving quickly to buy hotels. But we also will listen to the community, hear their concerns, and try to incorporate their feedback, which is what we’re doing now."

Supervisor Dean Preston also responded, saying, "All districts and parts of the city should be part of the solution to providing affordable housing for formerly homeless folks. But when you get concerns raised by the community, it’s also incumbent to make space for folks to weigh in before making a final decision."

Japantown business owners cite the fact that, even before the pandemic, the neighborhood was facing an existential and financial crisis, with deep impacts being felt from the national trend of less in-person retail shopping. And while homelessness and the need for housing is of dire concern for all of San Francisco, opponents of this plan say their neighborhood's survival depends on keeping tourists coming back.

"I understand that it solves a problem for the city, but it hasn’t worked for this neighborhood,” says Jon Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Community Youth Council, speaking to the Chronicle. “It’s a challenge for an area that’s struggling to survive."