Hotel manager rallies community to combat drugs, fighting, urinating to make the Seneca a better place to live and work.
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Enough is enough
Gutsy hotel manager rallies community to combat drugs, fighting, urinating
BY NINA WU
Ana Bolton Arguello, general manager of the Seneca Hotel, is determined to keep her seven-story building in shape.
She knows practically every resident by name, what they’ve been through and where they’re going. In a neighborhood that has long been ridden with drugs and violence — a shooting or an assault every other week – she has had it.
It’s time, she says, for managers, business owners and tenants to get together and clean up the street. Time to say enough is enough. She’s putting her foot down, and inviting the businesses and community to join in.
“Here’s the deal,” Arguello said. “you don’t smoke crack in front of my building.”
Many tenants are following Arguello’s initiative. Caught between a justice system they say doesn’t prosecute repeat drug offenders and developers who are eyeing their property, they are now taking the matter into their own hands. While much of the focus on cleaning up the mess on mid-Market street has been on what outsiders will do, it’s the residents who are at the front line of the battle to make the area a neighborhood again.
The largest of the 23 single-room-occupancy hotels on Sixth Street, the Seneca, built in 1911 and operated for most of its existence by the Raynals, was taken over two years ago by City Housing. Inc., a nonprofit group that manages master leases for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.
A former drug addict in her seventh year of recovery, Arguello, 38 came to the Seneca after serving as director of San Francisco’s Adopta-Block program nine months ago. Since she’s taken charge, tenants say, the hotel has been cleaned up.
She started by setting down a zero-tolerance policy of enforcement of house rules, including restrictions on overnight visitors. There are no more drug users shooting up in the bathrooms, she says — not as long as she can help it.
When she sees crack cocaine use outside her office, she knocks on the window and yells that she’s going to call the police.
“Drug use is unacceptable, but we will work with tenants to help them if they have a problem,” she said. If tenants don’t clean up their act, they’re out.
Cleaning up the Seneca also meant repainting the walls in the lobby and dumping the ratty, old furniture for replacements donated by luxury hotels. Tenants jumped in to help paint, she said. Now they’re invited to bring their artwork into the lobby downstairs.
The majority of tenants were evicted from previous residences and have histories of substance abuse or past behavioral problems. Others were homeless.
But many — like Michael Verdun, 48, a recovering drug addict who now works as a bus driver — just want some peace and quiet while getting their lives back together. A room at the Seneca, at about $450 a month with one-third subsidized, is all Verdun could afford in The City.
The Seneca is high on the down-and-out quotient. Of its 204 rooms, 177 are occupied. Ninety-nine tenants are on The City’s personal assistance and employment services program.
Thirty-two are women (including four female transgenders) and seven are on parole, Arguello says.
Diana Burke, 47, has taken on the role of the Seneca’s tenants representative. She keeps an eye out for the senior residents and shops for groceries for them. Over the five years she’s lived at the hotel, Burke says, she’s seen the transition from a mess to a decent place to live, and she wants to keep it that way.
To combat crime, Arguello keeps a detailed log of every complaint bit inside and outside of the hotel. With nearly 100 calls to the police.
She calls police several times a day to report various offenses: crack deals, verbal altercations, scuffles, peeing on the street. Just a few weeks ago, she reported two men armed with steel bars fighting in Stevenson Alley.
Police respond if witnesses have a clear description of the offenders, she said, but the prevailing drug problem is a much larger social issue that takes the whole community to solve.
It has to do with a community that takes notice instead of turning a blind eye to the violence, even though many have tuned it out for mental survival. It also has to do with the image of Sixth and Market as a cesspool for drug dealing and urinating. And it’s not just street people who do it.
“Businessmen in nice cars whip it out and pee right here,” she said, pointing to the alley.
The video surveillance camera installed two years ago above the hotel’s back window captures offenders on film and has become one tool for battling crime. Word gets out quick, she said, and offenders scatter.
Still, two people recently had their heads cut open in the alley — one was a resident who got in a fight with a drug dealer and the other was involved in a gang scuffle.
John Elberling, vice president of the Tenants and Owners Development Corporation, says the Seneca is an example of how a hotel can pull itself up by its bootstraps.
The majority of single-room-occupancy hotel property owners, he said, are millionaire slumlords with no interest or accountability for what goes on in their buildings.
“Now you see the difference between a responsible nonprofit management and a slumlord,” he said. “They’ve taken it out of the slum category.”
Business owners need to stand up to street crime, Arguello said, even if they risk injury or smashed windows. Otherwise, nothing will ever change.
Tenants at the Seneca enter the building by buzzing in through two iron gates. Once inside, they’re greeted by a modest but pleasant lobby decorated with an assortment of sofas, a small aquarium with goldfish and a television set. A clerk monitors the front desk at all times.
Not that everything is perfect.
One tenant dumped coffee into the fish tank. Others were rude, drunk and disruptive during a meeting with the San Francisco Fire Department’s safety trainers. Others stole plants from the lobby.
But it is better than the deluge of robberies, quickie prostitutes coming in for the night and drug users shooting up in the hallway that flooded the hotel a few years ago. Word has spread among low-income residents that the Seneca has cleaned up.
“The word used to be that this was one of the worst places to live,” said Yolanda Warren, a formerly homeless 66-year-old who’s lived there two years.
Since the new management, the place is now safe enough to call home as long as the gates are shut, she said. She considers it an “oasis” from the chaos outside.
Now if only the residents could clean up the problems around the hotel they are forced to encounter daily, tenants say.
Jeff Webb,37, a bicycle messenger who’s lived at the hotel eight years, put down $130 of his own money to install a Webcam overlooking the corner of Sixth and Stevenson, hoping it will stop the crime down there. “I’m tired of it,” he said.
Webb, Warren and other residents said it’s time to take the initiative. They watch out for one another. After all, it’s their home.
“What we need for our sanity is a sanctuary where we live,” Warren said. “I couldn’t survive if I couldn’t get in here with peace of mind.”