Will SF Finally Raise Wages for Workers Housing Homeless?

photo shows Supportive Housing at Garland Hotel

Supportive Housing at Garland Hotel

Supervisors Must Raise Salaries Now

Do any Supervisors think a $23 per hour starting salary for janitors in SRO supportive housing is too high? Or $22 for desk clerks? How about $25 for the maintenance workers who must have the skills to make repairs following room turnovers?

Starting salaries for desk clerks and janitors at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head, are only $17.34 per hour. It’s hard to attract workers with such pay. That’s why we and other providers have a record number of vacant positions.

These are tough jobs in the toughest of neighborhoods. And they are performed by a workforce heavily comprised of people of color. We can cite all the salary surveys about the lack of wage equity in San Francisco but no category is so outrageously underpaid as frontline staff in supportive housing SRO hotels.

THC and other providers have long pushed to raise wages. But mayors and supervisors prefer funding new projects on homelessness rather than fairly pay the workers that keep existing supportive housing going.

This year must be different.

Supportive housing groups have spent nearly a year pushing HSH, the Controller and the Mayor’s office for real wage equity. We cheered when on May 25 Mayor Breed responded to this hiring and retention crisis. Breed announced a $30 million two-year budget increase for “increasing wages for non-profit staff providing support services and property management across the PSH portfolio.”

That was the good news. The bad news is that the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) may delay implementing the mayor’s plan. With only the June 22 budget hearing remaining, HSH has made no public commitment to announcing new minimum wage rates for key frontline positions. This may not occur until September— at the earliest.

That delay will prove devastating.

Housing providers cannot hire for long open vacant positions until HSH announces base salary levels. Given the time it takes to collect resumes, conduct interviews, and do screening this delays getting workers on board until mid-November at the earliest. THC’s huge number of vacancies—nearly triple what we customarily had in 2019—-means HSH delays will cause positions to remain unfilled into 2023.

It’s hard to believe that Mayor Breed supports this unnecessary delay.

The Board of Supervisors can prevent this crisis. The Board should not approve the HSH budget until minimum salary levels for core staff are set. The need for $22, $23 and $25 baselines are beyond dispute. Current workers need these salaries. Providers cannot fill vacant positions without being able to advertise higher wages.

Avoiding Board Oversight

Absent public salary baselines, supervisors have no idea where $12 million of the mayor’s $15 million increase for salaries for frontline staff will go ($3 million is earmarked for case managers). And considering HSH has no commission—a gap that Supervisor Safai and others are trying to get before voters in November—no public body will have input on how and when HSH allocates the funds earmarked for raises.

What are supervisors “overseeing” when they are asked to approve a $15 million increase for “frontline” staff without knowing where the funds will go?

HSH says it needs more studies and analysis before setting minimum wage rates. But the Supportive Housing Providers Network (SHPN) long ago submitted an analysis that set minimum wage rates as outlined above. Their total request was $16 million not counting any funding increase for property management. So what more “analysis” does HSH need before deciding janitors should get at least $23 per hour?

The current HSH leadership supports the higher salaries supported by the mayor and housing providers. But this is a classic case of political will being subverted by bureaucracies. The HSH bureaucracy wants to have multiple meetings for months on how much “flexibility” providers should have with the increased funds. They want the power to make major policy decisions around homelessness, usurping control from elected officials.

Last week THC had 12 janitor positions vacant. In 2019 (pre-Covid) we typically had 3. Does HSH really need more “studies” and “analysis” before concluding that janitors must get at least $23 per hour rather than the current $17.34?

We have 13 case manager positions open. HSH has agreed to raise the minimum to at least $25 per hour. Why not similarly announce salary increases for other frontline positions where job vacancies are at a crisis?

Who is Frontline Staff?

Providers have two needs. First, salaries must be raised for desk clerks, janitors, maintenance workers, housing counselors and other “frontline” staff. Second, salaries for property management staff must also rise. Unfortunately, HSH’s budget proposal ignores this second salary need. HSH has not requested higher salaries for the supportive housing managers who are as “frontline” as anyone.

This makes no sense. It means a THC case manager would typically earn more than the person with 24/7 responsibility for managing the entire SRO hotel. Providers have tremendous difficulty attracting skilled property managers at current salary levels. THC asked HSH for a baseline of $65,000, which still remains well below pay for comparable jobs in the private sector.

Do Supervisors think $65,000 is too much to pay the supportive housing manager of a Tenderloin or Sixth Street SRO housing the unhoused? If not, the Board should require HSH to set this minimum base pay amount.

Since HSH’s budget request does not cover property management, the Board must add at least 5 million to the HSH budget for raising salaries for these workers. For THC, the largest provider, this means an additional $1.5 million.

San Francisco is a wealthy city. It can address homelessness without short-changing nonprofit workers. The city has an historic chance to fill the COVID-driven holes in its acclaimed permanent supportive housing program. Let’s finally get this done.

The money is there.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw’s latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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