Lawsuit claims SROs owned by city contractors are unsafe, moldy, rodent-infested

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Definitely not your ideal roommate.

It's often rumored that housing conditions in certain single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs, throughout San Francisco are atrocious. And when it comes to SROs under ownership of one family in particular, a lawsuit filed today by City Attorney Dennis Herrera now alleges not only that conditions are unhealthy and inhospitable – they’re also illegal.

Hotel owners, managers and operators Balvantsinh “Bill” Thakor, his wife Lataben B. Thakor, and their sons Kiransinh and Bahavasinh Thakor are all named in Herrera’s suit, which alleges that the business owners are renting uninhabitable residential rooms to vulnerable occupants, depriving SRO occupants of tenancy rights, maintaining public nuisances, doing construction work without required permits or contractors’ licenses, and making false claims for payment from the city.

The SRO owners hold contracts with the city. Herrera's complaint alleges that taxpayer dollars are flowing into the hands of landlords who have allowed their properties to remain moldy, rodent-infested, and unsafe to occupants who are too poor to seek out other options.

We left a message for Balvantsihn "Bill" Thakor and will update this post if we receive a response.

Under the city contracts, homeless people who are pulled off the street by the Department of Public Health’s Homeless Outreach Team are temporarily placed in stabilization beds in SROs under the Thakor’s ownership. DPH rents out blocks of rooms to provide this temporary transitional housing, while low-income residents may live permanently in other units in the same buildings under their own private arrangements.

“San Francisco’s response to our affordable housing crisis must include aggressively protecting our most vulnerable residents — and that’s exactly what this case is about,” said Herrera. “The Thakor family has exploited low‐income residents by denying them tenancy rights. They’ve defiantly thumbed their noses at city inspectors over pervasive code violations, which endanger residents and neighbors alike. And they’ve billed taxpayers for providing clients of city programs with ‘clean, safe, habitable’ housing, when it was anything but clean, safe, or habitable.”

A litany of charges in Herrera’s complaint gives an idea of what conditions in some of these properties are like: “[Health and safety code violations include] rampant cockroach and bedbug infestations, failure to provide adequate fire protection and safety, failure to provide adequate security, failure to provide plumbing adequate to avoid repeated sewage leaks, failure to provide safe and functional wiring, failure to provide residential rooms and bathrooms free of mold and mildew, and failure to provide adequate heat.”

City Attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey noted that there had been a host of health and building code violations issued against the hotel operators, but that fines and notices of violation still had not resulted in necessary repairs. With all administrative avenues exhausted, the city is now moving forward with a lawsuit.

“With litigation,” Dorsey said, “we have the ability to bring a level of fear that the administrative process cannot.”

Meanwhile, a quick search for court records revealed that this isn’t the first time Balvantsinh “Bill” Thakor has been named in a lawsuit brought by the City Attorney against SRO hotel owners.

In 2002, records show, then-City Attorney Louise Renne named him along with a host of other defendants in a suit relating to the ownership and operation of the Warfield Hotel, a 63-unit Tenderloin SRO where defendants had allegedly “failed to correct life-safety hazards … thereby forcing residents to live in substandard conditions in violation of applicable state and local housing laws.” According to this 2003 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, that particular SRO later went "from horrible to habitable."

But even back then, Thakor was described in the Chronicle as "not known for his quick response to code violations." All of which begs the question: With such a terrible track record, how do these hotel owners manage to land city contracts?