No vacancy

City to lose hotel for its poorest citizens

Get out: Biltmore Hotel residents jane and Charles Barker are worried about what will happen to them when they get evicted this winter.

Get out: Biltmore Hotel residents jane and Charles Barker are worried about what will happen to them when they get evicted this winter.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“I hear voices in my head. They tell me things about my life, about how my health is bad and that I live in a hotel. They tell me I should commit suicide,” said Lawrence Carr.

The medications he takes help quiet the voices in his head and keep his heart condition in check. But at 55 years of age, Carr is less concerned about the voices in his head than he is about losing the home he has made of the Biltmore Hotel.

“It would be very difficult to move,” said Carr, explaining that he lives only blocks away from the two doctors’ offices he visits every week.

Carr has lived in the Biltmore Hotel near the corner of 10th and J streets for two and a half years. Such single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels are often the only housing available to the poorest Sacramentans because room rents are fairly inexpensive and usually don’t require a security deposit or credit check.

Sometime this winter, Carr and the 40 other residents of the Biltmore will need to find a new place to live. The property owner, Ingemanson Enterprises, has decided to tear the building down to put the site to some more profitable use.

Some of the residents may find rooms in one of Sacramento’s 12 other SRO hotels. Others may leave town or find temporary places with friends or relatives. Still others are almost certain to end up on the street.

“I’ve got no place to go,” said Greg Augustine, 44, who also suffers from mental illness.

Augustine said the symptoms of his mental illness—depression, loss of memory and violent dreams—had begun to subside during the year and a half that he has lived at the Biltmore. But because of the stress of the Biltmore’s impending closure, Augustine said his condition has worsened.

The last time he was homeless, Augustine had to be hospitalized because of a nervous breakdown. Now he fears another downward spiral into homelessness and madness. “I can’t go back on the streets,” he said. “I won’t make it.”

Places like the Biltmore fill a much-needed housing niche for the poorest of the city’s poor. For the majority of the residents, Social Security—which averages $736 a month—is the sole source of income. Rent at a typical SRO is around $300 a month. That leaves little for food, transportation and other necessities.

More than half of the Biltmore residents suffer from some sort of mental illness, according to a survey made by Sacramento Self-Help Housing. For people like Augustine, the absence of stable housing often wreaks havoc on their physical and mental health.

City policy once required that replacement units be produced if an SRO was closed. But in 1998, the City Council drafted a new ordinance that did away with the replacement requirement. The measure also prohibited the construction of any new SRO units in the downtown area. City officials felt SROs were over-concentrated in the downtown area and were magnets for drug traffic, prostitution and other crime.

But residents say the Biltmore is one of the better-managed residential hotels, because it’s clean and there are strict prohibitions on drug use.

Since the passage of the 1998 ordinance, at least four SROs have closed in the downtown area. That’s part of a much deeper trend that began in the 1970s, as waves of redevelopment swept the city, replacing SROs and other affordable housing, usually with office space. The city had more than 3,000 SRO units in the 1970s. Today, the number is less than 900.

Now, under the new city policy, doing away with an SRO is as simple as filling out an application, giving residents 60 days notice and paying each resident $1,500 in relocation costs.

Conversion of an existing SRO requires a City Council hearing, but the purpose is simply to make sure the property owner has followed the proper procedure, which housing officials say Ingemanson has done.

Eric Rasmusson, who handles public relations for Ingemanson Enterprises, said the developer has been more than fair.

“Ingemanson has gone over and above what they needed to do,” said Rasmusson, explaining that the company is discussing replacement of the units with City Council member Dave Jones.

Jones confirmed that he was working with a church in his district and the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency to find a way to replace the units. But no proposal has been put together yet.

The check for $1,500 will help, but residents say it will quickly be eaten up in moving costs, first month’s rent and deposit. The bigger problem is finding an affordable place to live. Most SROs have long waiting lists, and the cheapest studio apartments typically rent for more than someone on SSI can afford. To make matters worse, most apartment complexes require a good credit report.

The Biltmore issue will go to a council hearing Nov. 9. While housing advocates concede there is probably nothing that can be done to keep the Biltmore open, and little that can be done for the residents, they hope to use the hearing as a venue to underscore the need for a new policy on SROs.

The city has formed an SRO task force, made up of housing advocates, developers and business interests, which will begin meeting at the end of next month. John Foley, with the Sacramento Self Help Housing organization, says SROs can’t be considered ideal living situations, but the city must do something to ensure that there is enough housing for the people who typically use them. A new replacement policy is one option. Creation of new types of housing other than hotel rooms, but still affordable to very low income people, would be helpful as well.

Ingemanson has no immediate plans for the land on which the Biltmore sits. It may ultimately become a high-rise office building. It also could be a parking lot for the nearby CalEPA office building.

“It seems a shame to take away someone’s home to put in a parking lot,” said Jane Barker, who shares a tiny room at the Biltmore with her husband, Charles. They met and fell in love when they both found themselves living on the streets two years ago. Finding each other was lucky, said Charles, but he refuses to go back to homelessness.

“I’m not leaving. Not if we don’t have somewhere else to go," said Barker. "If that means they have to get the sheriff up here, then so be it."