By Peter Lawrence Kane
When I moved to San Francisco, I was a little weirded out by how many homes had a toilet separate from the actual bathroom. Sure, it’s convenient when you have roommates and everybody leaves for work around the same time, but it felt inefficient – and I like to wash my hands immediately, without touching two doorknobs first.
Some 2.37% of housing units in S.F. are without “complete plumbing”
Turns out, not everyone is even that lucky. While substandard facilities might be associated with Mumbai or Appalachia, San Francisco’s poopers and pee-ers are also down in the dumps, if you will. Some 2.37% of housing units in S.F. are without “complete plumbing,” defined by the Census as lacking any of the following: hot and cold water, a flush toilet, and a bathtub or shower. This puts us in the 96th percentile for the shittiness of our shit-holes. Every other worse-off county is rural, impoverished, and sparsely populated, and no other urban area comes close – not even older cities with lots of poverty, such as Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, and the Bronx. It’s pretty much Alaska, Native American reservations, and San Francisco.
Why would this be? Obviously, we can rule out outhouses. Coldwater flats feel very Beat-poet, but even the most gray-water-reliant hippie needs to soak an achy back from time to time. Not all the Earthquake Shacks had toilets, but there are obviously too few left to make any mark on citywide stats (and they’ve probably been updated in the past century).
So it’s got to be Single-Resident Occupancy Hotels, right? There used to be upwards of 90,000 SROs in San Francisco, but that number has gone way down – yet some 8,000 people still don’t even have their own bathroom. (Even the new communal-living experiments with shared kitchens grant their residents that small bit of privacy). A fascinating survey of elderly SRO residents found that issues of bathroom sanitation or plumbing didn’t crack the top five, but some 53% of respondents lacked access to a kitchen in their building, shared or otherwise. Anyone who made New York their home for long enough has either lived in or knows someone who lived in a former tenement that possessed a horrendous bathroom, no natural light, or both. Sometimes, even those units with terrible bones become luxury apartments. That doesn’t seem to happen here.
It’s depressingly funny that San Francisco, the epicenter of Craigslist and poster child for Airbnb, would be riddled with so many shithole-less shitholes
Beyond SROs proper, it’s likely that there is also a smattering of other buildings where landlords exploit and intimidate their residents (who may be undocumented, elderly, of limited means, non-English-speakers, or some combination thereof). There is also a “funk factor” – in one architect’s words – where live/work lofts and other industrial conversions later get subdivided or fall out of compliance with housing codes. Either way, it’s depressingly funny that San Francisco, the epicenter of Craigslist and poster child for Airbnb, would be riddled with so many shithole-less shitholes, hidden in plain sight. Our underclass is unique in the country for its inability to shower or poo.
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