It was a Sunday morning at 9:51 a.m. when a fire broke out in a stairwell and moved swiftly through the three-story building at the corner of Duboce and Valencia Streets, injuring one tenant, damaging a second building and leaving 37 residents homeless.
“By the time anyone knew there was a fire, the outside of the building, including the fire escape, was all on fire,” said Spencer Crooks, 32, who lived in a top-floor unit at 101 Duboce Ave., where the fire started.
As residents fled, fire trucks arrived and within an hour the conflagration was contained. But by then, damage had been done. The fire spread to the adjacent building at 204 Valencia St. and both structures were deemed uninhabitable.
In the days following the incident, the city partnered with the Red Cross to help the victims find temporary housing and Mission community members launched a fundraising campaign. Authorities assured the tenants that they would be able to return once their homes were restored. Tenants waited.
Maura Soloranzo counted the days before her family could move back in. Nine months after the May 6, 2012 fire, the phone call came.
“The guy that rent to me said I no more coming,” Soloranzo said in broken English describing the February phone call. “They said no more house.”
Confused by the language barrier, Soloranzo contacted her former neighbor Gloria Castillo. Like Soloranzo’s family, which was living in a friend’s small room on Bryant Street, Castillo’s family was staying with friends until their Valencia apartment was ready. But the two, along with 11 other tenants, soon discovered that there would be no return. They had “no more house.”
Under state law, once landlords have repaired apartments, they must contact the former tenants to offer them the same apartment with the same lease conditions that existed before the fire.
The tenants discovered, however, that although their apartments were being repaired, JJJ, the limited liability corporation that has owned the apartments since 1995, decided to invoke the Ellis Act and take the apartments off of the market.
Rachel Fox, an attorney with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, is representing the tenants, and filed a wrongful eviction lawsuit in May. In court documents, she says that real-estate broker John Oei called Soloranzo and others to let them know that their apartments would never be ready. JJJ’s registered agent is Jacqueline Oei, but it is unclear if they are related.
“They said no more money for me,” Castillo said. “They finish construction but they say no more come back.”
Calls to the Oeis were not returned and Fox declined to comment on the status of the case because it is ongoing.
While it is fairly unusual for fire victims to discover landlords have invoked the Ellis Act, its use to evict tenants have been on the rise, although still well below the last dot.com boom. Ellis Act evictions jumped 81 percent to 116 households between March 1, 2012 and Feb. 28, 2013, according to the the Rent Board’s annual eviction report.
The 1986 legislation allows owners to evict tenants as long as they evict all of a building’s tenants and keep the apartments off the market for five years.
The Mission District’s strongest jolt of gentrification came in the late 1990s when annual evictions notices in the city doubled from 1,500 to 3,000 evictions. While the Mission only had nine percent of the city rental units, it had 16 percent of the evictions, according to city eviction reports. In the biggest year for Ellis Act evictions — the final year of the decade — 879 households were affected, according to the rent board.
As the Valencia lawsuit progresses, questions about the source of the May 6 fire remain unanswered. No one witnessed it and the San Francisco Fire Department closed its investigation two months after the incident stating that they were unable to determine a cause of the fire.
At the time of the fire, the building, which has a history of amassing dozens of liens at a time for unpaid utility bills, had just over $15,000 in liens against it, according to property records. Four months later, the landlords paid off the liens.
Meanwhile, tenants are left to fend for themselves.
Lorena Hernandez and her eight-member family have moved twice since the fire. Last year, the city’s Health and Human Service agency helped the Hernandez family find short-term housing on Treasure Island. The city allowed them to stay in the rent-controlled apartment until September with the idea that their homes would be repaired by then.
Last month, time ran out.
“They say they cannot help us anymore,” Hernandez said. “We had to find a new place.”
Hernandez put their belongings in storage and her husband, five children and her mother lived out of a car for two weeks as they searched for a new home. Last month, she found an apartment they could afford in Richmond.
“It was so hard,” Hernandez said. “I was looking every day.”
The lawsuit filed by Fox is not the only one involving the Valencia building owner.
The medical marijuana dispensary owner who leased the ground-floor commercial space is fighting an eviction in court. The business cannot be evicted under the Ellis Act, because the legislation only applies to residential units.
One day after the fire, the tenant, Sultan Alkhraisat, received a letter from the building owner that gave him three days to move out. The letter said Alkhraisat was “using the premises for an unlawful purpose” and therefore had to vacate. It then cited the federal law prohibiting the sale of controlled substances, which in this case refers to marijuana.
Alkhraisat’s attorney Steven Schectman answered the complaint arguing that the business was operating within California law, which allows for medical pot shops.
Moreover, he pointed out, his client had a lease with the owner that specified the area would be used for a dispensary. The lease ran from April 2006 through 2026.
After delays, Alkhraisat’s trial date is slated for Nov. 4.
While the Valencia tenants are in legal battles with their building owner, the adjacent Duboce building damaged by the fire is almost fully restored.
On Sept. 26, Fred’s Liquor store located on the ground floor of the 101 Duboce Ave. reopened. Shop owner Fuad (Fred) Ateyeh, who also owns the building, hosted a three-day party to thank the Mission community for their support, Ateyeh said.
“They stood by me when I needed them the most,” he said. “I valued their encouragement through it all.”
The celebration drew more than 180 people, he said.
Ateyeh expects the Duboce building to be fully restored in about four months. Since the fire, he has tried to keep his five tenants informed about the progress of the project, but hasn’t been able to contact two of them.
“Some of them moved away and the others I tried to contact didn’t have working numbers,” he said.
Ateyeh invited the tenants he was able to reach to the store opening and plans to welcome them back into their restored homes soon, he said.
“I haven’t talked much with the residents,” Ateyeh said. “But I will give them first priority to move back in.”
Sarah McClure contributed reporting to this story.