Photo by Daniel Mondragón

Victims of the fires in both the Mission and the Tenderloin gathered in a conference room at City College’s Mission campus last night and were told that tenants displaced by a fire have the “right to return,” meaning that once the damaged units are repaired, the tenants must be notified within 30 days and must be offered the opportunity to move back in to their units at their former rent. After notice is given, tenants have 45 days to accept or decline the offer to return.

Housing Law Program Coordinator Judith Gallardo of La Raza Centro Legal added that tenants should take care not to sign anything, or take any offers of money, without discussing their options with a lawyer. She and others stressed that In cases like these, it’s also common for landlords to offer buyouts to their tenants to relieve the pressure of allowing them to move back in. Gallardo instructed tenants not to take these buyouts unless they have consulted an attorney and are sure they do not have better options — which may include a neglect lawsuit against the landlord.

Tenants were at the meeting to learn about their rights and their next steps. City officials, including Supervisors David Campos and Jane Kim as well as former supervisor and now ‘homeless czar’ Bevan Dufty offered their condolences and promised to help residents look for a permanent place to stay.  Mental health services, Red Cross advisers and more were available after the meeting but most residents seemed anxious to understand their complicated rights as tenants. It is unclear at this point if the building will be saved.

Housing lawyers and tenants’ rights activists strained to make themselves heard over the clamor of residents with lots to discuss and plenty of questions.

Gallardo and others strongly recommended that tenants consult with a lawyer about their individual case because each situation is unique. She also underscored that tenants have the right to return –  whether they are documented or not. Though the law becomes more complicated for subtenants who were not on the lease or did not have written approval from the landlord to sublease, they do have some rights if they were receiving mail at that address.

Gallardo and Maria Zamudio of Causa Justa advised tenants to take measures to ensure they do not unwittingly allow the landlord to assume they have moved away and do no intend to return to the building. She encouraged tenants to notify the landlord that they intend to return to their former unit, and stressed that they should not accept a return of their security deposit. Since most of the displaced do not have an address where they can reliably recieve mail, Zamudio said tenants should provide the landlord with an address as soon as they have one and in the meantime, can try communicating via email.

One concerned tenant said he had heard of other fire victims never being able to return to their buildings.

“It’s our responsibility as a community that that doesn’t happen here,” Zamudio said.

Supervisors Kim and Campos both promised to expedite legislation they had been working on to further protect tenants displaced by disasters and to put in place either incentives or punitive measures to get landlords to make repairs quickly and efficiently and ensure tenants have their right to return after disasters.

Campos invited residents to a press conference on the steps of city hall, at which he said city leaders as well as victims would address the city to emphasize the importance of providing housing for those who lose their homes in disasters.

Erwin Tjon of the Municipal Transportation Authority, self-described “ticket guy,” was also present to help tenants manage the parking citations they might have received because they are unable to access keys left in the destroyed apartments. He collected seven tickets that evening to waive, and said concerns about additional tickets may be brought to the supervisors’ offices. Displaced tenants will not be held responsible for tickets issued after the fire. Tjon also said that other reasons for nonpayment (tickets issued before the fire that tenants cannot pay because they do not have access to funds, for example) will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Ben Amyes, the Disaster Response Manager for the city, also said tenants must be pro-active about finding housing going forward. He encouraged any tenants who might be able to find a new apartment on their own to do so, citing the overwhelming responsibility of finding permanent housing for the victims of multiple fires in the past week in the most expensive housing market in the country.

“Advocate for yourselves,” Amyes said. “This is a daunting task, but we’re going to make it happen.”

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