Fire Victims Have Right to Return, Yet Few Do

Residents of the building at 22nd and Mission look on at burnt building. Photo by Daniel Hirsch.

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Within a few days of the fire that destroyed their homes on 22nd and Mission Streets, the 65 displaced tenants were told repeatedly that city officials and rights groups were there to serve them, would help them, and would guide them on their long round-trip journey back to their apartments.  After all, tenants were assured, they had a right to return to their homes at their former rent.

For distraught residents, it all sounded so hopeful, but it’s becoming clear how long and arduous the process will be. Rent Commissioner and tenant lawyer Cathy Mosbrucker said that in general, “it’s unlikely” that tenants displaced by fires return to their buildings.

“Generally, the work after a fire takes quite a long time, because first you have insurance issues and then permitting issues and then people who are out – the longer they’re out the more likely they are to find permanent replacement housing and not be that interested in moving back,” Mosbrucker said.

Repairs often take years to complete – and Mission and 22nd will be no exception. In the meantime, tenants make new lives. They enroll children in new schools, find new clinics, make new friends, and as time passes, returning is just another disruption.

While there is no official record of how many tenants exercise (or don’t) their right to return to a destroyed residence, a look at buildings that have suffered fires in the Mission indicates that returning to a restored version of their former home, though technically their right under San Francisco law, is difficult for most tenants.

In late 2013, residents of a building on Valencia near Duboce that burned down nine months earlier were told unequivocally  that returning was not an option. The landlord there used the Ellis Act to prevent their return.

The building next door, which houses Fred’s Liquor and Delicatessen, and is owned by the store’s proprietor Fuad (Fred) Ateyeh, invited all of his tenants back in, but most had already moved on.

One elderly tenant who did return to Ateyeh’s building, Angelina Gomez, was thrilled. She said she returned to the beautifully restored building (with fire extinguishers mounted outside each unit’s door) last October, and added that Ateyeh had been very friendly about the whole process.

A different former resident there, Spencer Crooks, said he found his own way after the fire. It was difficult, he said, because being burned out of his home didn’t elicit the sympathy from new landlords he had hoped for. The place he had settled into when Ateyeh called to offer him the space back was not as big or as comfortable, but moving back wouldn’t have been worth the trouble, and Crooks said his landlord didn’t seem very enthusiastic about it.

“I feel very fortunate that I have friends and family that could really help support me through that. But if I didn’t have that, I don’t know what I would do because, yeah, it was tough,” Crooks said.

A former resident of a building at 24th and Bartlett that suffered a fire in 2011 also found his own way forward after the blaze. He never heard from his landlord again. The building appears to still be undergoing renovations, while its next-door neighbor, also damaged by the fire, has been turned into TICs.

A similar story unfolded on 20th and Capp, where a current occupant said the building has also been converted into TICs, though in this case the tenants declined an offer to return.

In 2012, a fire that started somewhere in the rear of the units along the corner of 23rd and Capp streets damaged at least two houses and displaced dozens of residents. On the Capp street side, a formerly displaced resident who managed to return said it took about 18 months for repairs to be completed. She was notified of her right to return only to find that her unit had been significantly altered and her access to other parts of the building cut off. The laundry room and bicycle storage area in the basement are padlocked, and the landlord refuses to give her or the other returned residents the key.

Her unit’s walls are arranged differently, morphing previously separate kitchen and dining areas into one room. A doorway between the bathroom and bedroom was added, but no door was put in place to assure privacy in the bathroom, the tenant said.

“There was lots of stuff that changed the value of the apartment for us,” said the resident, who estimated that about half the previous tenants came back.

Around the corner, a tenant of a building facing Capp street told the complete opposite story.

Every single tenant in her building had returned, said 20-year resident Marta Agredano –  to beautifully restored units without a single problem. However, Carlos Moreno, another neighbor, was less enthusiastic about the restored units. He, too, said his apartment had been altered — rooms that used to have windows are now windowless, and a few storage alcoves have disappeared. Nonetheless, he made it back into his apartment at the same rate as before the fire.

Moreno’s and Agredano’s successes may have been helped along by the advocacy group Causa Justa::Just Cause, which helped the tenants of this building orient themselves after the fire. The tenants said Causa Justa advised them of their rights and explained available city services. The organization also received written communications from the landlord on their behalf while they bounced from one temporary address to another.

“The main problem was that none of the victims knew what was happening,” Moreno said. “There’s programs the victims just didn’t know about.”

It’s standard for buildings to take about two years to go back online, said Ivy Lee, a legislative aide to Supervisor Jane Kim. But some take much longer. Then, once reconstruction is complete, other troubles can arise: Landlords are required to send written notice to their tenants but often send letters to old addresses or to the address of the damaged building, and tenants never get word, tenant lawyers said.

Though Lee recognized that not every landlord intentionally slows down reconstruction, and that many make a concerted effort to get their buildings back online, there is a problem with landlords dragging their heels.

“No one is ever gonna say, we’re engaging in dilatory tactics to push rent-controlled tenants out … No one’s ever gonna admit that,” Lee said. “But when you do just enough, pull one permit a year, and you’re a property owner with a lot of equity … It’s hard to think of other reasons why you would let an apartment building in this market lie dormant.”

Her office is working on legislation that would create consequences for landlords who delay the process unreasonably.

Causa Justa::Just Cause met with tenants of both the Mission and Hyde Street fires after the fire to pass out form letters for the tenants to fill out and mail to their landlords officially declaring their intent to return. Tenants, too, must do their part in order to secure their return, and that includes giving written notification of their intentions, refusing to accept a buyout, and refusing to take back their security deposit, no matter how tempting. Causa Justa staff encouraged tenants to think about the value of returning to their homes instead of taking buyouts and looking for a new place to live permanently.

“Think about what your final goal is. Is it money now, or getting back into your home later?” asked Diana Flores, an advisor with Causa Justa.

She reminded tenants that choosing to find a new apartment to stay in permanently, rather than the two-year city-assisted Treasure Island housing, means leaving familiar clinics and health care providers, churches, schools, markets, and other elements of their community.

She also encouraged them to continue to remind the landlord of his obligations to them and keep him updated on their new locations, since often landlords send notice that the tenants may return to outdated addresses, even to addresses in the burned buildings, lawyers said.

Although the wait to return will be long, some optimism is still alive among those working to return the tenants to their homes.

Benjamin Amyes, the city’s disaster-response manager, said that the continuing media attention on this fire has put pressure on the landlord to repair it in a timely manner.

“This fire has had so much publicity … the property owner has been complying with DBI to pull permits and get work started,” Amyes said.

Amyes estimated in February, based on building inspector reports, that reconstruction would be completed in 12 to 18 months.

“I’ve seen buildings sit idle for way longer than that,” said Amyes, “but my sense is at this moment that the property owner is motivated and working to get this property back online.”

Moreover, the nonprofit MEDA, which has already been assisting businesses and tenants in other ways, has expressed interest in purchasing the building to ensure that repairs are made in a timely manner and tenants, including businesses, may return.  That has yet to happen, but it could make a difference in the odds of residents returning.

Andrea Valencia contributed reporting to this story.

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