Residential tenants of the large mixed-use building at 22nd and Mission streets that was destroyed by a fire in January filed suit on Tuesday against landlord Hawk Lou and his wife Ketty Fong Lou. The incident left one man dead, one severely injured, and more than 60 displaced.
Of those, 47 tenants from 15 units are bringing the suit, which accuses the landlords of negligence, breaking of lease agreements, a violation of the city’s rent ordinance, that the building was uninhabitable, and that the practice of renting the building to residential tenants was an unfair business practice.
The suit alleges that Lou failed to maintain the building and allowed poorly maintained wiring to persist, leading to the electrical fault that a fire department inspection indicates may have caused the blaze. Lou argued in an email that a fire inspection by his insurance agency indicated a charred pot on a stovetop and the surrounding burn pattern in one residential unit indicated that the fire originated there.
“I would say to Hawk Lou, that’s one amazing fire pattern, that it starts in the pot and reverses course and snakes down and goes inside the electrical box,” said the tenant’s attorney, Steven J. McDonald of Greenstein & McDonald. “If you look at the San Francisco Fire Department report, one thing is it’s striking that it’s so detailed… They’re tracking the fire burn pattern… They saw it originate at the lowest point of this hallway.”
Tenants also contend that the landlord failed to keep fire safety equipment in working condition, resulting in nonfunctioning or nonexistent smoke detectors and fire alarms. Lou has said the alarm system was working and up to date on its inspections, but tenants said shortly after the fire that they did not hear any kind of alarm.
“I believe that the culprit of all of this is Hawk Lou’s business plan,” McDonald said. “It’s profit and loss, income and expense. Keep the expenses down to the bare minimum, your profit goes up.”
Maintenance that was performed, McDonald said, may have cut corners to reduce the landlord’s workload.
“Check the permit history. Where are the permits?” he wanted to know. “The building is 108 years old. Buildings and their systems, electrical plumbing heating systems, they have a certain life span. This was not factored into this landlord’s business plan.”
Tenants are now seeking general, special and punitive damages for Lou’s alleged failure to keep the building in habitable condition, which they say was in bad faith. They also seek compensation for medical bills, as several were injured or inhaled smoke during the fire, as well as for loss of income and earning ability, and attorney’s fees. One fire victim, who was severely burned and hospitalized, is bringing a separate suit against the landlord.
Neglect of the building in bad faith and preventing tenants from living in their units would be a violation of the San Francisco rent ordinance. That would mean the tenants are entitled to three times the actual damages caused by the landlord’s violations, according to the complaint.
Tenants also allege that the building was not kept in habitable condition, and are seeking disgorgement of rents they paid during their tenancy.
“In our culture, justice equates to money. That’s it, that’s what we get, it it was it is,” McDonald said. “My goal is to get my clients justice.”
A group of business owners who rented space in the building have also filed suit against Lou for similar complaints.
Most of the tenants have been relocated to temporary housing with assistance from the city, to apartments in the Mission, on Treasure Island, and in Parkmerced, and hope to exercise their right to return to the building when it is restored at their former rents.
Meanwhile, Lou has been seeking off-market offers on the building and may sell it for an estimated $20 million.