Disclosure: Mission Local was a commercial tenant for a year and half at the building discussed in this article.
One year after a fire tore through the three-story building at Mission and 22nd streets, killing one and displacing more than 60, its former tenants are in limbo. The building remains destroyed, moldy and completely vacant. Residential tenants have been displaced to distant and, in most cases, temporary homes while many of the building’s former businesses are struggling to get back on their feet.
Meanwhile, five lawsuits brought by more than 30 tenants and 20 businesses against the building’s owner, Hawk Ling Lou, are in various early stages, with those affected hoping to be compensated for some of their losses.
Lou Shifts Blame to Alarm Company
Lou is counter-suing the alarm company in four of the five cases against him.
The cross-complaints allege that damages from the fire at 2578-2598 Mission St. were the responsibility of the company that maintained the building’s alarm systems.
In legal documents, Lou’s attorneys allege that Tom Jue & Company, a fire safety firm that managed the alarm systems at the burned building, failed to maintain the system, causing some of the losses that the tenants have suffered.
These losses include property, profits, housing and tenant improvements. In their lawsuits, the tenants allege negligence, including a lack of maintenance on the electrical systems.
“The buck stops with the landlord.”
Tom Jue, who operates Tom Jue & Company, said he believes he’s been cleared of any violation by the San Francisco Fire Department.
Gordon Kaupp, an attorney from the firm Kaupp and Feinberg who is representing residential tenants Jorge and Lucia Flores in a case against Lou, said that ultimately it is a landlord’s duty to keep his building in working order.
“Under the law, the owner is always responsible to maintain the fire alarm system in operable condition,” Kaupp said. “The buck stops with the landlord.”
Smoke detectors in the building were also found to be more than ten years old, Kaupp said, despite a legal requirement that smoke detectors in residential buildings be replaced at least every ten years.
He also pointed out inadequate egress from the building. The commercial exit to Mission Street was locked with a padlock, and awnings over ground floor retail prevented fire escapes from extending to the ground.
The night of the fire, residents told Mission Local and firefighters on the scene that the alarms failed to sound, and that many had no warning that anything was amiss until they opened their doors to smoke and flames — or heard the sirens of arriving emergency vehicles.
Kaupp said it appears the alarm system was without power the night of the fire. A resident in the building also told Mission Local in the days after the fire that the alarm system had been disabled temporarily after a false alarm about four months before the fire, and that he suspected it may not have been hooked back up.
Firefighters ultimately determined that the cause of the fire was likely an electrical short inside a third floor interior wall. Lou told fire investigators, according to a fire department report, that he was not aware of any problems with the building itself. According to the fire investigation report, a tenant told fire investigators that “circuits occasionally are overloaded and ‘trip’ in the unit.”
None of the attorneys representing Lou responded to calls for comment.
Residents Struggle with New Lives
Rumors abound among former residents and business tenants of the building as to the current state of the building, but not one resident said they had heard from the landlord directly.
So they have tried to build new lives, a difficult task in a city with a severe housing crisis. Benjamin Amyes, the emergency management coordinator for the city’s Human Services Agency, said some 90 percent of the displaced from the fire have been housed through various city programs. He said each of these residents are able to stay in their new location for up to two years, at their pre-disaster rents. Locations include Treasure Island, Parkmerced and a complex in the Mission District called 2B Living.
“Sometimes I work, and with what I get from social security, I barely make it.”
Carolyn Goossen, an aide to Supervisor David Campos, said the supervisor’s office allocated some $40,000 to $50,000 of its discretionary funds to help restore units on Treasure Island and subsidize displaced tenants’ rents.
The remaining portion of residents struck out on their own.
Araceli Toyama and her two children, for example, are staying with friends in the city. She relies on their generosity while she looks for housing, and a year after her displacement she still hasn’t found any.
“It’s been difficult to find a place without so many restrictions — credit, no children, affordable rent,” Toyama said. “I just want something I can afford, not a studio for $4,000, plus last and first month’s deposit — it’s not logical.”
Toyama still works at a laundromat on Valencia and 22nd Streets, and her two kids still go to school at Buena Vista Horace Mann.
Juan Lara, a recent arrival to the building at the time that it burned down, stays in the Mission with an old acquaintance but doesn’t know how long that can last. At 66, he is struggling to get by.
“Whenever she wants me out, she can throw me out, no lease, no nothing,” Lara said. “Sometimes I work, and with what I get from social security, I barely make it. Sometimes I go where they give out food for seniors, or my friends invite me over for dinner.”
Lara said his former roommate at the building, Felipe Reyes, is also staying with friends and sells goods on the street to make ends meet.
But living in city-assigned housing has not been a picnic either.
Humberto Lopez and Eugenia Aldama, former reporters and photographers who had extremely active social lives at the building, now live in Parkmerced and are completely isolated from their former lives. They have the option to extend their lease there for an additional year, but feel they have no choice.
“We are not working, I am retired, so what little money I get is what we get. I barely pay the rent,” Lopez said.
Jose Gonzalez, whose son Alessandro Gonzalez received an award for his heroism for managing to save his dog while jumping from a second story window to escape the blaze, lives on Treasure Island.
— Mission Local (@MLNow) January 29, 2015
“To live here, it’s okay. But it’s difficult because we have to take the kid to 22nd and Dolores, to school,” Gonzalez said. “My wife doesn’t drive and she has to take public transportation, so it’s a one hour commute each way.”
Transportation and isolation are two major concerns on Treasure Island — particularly for residents who still have jobs in the Mission. Marcela Cordova works at the UCSF hospital. It takes her about 15 minutes to drive to work, she said, but it can take an hour just to get on the bridge during the evening rush hour.
Working at a hospital comes with its own complications, too.
“There’s constantly fire drills, so I’m constantly having panic attacks there.”
“There’s constantly fire drills, so I’m constantly having panic attacks there,” Cordova said. “I went to therapy but didn’t like the therapy, so I just take medication. It’s been kinda hard.”
Nancy Segovia does day-care work in the city, and her husband Tony works in construction. It takes them around an hour and a half to get to work. Her 18-year-old daughter commutes two hours to her classes at City College of San Mateo.
But beyond the endless bus rides, residents are concerned about safety. Two weeks ago, Cordova’s daughter was accosted by a man in their corner of Treasure Island who was apparently under the influence of amphetamines.
Cordova was in the kitchen when she heard her daughter shouting.
“All I kept hearing was ‘Mom! Mom! Mom!’ He would not let go of her,” Cordova recalled. She went to her daughter’s aid, only to find a neighbor had forced his way into their house. “I was able to get him out of my house and I called the police.”
It took officers more than 15 minutes to arrive on scene, and by that time, the man had disappeared.
“I’m so worried,” said Segovia, who heard about the incident from Cordova. “So then I say to the police, ‘What happens if that happens with my son, my daughter?’ That’s not too safe.”
Some businesses from the building have relocated, with mixed results. Sollega moved several blocks north along Mission, and continues to do business. The solar company was not as deeply affected by the fire as others, said employee Patrick Waite. Thalia’s Jewelry moved to Mission near 24th Street, and its owners are trying to reinvent their business. Nieves Cinco de Mayo found refuge inside a grocery on 16th Street. Taquería La Alteña has relocated to inside Cava 22.
For former business owners who no longer work in the neighborhood, it can be painful to return.
Nancy Ortega, who for 20 years ran El Perol restaurant in the building, is thinking about relocating the business to San Rafael, where she now lives.
“It’s difficult just to look at the building. I always wonder, ‘Why?’” Ortega mused. “But the owner never guaranteed our safety: There were no alarms, emergency exits were blocked, and all that comes to mind when you wonder what happened.”
Still, she’s determined to bring her business back in one form or another.
“A lot of my customers still call me and sometimes I do catering. They miss my Peruvian breakfasts,” Ortega said.
Teresa Reyes, whose family ran the Bay Area Fish and Poultry on the ground floor of the building, said she was forced to leave her home in San Francisco almost immediately after the fire, when her landlord wanted to reclaim the unit.
“It’s difficult just to look at the building. I always wonder, ‘Why?’”
She has relocated to Daily City, but her business shut down. She estimates she sustained losses of $200,000. Now, there’s not really any reason to spend time in the neighborhood where she once made a living.
“I don’t really have any more ties to the Mission. Sometimes I go over there to buy things, and maybe the bank on 22nd… but that’s it,” said Reyes.
Karen Van Dine, an artist whose work, tools and materials were stored in her studio in the building, said she is grateful to have been offered a temporary storage space at the African American Arts and Culture Complex. With the help of friends, Van Dine was able to return to the building several times to rescue her belongings. But finding a new studio in San Francisco appears to be out of the question.
“And to find a new space, it’s just exorbitant,” she said. “The rates are out of this world. People in Nob Hill are renting out closets for more than I can afford. Most artists have fled to the East Bay. I’m 74 now and there’s just no way I can do that. I just don’t have the strength.”
Fate of the Building Unclear
To a person, former tenants are frustrated that they have heard absolutely nothing from landlord Lou and his attorneys about the potential repair of the building. Many know that they have the right to return to the building after repairs are complete, and intend to exercise that right.
Moving back may not be in the cards if it takes longer to repair the building than they can stay in their temporary housing. The recent history of fires in the Mission shows that few displaced tenants ultimately do return to their homes.
“All of this awful mold and mildew and rot happened, because everything was wet and sitting in water for months.”
But at Mission and 22nd streets, nothing is clear. Residents say they have heard that Lou sold the building. And it appeared in August that Lou was in the midst of a deal. At that time, he told Mission Local he would not be able to wait to sell the building to the non-profit Mission Economic Development Agency. At the time, sources estimated that Lou was getting $20 million from potential buyers. Nonetheless, public records show that he is still the owner, though neither Lou himself nor his attorney responded to requests to confirm this.
Applications have been filed with the Department of Building Inspections to repair the roof and third floors of the building, but they have not yet been approved. Lily Madjus Wu, a department spokesperson, said it’s unclear why the permits were never issued, but it’s likely inspectors needed additional documentation from the applicant and it was never provided.
Building inspectors have been after Lou for some time after the fire to get his building back in shape, and in fact initiated enforcement proceedings to speed up the repair process. After the department received no response to several notices of violation and follow-ups, it has referred the case to the City Attorney’s office, which will provide legal representation during enforcement.
Meanwhile, the structure continues to decay.
“All of this awful mold and mildew and rot happened, because everything was wet and sitting in water for months,” said Van Dine, the artist. She estimates her last trip inside was in May. “The stench was unbelievable, and the smoke damage, and the mold – The walls were furry.”
Several tenants said they have seen or heard of workers cleaning out refuse from the building, but after the walls and ceiling were shored to allow re-entry, no additional visible repairs were made.
“I really hope [the landlord] can sell it,” Van Dine said. “It’s just this hole that is eating all of us up.”