Photo by Daniel Hirsch

Update: Tenant advocates held a press conference saying that details of the demolition notice indicate the tenants’ right to return is secure.

The Department of Building Inspection on Friday ordered the demolition of the fire-damaged building at the corner of 22nd and Mission Streets, citing a concern that a moderate earthquake would collapse the building outward and cause harm to the public.

If the building is demolished, more than 60 tenants displaced by the fire may lose the right to return to their units after reconstruction.

San Francisco guarantees rent-controlled tenants who are displaced by a fire the right to return to their units after repair at their previous rent, though few do. But with the demolition, that protection no longer applies: New buildings are not subject to rent control because of state law and are not bound by the right of return. No-fault evictions on the basis of demolition are also allowed under city law.

District 9 Supervisor David Campos said his office has been scrambling to find a legal solution since word first reached him that the demolition order might be imminent. He said that by state law, demolition removes the landlord’s obligation to offer the displaced tenants their units back.

“The right of return, legally – [it] appears that it is eliminated,” Campos said. “The way the law works right now, there is a perverse incentive, in a way, for the owner to wait. Because if the building becomes so bad, the building has to be demolished, [that] takes away the rights of the tenants.”

It appears that was the case for this building.

Engineers for both Hawk Lou – the building owner – and the Department of Building Inspection have examined the building three times since the fire. In a report dated February 18, the city’s engineers affirmed the opinion of a private engineering company that the site’s fractured structure, sagging under the load of sodden debris, poses a hazard, and indicated it might have been possible to repair the building if this decay had been prevented.

“The initial report last January looked only at the extent of fire damage. It did not anticipate the building would be left in the same state for a year,” the report noted.

Now, the engineers wrote, there is little material left to save. Mold and a structure weakened by water damage pose a hazard to any work crews that would be tasked with making repairs.

“I have no idea why, after this building has sat over a year, why all of the sudden a 72-hour notice is an issue,” said Gordon Kaupp, an attorney representing one of the displaced tenants in a civil suit against Lou. “If it was so imperative, why wasn’t it issued before?”

Kaupp also voiced concern that demolition of the building would destroy any remaining evidence that could be used in the five civil cases against Lou.

“I am very upset that the owner of this building has allowed things to get to this point,” Campos said. “The expectation from  the very beginning has been that they’re going to move to fix the building as quickly as possible, so that the residents of this building could move back in, and clearly that hasn’t happened.”

Campos said his office has been trying to find some alternative legal solution for the tenants since he first got word of the demolition, but did not give specific details about what those options might be beyond the possibility of introducing local legislation.

“Unfortunately, it is … because of state law, and there’s only so much we can do,” he said. “But we are going to do everything we can. If we can pass a law to guarantee that locally, we will.”

Lou was ordered by the city on Friday to start the process of demolition within 72 hours. If he ignores the order, the city will take over the demolition and charge him for the work.

According to the Department of Building Inspection, Lou filed applications to repair the third and fourth floors of the building, but they were never approved because necessary information was not provided.

Lou’s attorney did not immediately return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Department of Building Inspection said the department has been in touch with Lou’s legal counsel and believes the landlord will comply with the order. But according to tenants’ rights attorney Scott Weaver, ignoring orders like these rarely meets with severe repercussions.

Matt Dorsey of the City Attorney’s Office would not specifically comment on what enforcement measures could be taken against Lou if he fails to comply.

“We’re working closely with our client department and the property owner’s legal counsel to ensure full and prompt compliance with the order,” Dorsey wrote in an email. “Right now, we have no reason to expect non-compliance. So, I’m disinclined to speculate about our further enforcement options – other than to acknowledge that the City Attorney has enforcement options available to him should they become necessary.”

According to fire investigators, the source of the fire was an electrical short inside a third-floor wall. The blaze completely destroyed the third floor, and the remainder of the building was severely damaged by water, leaving it uninhabitable. Many of the displaced tenants, both residential and commercial, have found temporary refuge but are still struggling with the aftermath of the blaze.

“I’m really sorry that they are in this predicament,” Campos said. “It’s unfair, it’s unjust, and we are trying to see what we can do locally, legally, to address that.”

Joe Rivano Barros contributed reporting to this story.

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  1. Unfortunately for the poor devil who died in this fire this has been a tragic tale of neglect.

  2. It’s incredibly naive to think that reconstruction would start within a year. In SF, community meetings, planning, and permitting process typically take 3-6 years. Everyone wants to have a voice, so this is the process we have.

    In this case, you also have the owner, insurance company, fire safety company, and tenants all suing each other so even if the permits were magically issued today, the MONEY to rebuild will probably not arrive for another year or two.

    In yet another perverse unintended consequence of rent control, we have set up a system that incentivizes owners to do no maintenance on their buildings and then when something tragic like this happens, literally let the building decay. My heart goes out to the tenants, but you’re better off closing this chapter and moving forward.

    1. It is unlikely that reconstruction could have begun in a year, but the owner could have taken steps to remove debris and protect the building from further decay. There would have been no issue in getting the permits for that. But, you are correct that current system provides absolutely no incentive for the owner to take such an action. I am sure he is eager to begin demolition in 72 hours.

  3. This is precisely the point of my issue with Ed Lee’s smoke and mirrors Affordable Housing initiative. All of these millions are being funneled into the acquisition of buildings in our city for the purpose of rebuilding larger buildings with a certain percentage guaranteed to be offered at the rates of the city’s new brand of affordable housing, and while supposedly those of us in rent controlled buildings are safe from purchase and the eventual boot, we all know that every 4+ unit Edwardian and other pre-1970 architecture is being analyzed and targeted for this new urban densification/gentrification.

  4. This is awful. Every day for the past year I have walked past that building knowing that it was rotting. What can be done to ensure that property owners do not sit by and let a building become beyond saving? The owner let it become a dangerous public nuisance and can now build what will surely become an ugly market rate monster.
    There should be time limitations to require swift rehabilitation.

  5. It’s very disappointing that David Campos was not actively engaged in this from the beginning. He has the education and resumé–and the responsibility–to foresee what might happen at this site. He should have been working on this, looking for equitable outcomes, from the day after the fire, rather than being taken by surprise and looking for answers after this time has passed.
    #DoYourJob #NotDoingYourJob

    1. My office and I have been working diligently on this since the fire happened. We have spent countless hours to find housing for every displaced tenant and have been working with the Dept of Bldg Insp (DBI) and Fire Dept on having a thorough investigation of the fire; and to make sure that the City pushes the owner to fix the building as soon as possible. We have been having regular meetings with DBI since the fire. We even passed legislation on fire prevention and actually created a city task force to more effectively deal with such tragic incidents. This whole time, not once, did DBI even raise the possibility of demolition. As soon as we learned of even the possibility, we convened DBI and the City Attorney’s Office to figure out options. We will continue to do everything we can for these tenants. Thank you.

      1. “I am very upset that the owner of this building has allowed things to get to this point,” Campos said. “The expectation from the very beginning has been that they’re going to move to fix the building as quickly as possible so that the residents of this building could move back in, and clearly that hasn’t happened.”
        Read the comment that follows your reply to me. I do not know Amy Fairweather, but she wrote, “Every day for the past year I have walked past that building knowing that it was rotting.”
        It was your job to know, David. It was your job to envision what might become of this building. It was your job to assume that a large building totally exposed to the elements would rapidly deteriorate. Assuming that the owners would rebuild (WHY would you have assumed that?) was naive, even if they told you they planned to rebuild.
        I don’t know if the owners should rebuild. I don’t know them or anything about their financial situation. What I do know is that you should have foreseen the possibility and should have been actively engaged in figuring out the best outcome for the most people. “Scrambling” for answers over a year later is clearly not enough. Relying on DBI to take care of your constituents? SRSLY? Because they have such a great track record of protecting individual rights?
        You want to house people at below market rates. Propose legislation to subsidize BMR housing from the General Fund. Propose legislation to require that Certificates of Occupancy be issued for below market units (on-site, off-site or from the fund) BEFORE BEFORE BEFORE Certificates of Occupancy can be issued for the associated market rate housing. Easy.

      2. I filed a public records request with Campos today for emails and letters he may have sent or received btwn his office and the DBI and the SF fire department, and anything related to helping the former tenants find affordable housing in the City. I want proof about this alleged regular meetings with the DBI folks. Let’s see what records Campos releases.

  6. YAY! Tear it down and please please please put up something 100% market rate. This is a huge opportunity to do what’s right — follow the market — and improve the filth that is our neighborhood.

    (A boy can dream …)

  7. I feel bad for the tenants, too. But if the building is truly dangerous, what else can be done but to demolish it? Also…you’re opposed to the renovation and revitalization of the historic New Mission theater? Why?

    1. But it is the city’s negligence in enforcing its laws to see that the owner took care of the place (with the assets, material & not, of his tenants still contained) that now renders the building allegedly unsafe.

      That, however, is a declaration made by inspectors of the city’s & the owner’s – both of whom stand to gain significantly from demolition.

      I’m sure lawyers & insurance companies paid for inspections too – which would seem to be why the city issued its order on a Friday, to be carried out any time before Monday at the same hour.

  8. I feel so bad for all the displaced tenants and the character of the mission as well. I don’t know exactly how long that building stood but I have seen photos of it from the early 20’s. I am sure the new building will fit in with Vida and the new New Mission theater and all the other new construction in The Mission as apposed to the way the Mission always was. First they remove the people then the actual buildings until nothing of The Mission i grew up in remains. I was born (1960) and raised in The Mission and I don’t even recognize it any more. Just so very sad.

    1. Are you kidding me?

      Cities live and change. Either we go with it or we end up irrelevant to the world. (And we all lose.)

      1. Any logical thinker in this market ought to be reading here, Paul, that the city prioritizes such civic churn over the lives of the 60-some who lived in that building & the many businesses that existed there. And so all now should know that this is part of the deal they pay for in SF. When a tragedy befalls you, your city will ask “how can we make a buck?”

        And you, Paul, have declared that you prioritize the perception of outsiders over your neighbors (or maybe just your neighbors over the line of what you, Paul, perceive as “filthy”).

        Of course, a city’s treatment of its denizens as a whole & its treatment of its less fortunate also might color an outsider’s perception of a city. It certainly should.

  9. The City had a civic function to perform here – to work toward protecting its denizens harmed in this calamity by speeding the rehabilitation of the building & seeing that the owner’s action took care of San Franciscans whose lives were cast asunder.

    The City instead permitted the decay to occur that it now claims as the reason for demolition. And make no mistake, the City knew of the likelihood of the owner dragging feet in the aftermath – I spoke to a city official the morning after the fire who discussed that action as a common one the City would need to actively counter.

    Of course, the City stands to line its coffers with new tax revenues in a new building, so it’s not like the City was a neutral arbiter here.

    And so, San Franciscans, with this action, slipped out on a Friday to be completed anytime before the same hour Monday, the City has declared its intentions via a via each of you – the price of your life is laid out on a scale before you right here.

    And I ask you which is worse, the tweets of a unthoughtful 20-something without the regard to see his own lucky streak, or the considered & measured actions of a government who chooses the money & social churn over actual individuals it is there to serve?

  10. Damn, if only Campos in his 17 years at City Hall as a deputy city attorney and member of the police commission and seven years on the Board of Supes had leaned how to acquire and wield power, he might have more to offer the displaced residents more than “I’m really sorry.”

    So many of the Mission’s problems were allowed to fester, unaddressed by Campos as Supe and become crises – evictions, google buses, rapid rent rise for small biz owners – and now his right-hand aide HIllary Ronan wants to replace him.

    Please, Mission voters, no third Campos term. Let Hillary carpetbag another elected position.

  11. It was a nice building with character. Soon to be replaced, I’m sure, by an ugly yuppie monstrosity in the mold of Vida down the street, with no affordable units.

    1. The building was left open to the elements on purpose. The owners KNEW that a year exposed to weather would render repairs impossible. I’d be surprised if rents for a one bedroom in the new building were less than $3,000 a month! Soon, Mission between 14th & 29th will be wall to wall 4 story residential housing with tech bus stops every three blocks.