Mission District Fire Victims Moved to Housing But Distraught by Process

Tenants returning to their buildings last week to retrieve belongings after the five-alarm fire at 29th and Missino streets on June 18. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

All of the displaced victims who sought city housing in the aftermath of a massive Mission District fire in mid-June were placed in temporary housing as of Tuesday, according to the city.

But despite the city aid, many fire victims said they felt confused and abandoned by city workers who dealt with them after the fire.

“We are all confused, wondering what’s next for us,” said Cristel Guitierrez, who lived in the Graywood Hotel, a single-room occupancy hotel above the 3300 Club. “I think I’m on my own. They haven’t told us what our options are.”

On June 18, a five-alarm fire ripped through the corner of 29th and Mission streets and destroyed six buildings, displacing 58 residents and destroying several businesses. About half have sought shelter through the city, while others have found accommodations on their own.

Ben Amyes, a disaster response manager with the city’s Human Services Agency, said on Tuesday that some 30 people that sought accommodation through the city had been provided with housing. All were moved from their Salvation Army shelter on Tuesday and given hotel rooms through July 5, when they will move to temporary housing.

After that, tenants will wait until the fire-damaged buildings on the corner of 29th and Mission streets are repaired, which could take about a year.

“The estimate I’m working on is 6–12 months,” said Amyes, adding that he had budgeted resources to keep everyone in place for at least a year.

Most of the displaced were residents of the Graywood Hotel, and all of the 18 tenants there who sought help from the city will be moved into another SRO until the Graywood is rebuilt. The city will pay the difference between their new and old rents.

The three families who lived in apartments on that corner will be housed through the city’s Good Samaritan Program, which relies on private landlords to house tenants at no more than 10 percent more than their old rent for up to two years. Some 12 people will be housed through the program.

“Our policy is to place people in like housing,” said Amyes. “So if you were in an SRO, we’re gonna find an SRO, and if you were in a two-bedroom, you’re gonna be in a two-bedroom.”

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Confusion Abounds

Those assurances aside, there was ample confusion on Tuesday when families had their last meal at the shelter. Tenants had been staying there since the fire on June 18, placed there immediately after and promised by Supervisor David Campos’s office that they would be helped with housing.

“On Friday [city workers] said they won’t leave us, that we are not by ourselves,” said Gutierrez. “Even David Campos promised that. But yesterday they said the opposite.”

Gutierrez said that on Tuesday night, a worker from the Human Services Agency told those staying at a Salvation Army shelter on Valencia Street that they had housing until July 5 and “after that we are basically by ourselves.” 

Many of the displaced have neither the time nor energy to look for housing, she said, and have lost documents in the fire. Navigating the bureaucratic housing process has been daunting, she said, and made worse by the lack of guidance.

“They told us find your own spot and we will help you pay for it, but that’s just not easy to do,” said Kimberly Walley, who also lived at the Graywood Hotel with her partner. 

Walley, who was homeless for some twelve years in San Francisco and had a stint in jail, was worried about being thrown out on the streets because of past problems with drugs. She didn’t know how she would find housing, and said city workers were not forthcoming about next steps.

“They’re paying for our stay in the Oasis, but I guess after that I’m on my own. It’s crazy,” she said, weeping. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

At a meeting with between fire victims and the city on Wednesday, Gutierrez said she went into Supervisor Campos’s office to complain about the confusion. An aide there called the Human Services Agency and said there had been a “misunderstanding” and that all tenants would be housed as Amyes said.

Gutierrez was relieved, she said, and assured that her housing needs would be taken care of. But she said the process had been confusing throughout and was still unsure what exactly would happen on July 5 when her hotel stay was over. 

Diego Vasquez, a 15-year-old resident of the burnt-out units above the Bernal Heights Collective cannabis dispensary, said his family felt “the city hasn’t helped us at all” following the fire.

He had particular reservations about the mayor’s visit to the families the day of the fire.

“We didn’t feel really welcomed with him, he only really got there and talked to the media right away,” he said. “He didn’t tell the family anything. You want a couple words to comfort you, but he was just really there to talk to the media.”

Vasquez, his sister, an uncle, and his parents have been placed in an apartment on 29th and Mission near their old home. The rent’s the same — $1,600 a month, Vasquez said — but for about half the space: their old unit was a four bedroom with two bathrooms and a kitchen, and their new one is just two bedrooms, one bathroom, and “a little kitchen,” he said.

Old Units Demolished

Still, others may be unable to return to their old units at all.

Luis Herrerra, who lived with his wife and three children above Cole Hardware, said that earlier meetings with Amyes and the city were filled with assurances. After Tuesday’s meeting with representatives from the Human Services Agency, he said “it feels like nothing’s for sure.”

“He said very clearly, ‘Nobody is going to sleep on the street or in their cars.’ He said that clearly. And yesterday, [they] said that after this next hotel, after June 5, we are on our own,” Herrera said.

Herrera is unsure whether he will be able to return to his old unit once repairs occur. The fire originated in the back of Cole Hardware, underneath his unit, and the building will have to be demolished, meaning tenants will not be able to return. Herrera is worried his $1,500 rent will be wiped out and he will be stuck looking for something for $3,000 or more.

“We are not going to be able to pay that much money,” he said. “Everything is expensive here.

The owner of the building that housed Cole Hardware could not be reached for comment on his plans for the building site or its former tenants.

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Stephanie Wilson outside her burn building. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Stephanie Wilson outside her burnt building. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Other residents are hoping to get into affordable housing. Stephanie Wilson, who lived at the Graywood Hotel, said she is trying to enter the city lottery. A new law introduced just yesterday would give fire victims priority for the lottery, though it is unclear whether that would apply to Wilson and other victims of the recent fire.

Winning an affordable housing unit, she said, would “turn my whole world around.”

“I would get more kittens, mine didn’t make it,” she said. “Black Ball and Snowball, they were four weeks old.”

At least two families may be housed through the non-profit Mission Housing Development Corporation, an affordable housing developer that owns some 1,600 units city-wide. 

Sam Moss, its executive director, said he is hoping to place those families into units in the organizations “small sites” portfolio, which consists of some 70 units in smaller buildings. Moss said he hopes to use the Good Samaritan Program to house families in the non-profit’s private housing stock.

“We’re hoping to be able to place at least two families in vacant units,” he said, naming a building on 15th Street for one of the families.

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One Comment

  1. Bob Evans

    give us, give us , give us…….

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