Tenants Return to Fire Scene With A Sense that ‘Everything is Gone’

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Tears, confusion, and one grandmother’s joyful laughter after being reunited with her cat were among the array of emotions expressed by tenants of the Graywood Hotel on Wednesday as they returned to their homes for the first time after a five-alarm fire last weekend.

When it was her turn to enter, Stephanie Williams took a deep breath and wiped tears from her cheeks.

“I can’t cry no more,” said Williams, who has been staying at a Salvation Army shelter on Valencia Street for the 58 displaced tenants. “I’m really heartbroken.”

Homeless for some three years, Williams had not even lived at the SRO a full 35 days before the fire hit and claimed most of her property.

After some time, Williams emerged clutching a green wallet in one hand and a half empty trash bag in the other. “Everything is gone,” she said.

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Williams was one of those who lined up at 8:30 a.m. behind metal barriers cordoning off the charred SRO and the skeletons of two other buildings on Mission Street. Given roughly 30 minutes to sweep their belongings into plastic trash bags, many wondered how and when to retrieve bigger items like furniture and electronics that may still be intact.

While many rooms to the north side of the two-story SRO, along 29th Street, sustained mainly water damage, Williams said her room was among those that “got burned badly.”

The Graywood Hotel, a single-room occupancy hotel at 3308 Mission St. that housed largely low-income tenants, sustained severe water and fire damage to its roof and back-wall in Saturday’s blaze.

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Two neighboring buildings will be completely demolished and tenants of those buildings returned on Monday morning to salvage their belongings.  

The Graywood, however, was released to its landlord, Dipak Patel, late Sunday evening but was not deemed structurally sound by the city until Tuesday.Patel is a member of the limited liability company, 3300-3308 Mission Street LLC, that owns the building.

Contractors were on site Monday awaiting the green light to begin reconstruction on the Graywood Hotel, but an assessment by the Health Department for toxins like lead and asbestos was still outstanding.

It could be “a long time” before tenants are able to return to their old units, said Patel, though they will maintain their old rents.

“We jumped in as quickly as we could and tried to be the overall landlord to make sure people have access,” he said. “Nobody is going to be operating a business or [living] in this building for quite a bit of time.”

Still, seeing a few rooms that were largely spared by the fire gave Williams “hope” as she climbed over debris in the SRO’s charred stairway. “Until I got upstairs and saw nothing but soot and ashes.”

Williams, like many others who ascended the Graywood’s narrow staircase facing Mission Street that morning, is still without a place to live.

“I’m going to see my case manager after this,” she said, but added that she would return to the shelter to sleep. “I have nowhere to go.”

Cat Found Safe

One of the last to arrive at the SRO where she lived since 1995, Nancy Lopez may likely have received the only good news that morning: Her cat, Kitty Babe, was found alive in Lopez’ room where she had been left behind when her owner was rushed out of the burning building on Saturday.

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

“They found Kitty Babe,” announced Lopez’s granddaughter, Nola Medina, from inside the stairway after inspecting her grandmother’s room.

On Saturday, Lopez told Mission Local that her cat was her biggest concern. She even attempted to re-enter the burning building to save her pet.

With Kitty Babe safe, the 81-year-old shrugged her shoulders when asked about what’s next for her. Though returning to the shelter for the night, she said it could only house her for a few days longer.

“I’m hoping I can find either a senior citizen place or…well, that’s about it. I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Lopez, adding that her stay at the Graywood Hotel had been mostly “pleasant.”

“I am going to miss it,” she said.

Although Patel was there, most of the tenants were confused about whether they could return again.

“They aren’t giving me no type of contact information on how I can get the rest of my stuff back that’s in there, and what’s going to happen after today,” said Kimberley Walley, a five-year resident of the Graywood. Walley expressed concerns for a brand new refrigerator that she and her fiance were unable to remove from their room.

“If we can go back, by appointment or whatever, they haven’t told us that,” she said, adding that she was unsure of “who is running things” in the first place.

A favorite toy. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

A favorite toy. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Because the SRO is managed by a private company, most of the tenants did not know Patel was their landlord — despite the fact that he was on scene when they were retrieving their belongings.

Some residents hoped to cancel their leases and find out whether they would be compensated by the property management company, but said attempts to contact them were in vain.

The property manager onsite initially refused to give his name to one SRO tenant who had only lived there for a week and wished to remain anonymous, referring him instead to the management company.

“I think the managers have as much info as we do,” said the displaced tenant. “Nothing.”

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

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