Photo by Laura Waxmann

Mission Supervisor David Campos introduced amendments to the city’s fire, building and housing codes on Thursday morning that he said could not only help prevent fires, but ensure that low-income tenants aren’t permanently displaced by them.

Campos’s proposal would mandate that landlords prove that their annual inspections of fire alarms are up to date and that records are made publically available.

“The key here is to empower the public so they know what’s happening in these buildings,” said Campos, addressing a small crowd of tenants displaced by fire and their advocates during a City Hall press conference.

Following a string of fires in recent years that have displaced some 194 people and killed three more in the Mission District alone, Campos pushed the city to form a task force in 2015 to prioritize and address urgent fire safety concerns.

The proposals announced Thursday are drawn from the task force’s recommendations.

Currently, the city’s Fire Code requires building owners to have fire alarm systems maintained, inspected and tested annually.

Tenant advocates present at the press conference cheered for an amendment to the Building Code that would require landlords of fire-damaged buildings with three or more units to put together an “action plan” laying out information for displaced tenants wishing to retrieve their belongings and eventually return to their homes.

This plan would include a detailed a timeline for building repairs to give tenants a sense of when they could count on moving back to their restored units.

“I’ve seen cases where tenants have minimal damage to their property, only to lose everything because their unit was not secured after a fire,” said Lucas Solorzano, a counselor with the tenants rights clinic Causa Justa.  “Folks were left high and dry because systems weren’t properly developed.”

Under this action plan, landlords will have 72 hours after the posting of a Notice of Violation to notify the department of building inspectors of the steps taken to secure their tenants’ personal property.

The current lack of such a mandate has further exacerbated the chaos and loss experienced by survivors in the wake of two major Mission fires. Nancy Lopez, an 81-year-old resident displaced from the fire-damaged Graywood SRO Hotel at Mission and 29th streets, reported last week that looters had entered the building and stolen her jewelry and other personal items because the hotel had not been properly secured.

Looting was also reported after a four-alarm fire a on 22nd and Mission streets displaced some 60 people and killed one resident in January 2015.

The amendments also include higher standards in ensuring that fire alarms work and that tenants are given access to and knowledge of fire alarms in their buildings.

“People should be able to hear alarms when they go off, but right now, many alarm systems are in the hallways and common areas,” said Jamie Sanbonmatsu, a senior inspector with the Department of Building Inspections, one of the agencies on the task force. “This is going to make sure that you can hear it in your bedroom, and that will save lives.”

The  amendments require landlords with placing fire blocks in attics more than 30 inches in height to prevent the spread of fire from one building to another.

“I’ve seen a whole lot of tenants come in whose buildings have been burned, and they have a whole lot of questions,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of counseling program with the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee.

Avicolli Mecca said that while current law provides tenants with the right to return to their rent-controlled units once restorations have been made, he often finds himself unable to answer more immediate questions such as when the displaced tenants will be allowed to enter their buildings to salvage their belongings, or how long repairs will take.

“When you go through the trauma of a fire, that’s bad enough. But to have to experience the trauma of not knowing what’s going to happen, it’s just not fair,” he said.

Diana Flores, a housing counselor with Causa Justa, called the lack of information provided by landlords to tenants displaced by fire a “communication gap” that Campos’ legislation would help to bridge.

Campos said that the action plan would keep “the right level of pressure” on property owners to move them to make the needed repairs quickly, and also tasked DBI with “re-inspecting” buildings with pending Notices of Violation every 90 days until the issues are addressed.

The amendments were heard at the Government Audit and Oversight Committee Thursday morning and will move in front of the full Board of Supervisors next Tuesday.
On that date, Campos said he plans to introduce a “legislative package” that includes asking the city legislative analyst to “conduct a report” looking into the feasibility of increasing the use of fire sprinkler systems.

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  1. I don’t understand why sprinklers aren’t in the legislation. If the cost seems prohibitive, surely the city could create a fund for lending landlords the money to install.

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  2. This is an shitty situation that I believe stems from rent control. One question about this legislation. If landlords need to replace the fire safety system, would they be allowed to raise rents in rent controlled buildings to offset this cost?

    If the landlord is not allowed to raise rents to market rates, they also cannot afford to make repairs to bring the building up to market codes. Rent control always looks great in the short term. Typical of most liberal policies. They are good in the short term and then 10 or 20 years later it all starts to unravel as they don’t think about the long term consequences when making policies.

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