In a small meeting among city agency directors and Mission neighborhood community leaders, department heads expressed hope for improving fire prevention and post-fire city response with the aid of recently approved legislation and funding.
One key piece of legislation is a requirement that landlords of properties damaged by fires provide the city with an “action plan” after the fire. In it they are required to define how and when they intend to give displaced tenants access to their units, what repairs need to be made and when tenants may exercise their right to return to their units. These requirements go into effect in September.
“The new Campos legislation is taking a giant leap forward,” said Chief Housing Inspector Rosemary Bosque. “It opens the door to a lot of possibilities.”
Chief Housing Inspector Rosemary Bosque said that the legislation doesn’t explicitly prohibit the new rules from being applied retroactively to properties damaged before the legislation was enacted. Bosque said that previously damaged buildings could be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to see if new notices of violation from the Building Inspection Department are warranted, which could come with the application of the new requirements for landlord action.
Roberto Hernandez, a neighborhood activist, emphasized his frustration with the city’s inability to get Hawk Lou, the landlord of a severely fire damaged building at Mission and 22nd streets, to comply with city orders to pull permits for reconstruction or accept a nonprofit’s offers to buy the property. The building decayed for more than a year and after being destroyed in a January 2013 fire, suffered two subsequent fires a before a partial demolition order was issued in February.
Bosque called the Mission and 22nd building the “poster child” for what the city wants to prevent in the future.
Hernandez also pointed to a history of code violations there, and reports that some safety problems existed the day of the fire – fire escape ladders that failed to extend, locked doors – saying that laws are useless without proper enforcement.
“It does no good to have legislation and codes if you’re not enforcing them,” he said.
The Fire Department is rolling out a code enforcement process modeled after that already in place at the Department of Building Inspections. The Fire Department’s revamping of its code enforcement process is mandated by legislation introduced by supervisor Scott Wiener. Previously, violations noted by the fire department did not have clear deadlines for corrections or administrative hearings.
In the new framework, Fire Marshal Dan DeCossio said, verified complaints will lead to notices of violation. If unabated within a certain timeframe, a hearing will be held. If the hearing fails to produce a resolution, the cases will be referred to the City Attorney’s office, which can take legal action.
New legislation also requires landlords to post information clearly in residential rental buildings so that tenants are more informed about what constitutes a violation – something Bosque said might embolden tenants to reach out to the city if they see something potentially hazardous.
Officials and organizers at the meeting also touched on the problem of aging infrastructure and housing stock in a time of exceptionally high housing prices, which lead to overcrowding. Dilapidated electrical systems and a lack of sprinklers in particular stood out as potential prevention areas. Several major fires in the Mission, including that at Mission and 22nd streets, were found in fire investigations to have likely originated from an electrical fault.
Fire officials also lauded the idea of requiring sprinklers in residential buildings, citing the improved safety of SROs since the city mandated that the residential hotels be outfitted with sprinkler systems. Most recently, the Graywood Hotel was spared demolition-level damage from the June 18th fire on Mission and 29th streets, which officials attributed to the hotel’s sprinkler system.
Supervisor David Campos’ office is reportedly working on legislation that would require sprinkler retrofits of some kind. However, a fire safety task force in November stopped short of recommending that the city require landlords to retrofit their buildings with sprinklers, saying the cost of these systems, which could be passed on to tenants, was high enough that it could result in tenants being priced out.
Building Inspection Commissioner Debra Walker said one of the city’s next tasks should be to find funding sources to improve the fire safety of older buildings to truly prevent fires at the source.
“We need to commit to the older buildings…because that’s our affordable housing,” she said.
City officials asked of Mission organizers at the meeting that they report back on the best ways to effectively reach the community with information, and Hayes-White expressed interest in having an informal meeting in the Mission to discuss fire safety with residents.