Uncertainty Lingers for Mission Fire Victims as City Aid Runs Out

Gabriel Medina, policy director at the Mission Economic Development Agency, proposes housing solutions for tenants displaced by two major Mission fires. Photo by Laura Waxmann

Tenants displaced by two major Mission fires gathered at the Brava Theater on Saturday for a holiday dinner, sponsored by community donations, and to discuss new housing solutions. Many of the low-income tenants and families suffered devastating losses after the fires, and most are still in need of permanent housing – some of them urgently so.

Over a warm buffet and tamales, with a volunteer santa handing out donated gifts to affected children, the fire victims voiced frustrations over their housing insecurity and the lack of progress in the reconstruction of their burned buildings. The Mission Economic Development Agency, which has counseled many of the victims on their needs, led the discussion.

With the two year-anniversary of the 22nd and Mission fire coming up next month, some “60 people will lose their temporary housing,” said MEDA’s policy manager, Gabriel Medina.

Most of those displaced by that fire, and some of the tenants displaced by the 29th and Mission fire, were housed using the city’s Good Samaritan law, which allows landlords to offer displaced tenants temporary housing at reduced rates without committing to rent-control leases in the long term, said Medina.  

But the program caps after a 24-month period, after which the displaced tenants will have to seek new living arrangements.

“The laws that give you temporary housing, like Good Samaritan, only last two years and the rental subsidies will run out of money,” said Medina, addressing the fire victims. “So for the 22nd and  Mission fire people, many will lose their temporary housing, and the 29th and Mission people will lose it a year after that.”

Survivors of both fires say they haven’t necessarily found stability.

“I’m still so lost,” said Stephanie Wilson, a tenant displaced from the Graywood Hotel at 3308 Mission St. by the the 29th and Mission fire.

Now, Wilson said she has found temporary housing through NOVA, a violence prevention and reentry program, but that her six month lease at the 16th and Mission Street SRO where she has been placed will be ending next month.

Wilson said she will have to look for another place to stay as she awaits indefinitely the reconstruction of the Graywood – adding that she hasn’t heard anything from the hotel’s owner.

“I might be homeless in a minute if don’t find something else,” she said.

The lives of those displaced by the 22nd and Mission Street fire are similarly up in the air. The building was ordered demolished in February, and although its residents maintain their right to return at the same affordable rents, a lack of progress in the building’s reconstruction had many questioning whether this was still an option for them.

“With all the gentrification that’s going on, is there reassurance that they will rebuild our apartment? And that people can return?” a tenant from that building wanted to know.

Insurance company disputes have stalled reconstruction of that building, said Peter Papadopoulos, a playwright and housing right activist.

“It’s common for insurance companies to take a considerable amount of time to pay out. Landlords, if they are a single party, often can’t afford to build until they get a pay out,” he said.

Papadopoulos added that buildings damaged in both blazes will unlikely be rebuilt within 24 months, and that extending the tenants’ access to emergency housing assistance is crucial.  “Some of them are running out of time – 22nd Street hasn’t even started [reconstruction].”

Wilfredo Gil and his family are among the tenants displaced from 22nd and Mission streets and has since been placed in temporary housing at Treasure Island. Gil said that he is paying $1,200 under the Good Samaritan program but that his lease is almost up.

He wondered if his landlord will raise their rent to market rate, and if so, where he and his family will go next.

“In the future I don’t know how much we will have to pay – right now it’s really hard to get a place. It’s been stressful,” he said.

Solutions proposed by the agency included advocating for legislation to extend the length of these programs to allow the fire victims to stay in replacement housing for longer than the currently set limit of 24 months, as well as allowing tenants to move on to new emergency housing programs created earlier this year.

The agency also proposed incentives to encourage landlords to rebuild their burned properties faster, such as tax breaks or fines, so that their tenants could exercise their legal right to return.  

Other solutions on the table included a short-term voucher program to hotels and SROs, to prevent homelessness among the fire victims should they lose their temporary housing. Three tenants displaced by the 29th and Mission fire found themselves homeless, and one remains on the streets.

The agency also entertained the idea of creating a one-stop-shop for services for the fire victims, who are currently forced to interact with various agencies for resources.

“We as nonprofit workers in the Mission could organize better,” said Tim Hoang, of the Mission SRO collaborative, which has worked with the agency and other housing rights organizations to accommodate the fire victims. “There are a lot of nonprofits [here], we all do different things working towards the same goal.”

Making those services more easily accessible and navigable is key in helping disaster victims get back on their feet.

“For low income-residents, their life is in crisis in multiple ways. They can’t always turn up the way you want them to,” said Hoang.

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