From Roger Kallerud’s fourth-story window at 87 Dolores Street, he had a glorious view of the rest of the Mission — rain, shine or ablaze. “You could see the fires throughout the Mission all the time,” he recalls.
At around 4:30 p.m. on April 15, 2014, Kallerud noticed thick, black smoke outside his window. Except, disturbingly, it was actually billowing downward. He put on his shoes, grabbed his phone, and walked up the stairs to the roof of his six-story apartment building. Which was on fire.
He pulled the alarm and ran like hell.
Not long thereafter, Bharathwajan Iyengar received a text message at work from his wife: Their apartment building was on fire. “I took this to be a joke,” he says. But it wasn’t, and she wanted him to get there, ASAP.
He needn’t have bothered. Iyengar is a trained structural engineer, and one look at a Twitter live-feed from a helicopter hovering over the blaze told him all he needed to know: this was serious, and his presence on-scene could accomplish nothing.
But Iyengar is a smart man; he did what his wife told him to do.
Kallerud, Iyengar and dozens of others huddled outside the building. Day turned to night as firefighters drenched the roof; the water cascaded throughout the architecturally significant 1928-era building, and the soot and filth wafted into residents’ open windows.
That was four years, eight months, and nine days ago. And, only this week will the displaced residents begin moving back in. Perhaps half of the building’s original residents couldn’t stick it out in this city’s brutal rental market and won’t be returning. At least one has died.
And yet, when it comes to fires in the Mission, the tenants at 87 Dolores can consider themselves lucky. Four years, eight months, and nine days is a long time to wait to go home.
But it’s less time than forever.
The first thing to happen after the fire was nothing. And nothing happened for a long time. For more than a year, the gorgeous, ivory-colored six-story building was boarded up, thanks to a holdup in payment from the building owner’s insurance company. Permits couldn’t even be obtained. Let alone actual work being done.
San Francisco is a place that purports to venerate mom-n-pop entities — stores, businesses, landlords. But in this case, the tenants of 87 Dolores were actually harmed by the fact that their landlord, Ray Guaraglia, is a small-time independent.
“He’s a working-class man. A sheet-rocker his entire life,” says Janan New, the executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association. “This building is his only asset.”
Your humble narrator’s calls to Guaraglia’s lawyers have not been returned. New served as his intermediary, even in his interactions with the city.
For all the negatives of living in a building owned by a massive corporation, massive corporations tend to have cash on hand. Unless done so intentionally in hopes of shedding rent-controlled tenants, it wouldn’t have taken a massive corporate landlord more than a year to even begin scoping out work on this building. But that’s what happened here. And, in that time, the situation festered. Rather literally.
“What wasn’t lost on me, since the waterproofing on the roof is made of asphalt, that leaves a lot of smoke and soot and there was a lot of smoke damage,” said Iyengar, the structural engineer and displaced tenant. “And water damage is what far exceeds fire damage in any partial fire.”
For more than a year, this toxic mixture sat and fermented within the aging building. Iyengar hired professionals to do what, in the business, is known as a “dirty pack-out.” When he next visited his home, he did so in a hazmat suit.
Almost exactly two years to the day after the fire, nine frustrated tenants sued Guaraglia, claiming, among other charges, that he failed to install and maintain fire suppression and prevention systems in the building and failed to enforce the ban on smoking on the building’s roof (a smoldering cigarette is believed to be the cause of the fire). That case settled last year and the tenants are forbidden to discuss the terms.
But wait, there’s more. A lack of coordination with PG&E, the building owner, and the contractors “stretched things out another year,” says the Apartment Association’s New.
It wasn’t until November of this year that letters with move-in dates and acceptance deadlines arrived. Of the 50-odd residents in the 30-unit, rent-controlled building, only around 12 people have been showing up to meetings organized by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. There are, currently, Craigslist ads for at least three apartments in the building.
If half of the old tenants move back in, it would come as a surprise to everyone involved. And, sadly, when it comes to fires in the Mission, 50 percent is actually not a bad return rate at all.
Four years, eight months, and nine days is a long time. A long time to fix this level of structural damage. A long time for renters to fend for themselves. When asked how to prevent the next burned-out tenants from waiting so long, nobody in the city had a comprehensive answer.
Tenants like Kallerud and Iyengar vouched for obtaining rental insurance — which paid for their temporary lodgings, paid the difference between their previous rent and the rent at long-term apartments, and also assumed moving costs, which could have run into the thousands. They also benefited from heavy city involvement, especially from the offices of Supervisors Scott Wiener and Rafael Mandelman.
Beyond that, however, the best thing to do is proactively keep fires from happening. Mandelman gave a shout-out to legislation from former Supervisor David Campos that requires greater scrutiny over safety conditions and mandates landlords to present displaced tenants with a timeline for repairs. The Castro supe also pointed to an ordinance from Supervisor Hillary Ronen, which allows fire inspectors to demand landlords install or improve sprinklers or fire safety systems.
In the four years, eight months, and nine days since 87 Dolores burned, many more structures in the Mission have also gone up in flames. That’s why we have that legislation from Campos and Ronen. What a view Kallerud would’ve had from his window.
And now he’ll have it again, along with his rent-controlled monthly payments at 2004 rates. “I am fortunate,” he says.
Damn right. San Francisco is a city that has, on several occasions, risen up from its own ashes. Individual tenants, however, rarely do.