By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Two months later, on Feb. 12, the Hartland residential hotel on Geary at Larkin caught fire, burning 150 people out of their homes. The case is under investigation as possible arson.
Then on March 1, the Park Hotel at Sutter and Grant went up in smoke, displacing another 100 tenants. The cause of the fire, which began in an air well, remains undetermined.
The Park fire marked the seventh major residential hotel blaze in less than two years. With each new fire, the media buzz grew. Images of displaced tenants were splashed across the newspapers. Outraged that the city hadn't moved fast enough to find housing for those tenants, low-income housing advocates joined with Supervisor Tom Ammiano and several city departments to spearhead a comprehensive fire prevention and response plan. A task force was formed; it would draft legislation that advocates hoped would resolve a situation they deemed a "slow-motion emergency."
SRO Fire Task Force
Mayor Brown and Supervisor Ammiano press release announcing emergency response plan for single room occupancy hotel fires
San Francisco Department of Health Press Release
City Agencies Plan Coordinated Response to SRO Hotel Fires
"A task force is usually lip service," Ammiano said in a telephone interview on Oct. 1. "But these groups have shown some muscle. We have to be aggressive."
Two days later, the King Hotel at Valencia and 18th streets burned; another 75 low-income residents lost their homes. (The fire resulted in the arrest of a tenant on suspicion of arson; the case is pending.) And most recently, on Nov. 28, a residential hotel at 335 Leavenworth St. caught fire, displacing 40 residents. The cause, according to the Fire Department, was determined to be accidental, due to electrical failure in one of the rooms.
The Fire Department insists that the SRO fires are unconnected (even as department spokesmen adamantly refuse to discuss the three fires that are classified as possible arson). The department claims the blazes that weren't arson-related all were caused by simple human carelessness. But if some fires have been caused by the carelessness of SRO residents, the carelessness of city regulators has allowed the conditions that spawn the fires to continue, year after year.
The two city agencies responsible for inspecting conditions at single room occupancy hotels -- the Fire Department and the Department of Building Inspection -- regularly visit SROs, and regularly cite the owners for code violations. But, the public record shows, the inspections have had little effect on outcomes. Hotels continue to show code violations. They continue to catch fire. And owners seldom pay significant penalties for failing to comply with city health and safety regulations.
When you park your car in violation of city regulations, you are cited and issued a fine on the spot. When you own a single room occupancy hotel that violates city regulations, you may be cited and cited, but you're probably not going to be fined for months, if ever.
The Fire Department began an annual inspection program for SROs in 1997. The department also inspects residential hotels based on complaints from the public. "The minimum codes are enforced in all buildings. We've never been more stringent," says Arson Division Capt. Elmer Carr. "We take the extra step. We don't just want to walk away."
Fire inspection reports for the nine SROs that recently burned show a history of complaints of broken elevators, faulty or uncertified fire alarm and sprinkler systems, lack of fire extinguishers, exit doors that were unlit, padlocked, or obstructed by garbage, leaky pipes, furniture stored in the stairwells, and smoke detectors that didn't work. During the past three years, three of these SROs were given six "notices of violation" of fire regulations. These initial notices do not result in fines; if the Fire Department has to reinspect the building to make sure the violation has been corrected, a $62 fee is levied. At the next level of enforcement, the Fire Department can issue citations -- in essence, tickets -- which kick the process into Municipal Court. There, the judge can fine the owner $100 for a first fire safety violation, $200 for a second, and up to $500 for a third violation within the same year. According to fire inspection history reports, none of the SROs was issued a citation within the last three years.
Fines aside, getting landlords to correct even basic safety violations in their hotels leads to a time-consuming and often unproductive paper chase. In February 1996, for example, the Star Hotel received three notices of violation from the Fire Department. One said a rear exit was obstructed by garbage cans; that violation remained uncorrected for nearly three months, according to Fire Department records. During one inspection, the manager moved the garbage cans from the exit-way, only to return them as the inspector was leaving the building. In 1991, the Jerry Hotel was cited for blocked exits, lack of emergency lights, and a fire alarm panel that didn't work. The management was given 48 hours to correct the violations. According to Fire Department records, they were not fixed for 23 days.
Repeat violators can be referred to the City Attorney's Office for civil prosecution. But according to the City Attorney's Office, no cases have been referred by the Fire Department in the last year.
Residential hotels are also inspected by the Department of Building Inspection. Unlike the Fire Department, which focuses its inspections solely on fire safety concerns, the Department of Building Inspection reviews the building as a whole, citing violations based on health and safety, construction, or plumbing issues, among others. In 1995, the department began focusing the brunt of its work on residential hotels in the Tenderloin and the neighboring Sixth Street corridor. In addition to inspections based on complaints by the public, SROs are inspected on a regular basis that varies, depending on the department's appraisal of the general condition of the hotel. "Poor"-rated buildings are inspected every three months, "fair" buildings every six months, and "good" buildings once a year.