By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
The Department of Building Inspection gives violators a 30-day window to correct violations, which can range from peeling paint and overflowing sewage to locked exits and failure to heat the building. Once a violation has been cited, an inspector returns, days or weeks later, to reinspect the hotel. If the violation still exists, a second citation is given, and a director's hearing is scheduled at the offices of the Department of Building Inspection. Fines for violations are not assessed until an inspection case reaches a director's hearing, making for extremely slow enforcement against code violators.
Take for example the King Hotel. On Sept. 24, Department of Building Inspection officials issued a citation for a blocked fire door; according to Fire Department records, the door had been nailed shut, and the owners were given three days to fix it. On Oct. 3, when the fire broke out, fire officials and residents say the door had to be forced open. Why didn't the building inspector just pull the nail out himself when he saw it 10 days before the fire? Building inspection officials say they are not legally empowered to alter anything in the buildings they inspect.
"The owner is responsible for his property. There's no way around it," says Jim Hutchinson, deputy director of the Building Inspection Department. "The question is, how do you compel the landlord to fix it?"
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
In April 1995, the Star Hotel was cited and ordered to provide smoke detectors for seven rooms and to remove garbage bags from the rear stairs. The hotel was given two weeks to correct the code violations. According to the complaint data sheet, the case was finally closed that November -- six months later -- when the owner complied. No fine was given.
If an SRO owner repeatedly refuses to follow city fire or building inspection regulations, the City Attorney's Office can be asked to prosecute. "We've beefed up the division, going from compliance-seeking to litigation-seeking," says Kimon Manolius, chief of civil litigation at the City Attorney's Office. "We are the hammer."
But there are few referrals to the City Attorney's Office. According to Manolius, the Department of Building Inspection has referred 10 cases to his office in the last four years. Of those 10, six have been settled for healthy sums that range from $7,500 to $94,000; one settlement, against the Hillsdale Hotel on Sixth Street, also secured a three-year injunction requiring the owner to maintain his property to certain standards. Of the remaining four cases, two are pending trial, one is expected to be formally settled soon, and the last, a case brought against the King Hotel, was never filed because the hotel burned down.
And of the few cases that do make it to the City Attorney's Office, some take years to arrive. Take for example the case against the owner of an SRO at 3676 Mission. According to public records, the owner had failed to address a slew of outstanding code violations, including lack of heating, rodent infestation, and damaged plumbing -- and continued to avoid making repairs for nearly three years -- before the Department of Building Inspection finally referred the case to the City Attorney's Office in 1998. The case was settled just this August for $75,000.
It appears that the City Attorney's Office pursues reasonable civil penalties when it receives referrals on problem SRO hotels. But there are more than 500 SRO hotels in San Francisco; given that there have been only 10 referrals for prosecution in four years, it seems clear that many SRO hotel owners have been able to let health and safety problems persist -- despite repeated complaints, violations, inspections, and reinspections -- without fear of significant penalties, financial or otherwise.
What's more, a 2-year-old law designed to broaden criminal penalties that could be levied against negligent landlords has been all but overlooked by city officials, who, it seems, have failed to implement it even once.
The law, sponsored by Supervisor Gavin Newsom, allows the district attorney to charge landlords who fail to correct life-safety violations with misdemeanors. Before the ordinance was passed, only heating violations could be charged as criminal offenses. But in the last two years, it appears the Department of Building Inspection has not referred a single case to the district attorney for prosecution. DA spokesperson Clarence Johnson says those he consulted in his office could not recollect receiving any referrals. "It's infuriating that code violations continue," Newsom says. "For four years we've increased the budgets in these departments and given them the tools. We're not seeing results."
While Newsom believes, adamantly, that the law needs to be enforced if SRO tenants are to be protected, he does not believe enforcement will begin anytime soon. "Is this a Number 1 priority? No, it's not. Considering the intractability of the problem, should it be higher? I would certainly hope so," he says.
The name of the Star Hotel, on Mission at 18th Street, is painted in white and green on a corrugated steel entrance, but the lettering is faded, barely visible next to the bright yellow sign of the neighboring coin-operated laundry. A dozen pigeons rest on a gutted window frame near the fire escape. The hotel has been empty for two years.