Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! (Yawn.)

Lame city regulation leaves burned-out residents of nine SRO hotels completely SOL

As video of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake rolls on the small television screen, one woman in the audience visibly winces; a piece of the Bay Bridge is no longer there, and an unsuspecting car is sucked downward into the abyss. "Which section of San Francisco was hit the most?" she asks, gesticulating with the potato chip clenched like a cigarette between her fingers. The crowd throws up other semirandom queries: Is BART safe during a quake? Do you need canned food? Are you supposed to stand in a doorway? As a whole, though, the audience, a group of 40 or so people dressed primarily in drab, '80s, thrift-store fare, seems more restless than interested. A Russian woman in a purple velour leisure suit sleeps soundly, tongue resting on her bottom lip.

"Now, fire extinguishers have needles," Fire Department Inspector Kaan Chin says, abruptly switching off the video, "that show you the pressure is working." The segue to fire safety is sudden, confusing. The audience, a collection of survivors of residential hotel fires, had come to this windowless Mission District conference room for a city fire prevention workshop; somehow earthquake preparedness training had intervened. Now, it seems, they are back to the subject of fire.

Again, marginally pertinent questions fly: Where can you get a fire extinguisher charged? Should you use the elevator during a fire? What about sprinkler systems?

Jennifer Hale
The Star Hotel.
The Star Hotel.
Richard Marquez of Mission Agenda checks on an SRO tenant.
Jennifer Hale
Richard Marquez of Mission Agenda checks on an SRO tenant.



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

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"Shouldn't there be a law in San Francisco that everyone has to have a smoke detector?" asks a small man, his thin hair tied back with a rubber band. "Wouldn't this cut all this out?"

A chorus of yeses has Inspector Chin looking overwhelmed; he grabs a detector, one of three, from his display. Several people in the crowd ask the price.

During the last two years, nine single room occupancy hotels, or SROs, have caught fire in San Francisco, displacing more than 600 residents, most of them low-income. As part of a new, "aggressive" response, the city formed an SRO task force that, among other things, decided to put $245,000 into education. This is one of the results: trying to teach fire prevention to the drunks, drug addicts, mentally ill, and other people who reside in SROs.

Even the community organizations that work closely with the SRO community have doubts. "It's Fire Prevention 101," says Richard Marquez, co-founder of Mission Agenda, a 3-year-old group that works to improve conditions for the homeless and SRO residents. "Within the limited confines of public service, it has some value. But without an enforcement and litigation component, it becomes meaningless over time. It shifts the burden of responsibility onto tenants."

A review of public records suggests that, in response to the fires, the city has indeed done little but blame down-and-out SRO residents. City fire and building codes intended to reduce the incidence of fire are only sporadically enforced. Even when repeated violations are noted, those records show, city agencies seldom refer SRO cases to the city attorney for litigation. In a city with severe housing shortages and the type of boom economy that ought to spur private residential construction, eight of the nine SROs ravaged by fire remain empty and unrepaired; in at least some cases, the city's own rent control ordinances appear to be the reason. And as private rebuilding efforts have failed to materialize, the city has made few moves of its own to provide affordable housing for the more than 600 SRO residents displaced by the fires.

But fire prevention classes are held every week. Pizza and chips are always free.

In May 1997, James Hensley left his room at the Star Hotel to cash his welfare check at the manager's window; not long thereafter, other tenants reported a fire that gave Hensley second- and third-degree burns to his neck, shoulders, and face when he ran into his room for his belongings. The blaze, which the Fire Department determined had been caused by "discarded or unattended smoking materials," displaced 53 tenants.

The Delta Hotel at Sixth and Mission streets burned that August. Jerry Moore, a smoker who had been drinking throughout the day, briefly left his room, then returned to find it thick with smoke. The cause of the fire again was found to be discarded smoking materials. One resident died of smoke inhalation; 180 tenants were burned out of their rooms.

About a year later, fire struck the Jerry Hotel on 16th Street, forcing out all 20 residents; the blaze is still under investigation as a possible case of arson.

On Dec. 22, 1998, the Leland Hotel on Polk Street burned due to a welding accident; another 90 residents were forced to move.

A week later, just two days shy of 1999, fire destroyed the Thor Hotel at Mission and 17th streets, leaving its 53 residents -- some in T-shirts, some without shoes -- housed in a Muni bus overnight. According to fire investigation reports, the blaze started in tenant Roger Wayard's room. The reports, which describe Wayard as drunk and vomiting, say he insisted that the fire had been started by a man he had befriended and left in his room. The cause was determined to be a hot plate left on Wayard's bed.

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."

"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.

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?"

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.

The Hartland Hotel, too, sits empty, save for the hotel manager locked behind a dingy gate with a sign reading "Closed Sundays" tacked onto it. The manager, Raymond Patel, sits on a sheet-covered sofa, facing a television. "We are closed. Fire," he says simply.

The Delta, the Thor, the Park, the Leland -- all empty.

Of the nine SROs that burned recently, only the Jerry Hotel is back "online."

Considering San Francisco's housing crunch -- the supply-and-demand-fueled environment in which property is at a premium, and wealthy newcomers continually outbid each other for residential space -- an obvious question arises: Why haven't the burned hotels been rebuilt, or razed to make way for new residential construction?

The answer to that question appears to involve the city's Byzantine system of rent control. Andrew Zachs, a lawyer who represents a number of SRO hotel owners (although none whose hotels have succumbed to fire), believes San Francisco's regulatory environment creates strong disincentives for the landlords to rebuild. "Severe rent control is driving many people out of the rental market," Zachs says.

What lies at the center of the failure to rebuild, despite a white-hot housing market, is a regulation meant to protect displaced tenants: San Francisco Rent Board Rules and Regulations, Section 12.19. The rule states that if a tenant is forced to vacate a unit due to fire or other disaster, the landlord must offer that tenant a room at the same rent he had paid, pre-disaster, once the building is repaired.

Bernadette Borja, the daughter of Delta Hotel owner Dr. Mario Borja, says her family had considered rebuilding the Delta after the fire, but the costs of repair would have required increasing the rent to market rates -- something that could not legally be done for former residents, and something that people housed in the run-down Sixth Street corridor would find "unacceptable."

"It would have been a gift to fix it," Borja says. "We couldn't pursue it; it made no economic sense." The hotel was recently sold to the Tenant Owner Development Corp., a nonprofit entity that deals in low-income housing. According to its executive vice president, John Elberling, bringing the hotel back online is an arduous process that involves, among other things, developing a financial plan to be reviewed by the city's Redevelopment Agency, and applying for federal low-income tax credits. "It's tremendously complicated," he says. "If we're on schedule, the hotel will be reopened by the end of 2002."

Francis Pinnock, a lawyer at the West Coast Center for Law and Justice who represents SRO tenants, says rent control regulations do keep burned-out SROs from being rebuilt quickly -- but that doesn't mean landlords suffer. "There is an economic motive to keep the hotels empty. It is totally clear to me," Pinnock says, in a soft English accent that hints at controlled anger as she explains the politics behind the rent control paradox. "A tenant has the right to go back. If the landlord delays repairs and keeps the hotel empty for two or three years, the tenants most likely settle elsewhere or disappear.

"Look at it in the long term. If the tenants don't return, they [the rooms] are no longer low-income units."

In other words, the longer the hotels are closed, the more likely that when they are rebuilt, their rooms can be rented at market rates that far surpass what SRO tenants have been paying.

Pinnock cites an example from a case she recently settled against the landlord of a residential hotel that had been closed for two years due to fire. According to Pinnock, the landlord projected that only 10 to 15 of his previous tenants would return after the long closure; he therefore advertised some of the units for rent before his hotel had even gone back online. He was asking $1,100 to $1,300 a month; the units had rented for roughly $400 before the fire. "The real estate market has never been as hot as it is now," Pinnock says. "Hotels are rent-controlled. Landlords are using small fires to close them down."

The city has done little to encourage the rebuilding, rehabilitation, and rerenting of residential hotels that have been taken off the market due to fire. The SRO task force has focused on two possible methods for getting the hotels rebuilt: the seizure of damaged properties through eminent domain; and the provision of low-interest loans to SRO owners through the Mayor's Office of Housing.

Eminent domain, or condemnation, is an involved, controversial, and time-consuming legal process that entails confiscating private property for public use. There is no indication the city is likely to begin any sort of eminent domain program for SROs soon.

The Mayor's Office of Housing does have access to a large cache of bond funds that can be used to assist landlords who apply for loans; but of the hotels that have burned, only the owners of the Delta have sought assistance. "We make a commitment to projects that are ready to go," says Planning and Monitoring Director Joe LaTorre. "These owners are not, [so] we move on to other projects."

Robert Gray, a slight, soft-spoken man with reddish hair that looks like it has just been lifted from a pillow, is reluctant -- almost a year later -- to speak about the Thor fire. "It was devastating. I never experienced anything like it," he says, delicately leaning against his bed, smoking a cigarette. Gray, once a permanent resident at the Thor, is one of hundreds of SRO tenants uprooted by fire and red tape. It took him four months, hopping from hotel to hotel -- at one point collecting 315 cockroaches to commemorate his disgust with the King -- before Gray found permanent housing.

Now at the Isabelle Hotel, on Mission at Seventh Street, Gray's room is cramped with thick, plastic plants, worn Oriental carpets, gold-framed pictures of Egyptian mummies, and hundreds of knickknacks. "It's been a long time since I felt comfortable enough to decorate my room," he says.

But Gray's journey to the Isabelle was a rough one. When fire left residents of the Thor on the streets, the city provided them with two-week vouchers for rooms in other SRO hotels. Fearing homelessness, they formed a union on the spot and began making noise. To get permanent residency at a hotel and be protected from rent increases and eviction, a tenant must live there for more than 30 consecutive days. The Red Cross gave the tenants additional one-week vouchers, but for many, the assistance wasn't enough to establish residency. The city initially promised to extend its two-week vouchers, but didn't; later, 15 residents were placed in permanent housing. Others moved out of state, were hospitalized or incarcerated, or just disappeared. And some, like Gray, shuffled between hotels and shelters, and occasionally found themselves on the street.

Gray lived for a few weeks at the Mission Hotel, then the Hartland and the King. He was at the Hartland just three weeks before it burned and remembers "the stench." "There was paint hanging off the ceiling, furniture and mattresses blocking the stairs. It was crappy," he says.

Gray will only speak briefly of the Thor fire. He lived in Room 28 at the back of the second floor; someone knocked on his door and yelled, "Fire!" Gray remembers the flames leaping up as a number of residents unsuccessfully tried to use the back stairs. They all ran to the other side of the building and descended through smoke. "And it was ironic," Gray says, putting a vase he uses as a coffee mug down on his nightstand, "because I lived in the Thor for 17 months, and the fire alarm went off four or five times a week -- for casual reasons, always a false alarm. But that night, the night of the fire, it wasn't operating. You couldn't hear it for nothing." His voice suddenly trails off. "I don't want to remember too much," he says.

Francis Pinnock represents former tenants of the Thor and Hartland hotels who are attempting to file a lawsuit seeking compensation for their losses from the fires. Pinnock is clearly aggravated, not just by SRO owners, but by a city bureaucracy that doesn't hold those owners to account. "Nothing in the Thor Hotel worked," Pinnock says. "The fire alarm didn't work, the sprinkler system didn't work, the extinguishers didn't work. If previous measures had worked, the fire -- a tiny fire -- could have been put out by the residents.

"But instead, it displaces everyone."

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