A Burning Need for Sprinklers

In the wake of several large fires, Sup. Aaron Peskin fights to improve safety at S.F.'s single-room occupancy hotels.

The Greywood Hotel burned down in 2015 leaving 58 low-income housing tenants without housing. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

“We live in fear of having fires all the time,” says Candy Crawford, a resident at Mission Hotel. “We have smokers in our hotel, we’ve had many fires, and none of the sprinklers have turned on. There have been fires in the kitchen. We’ve had fires in the laundry room where the lint catches fire. We live in fear of this, all the time.”

The risk of fire is not a small one for residents of single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels. Many are low-income, living on disability checks or Social Security — and often, whole families share rooms. In a city suffering from a fierce, relentless housing crisis, these small units — most without kitchens or even bathrooms of their own — become home for thousands of people trying to make ends meet in San Francisco. Lose that, and you lose everything.

It’s not an unrealistic fear, either.

Ninety people were displaced when a four-alarm fire rushed through the three-story Park Hotel on Folsom Street in 2011.

The same year, more than 120 people lost their homes when the Franciscan Towers at 127 Eddy St. burned.

And in June 2016, when the Graywood Hotel — above the 3300 Club and Cole Hardware on Mission — caught fire, it left 58 low-income tenants without a place to live. The building had a sordid history of code violations, including electrical problems, an illegal heating system, and sprinklers that did not go off when the blaze started.

Denise Dorey, who’s spent the past four decades living in SROs, says she was in the Franciscan Towers when it caught fire in 2012.

“There was no sprinklers and no fire alarms,” she says. “We sat there and watched it burn — and burn, and burn. The only reason we got out is because people on the street were telling us to come out. We had a street-side view, but without that … This is real, and these buildings are like tinder boxes.”

In many cases, these former “tinder boxes” are not rebuilt as affordable housing. The Graywood Hotel, once it’s reconstructed, will become market-rate housing. The Park Hotel is now The Negev, a co-living space that caters to incoming workers in the tech industry.

This loss of low-income housing is making a rough housing market even more volatile for those who earn minimum wage or live off government checks. Housing nonprofit Central City SRO Collaborative estimates that since 1988, more than 1,500 residential hotel units have been lost to fires in San Francisco.

But on Monday, a proposed piece of legislation to solve that crisis inched toward becoming law, as the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee voted to approve a mandate that would require automatic sprinklers to be installed in nonresidential areas of SROs, such as kitchens, laundry rooms, or businesses on the ground floor.

The changes would fix a big fire-safety loophole. Based on the original 2001 legislation, automatic sprinkler systems only had to be installed in residential hotels with 20 or more units, and only in sleeping areas.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who authored the amendments to the city’s fire code, called it “long-overdue legislation,” citing the “urgency of implementing systems that could delay or help contain fire damage, and potentially save lives.”

The “saving lives” portion is very real. Tim Hwang leads fire prevention workshops at SROs around the city, and says that he speaks to many residents with limited mobility.

“There’s actually some people who live in SRO hotels with no elevator, just stairs, and they are wheelchair users,” he told the committee. “Imagine if their building caught fire. How would they escape?”

For Peskin, the issue hit close to home when a fire broke out in the basement of a Chinatown SRO in April, displacing 19 monolingual Chinese seniors and seven Chinese small businesses.

“Around the same time, we began to see an uptick in SRO flipping,” Sunny Angulo, Peskin’s aide, tells SF Weekly. “The historic buildings have become increasingly hot on the real estate market because buyers are looking at lucrative revenue from rent roll projections, and realizing that the buildings require little to no upgrades to be put back on the market as tech dorms or market-rate micro-units,” she says. “A fresh coat of paint, some new appliances … and they can charge whatever the market will bear.”

With issues of fire safety and accountability from buyers in mind, this legislation requires investors purchasing residential hotels to install automatic sprinklers in non-living areas within a year of taking ownership.

Putting the impetus on the buyers to install the sprinkler systems — as opposed to demanding current building owners do the work now — might seems like a cop-out. But sprinkler systems can cost tens of thousands of dollars to install, which may be outside the means of many current building owners. And according to Peskin’s office, 10 percent of the city’s more than 300 SROs are sold each year.

“The legislation serves a dual purpose of ensuring that new owners understand the cost for the fire safety upgrades should be taken into consideration when looking at potential real estate purchases,” Angulo says. “This should also ensure that we gradually have full compliance within the next several years.”

The full Board of Supervisors will review the fire safety legislation in the coming weeks, and, if passed, it will let the residents of the city’s nearly 19,000 SRO units breathe a little easier.

But maintaining these sprinkler systems, and ensuring they work, will be another challenge.

Sheryl “Cookie” Howard, who lives at the Mission Hotel, has taken on the role of ensuring sprinklers work.

We’ve had several fires since I’ve been there,” she says. “I’m trained in NERT [Neighborhood Emergency Response Training] and I have been a safety monitor in our building. I don’t know how many fires we’ve had, and the sprinklers haven’t gone off one time. Thank God we have a very responsive Fire Department. I talked to the fire marshal and he said the sprinklers work. … I have to take his word for it, but we’re all not sure.”

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