Fire Victims Get a Break

A proposed change to the Fire Victims Assistance Fund aims to benefit low-income residents.

An abandoned apartment building is seen burned out on the corner of 22nd and Mission St. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Last week, Supervisor Hillary Ronen proposed an ordinance that would amend provisions in the existing Fire Victims Assistance Fund. Currently, the law, which went into effect last August, authorizes the Human Services Agency (HSA) to provide housing assistance for 24 months to those displaced by a fire who earn less than 100 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). Ronen’s ordinance, which is co-sponsored by Supervisor Sandra Fewer, would extend that timeline to 48 months for those earning 70 percent or less of the AMI.

Ronen’s timing is no coincidence. Four of the families affected by the massive January 2015 fire at 22nd and Mission streets — which resulted in one death and the displacement of 57 people — will lose their temporary emergency housing at the end of the month. Ronen tells SF Weekly these families have applied for housing through the Displaced Tenant Housing Program, and need more time to secure a permanent solution through the Below Market Rate (BMR) housing program.

“The turnaround of when those units come online is not very quick,” she says. So we want there to be an additional amount of flexibility in the city’s Fire [Victims] Assist Fund, and the HSA’s discretion to use that fund in a way that they think makes sense, given the circumstance of families that are dependent on that assistance in order to continue living in San Francisco, sending their kids to school here, et cetera,” Ronen says.

Ronen also points out that families who leave the city when displaced by a fire are less likely to come back to San Francisco and exercise their right to return to their original homes.

“It’s a relatively small fix to that program, allowing for greater flexibility, and the reality of how long it takes in our overpriced housing market for low-income families to find replacement housing when they’re displaced because of a fire,” she says.

After the fire at 22nd and Mission, then-Supervisor David Campos and Ronen (who was his legislative aide at the time) used $50,000 from their discretionary fund to place those who requested assistance in temporary housing, both through the City’s Good Samaritan law and by refurbishing vacant public-housing units on Treasure Island.

Then, in 2016, they fought to allocate $300,000 of the annual budget for the HSA to assist additional fire victims. Last August, the ordinance creating the Fire Victims Assistance Fund went into law, providing a structure through which the funds could be dispersed and managed by the HSA.

In addition to earning 70 percent or less of the AMI, eligible individuals must have received services or financial support from HSA within three months of the incident and applied for a preference in a City Affordable Housing Program through the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. Further, they must not have resided in the unit from which they were displaced since the fire, haven’t been able to secure permanent housing on their own, and must be unable to return to the building where the fire occurred because it’s still uninhabitable.

“It is up to us to protect our city’s most vulnerable residents, and this small but important change will make a big difference in the lives of families who have already lost so much,” Ronen says.

As of today, the former site of the building at 22nd and Mission is nothing more than a hole in the ground, full of frogs. If passed, Ronen’s legislation could go into effect as early as this summer — but replacing the crater (and the frogs) with a new residential building could take much, much longer.

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