New fire legislation would require more communication from landlords
San Francisco Supervisors David Campos and Jane Kim on Tuesday introduced legislation intended to protect tenants in the event of a fire by requiring that landlords keep the city informed of safety standards within their buildings.
The legislation would also require that all buildings be outfitted with smoke detectors and loud alarms. It would mandate that landlords file reports with the Department of Building Inspection to keep tenants informed of any reconstruction progress.
Campos made the announcement in front of a fire-ravaged building at Mission and 22nd streets, which has now suffered three fires, the most recent one on Monday night. The building has become a symbol of landlord negligence – after the building decayed for more than a year, the city issued an emergency alteration order to bring the structure down to ground level.
“I don’t know how it is possible in San Francisco that a building like this catches fire three times,” Campos said. “You have a community that feels that it is under siege.”
“The most devastating part of this experience has been that it is often our most vulnerable tenants who are affected by fires,” said Kim, who co-wrote the legislation.
The proposed legislation comes out of a set of recommendations made by a fire safety task force in November 2015, including that fire alarms be loud enough to pass the “pillow test,” meaning able to wake sleeping tenants. Fire alarms in the Mission and 22nd streets building, however, failed to sound at all.
It would also require smoke detectors in each dwelling unit. At 22nd and Mission streets, some tenants said they had disconnected smoke detectors because of the high incidence of false alarms, while fire inspectors said they did not have the authority to enter anywhere other than common areas to inspect for working alarms.
Tenant advocates and lawmakers alike have cited difficulties in communicating with landlords after a disastrous event like a fire. One couple, Fernando and Carmen Chamorro, who lived at 3045 Mission St. for 12 years was displaced when a fire broke out on the ground-floor restaurant and severely damaged their unit above. They have been homeless for the four months since the fire, living in their car.
“This is painful,” said Carmen Chamorro. “It’s something you can never imagine that something like this would happen.”
Chamorro said she has sent the landlord several letters but has heard nothing about the state of her building or whether she will be able to return.
City agencies have the same problem.
Dan Lowrey, an inspector with the Department of Building Inspection, told the Building Inspection Commission in mid-March that the property owner is responsible for making sure nobody enters the fire-damaged building. After the first fire at Mission and 22nd streets, he said, notices of violation were issued to both the corner building and the adjacent building on 22nd Street, which suffered some fire damage on the roof and some water damage.
“We do have to follow the code enforcement process. We were getting in touch with the owner and he stopped responding,” Lowrey told the commission. “We sent district inspectors by but the property was boarded up.”
Under the proposed legislation, landlords would have 72 hours to give the city updates on how they have secured the property and how they expect to allow tenants back inside to retrieve belongings. Within a month, the landlord must submit a plan of action for repairs and offering re-occupancy to displaced tenants, who legally have a right to return at their previous rent.
“After a fire, it’s really important for us to get the information. A lot of times we get property profiles as an LLC. We have a lot of issues after a fire getting hold of the owner,” Lowrey said.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee said the action plan requirement would be a particularly useful tool.
Often, he said tenants are “terrified. They’re hurting. They can’t even get to their belongings.” But he also added that “tenants need to assert their rights under this legislation.”
Our Mission No Eviction activist Roberto Hernandez voiced his frustration with the fire department over what he called insufficient investigation into fires and a tepid response to his repeated requests for a Fire Commission meeting in the Mission to address local fires.
The commission has set a meeting at 362 Capp St. for 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, though Hernandez said he was disappointed to learn that Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White would not be attending.
“How is it possible that we have a fire chief who cannot be with us when we are having a crisis in the community?” Hernandez wanted to know. “We’re getting murdered, we’re being burned out, and we’re getting evicted.”