Missing Sprinklers Costs Tenants Their Homes

by on February 22, 2016

Mission Local reported last week that the estimated 60 tenants displaced by the 22nd and Mission Street fire will likely lose their homes permanently due to the structure’s impending demolition. Supervisor David Campos pledged to “see what we can do locally, legally, to address”  the tenants’ plight, but we have known what has needed to be done for some time: San Francisco must require sprinklers in apartments to prevent fires from displacing tenants in the first place.

I have written three columns since the Mission fire pleading for the Board of Supervisors to pass an apartment sprinkler law— to no avail. I wrote on February 2, 2015 (“SF Needs an Apt Sprinkler Law”) that the fatal Mission fire “should finally motivate the SF Board of Supervisors to do for apartments what it did in 2002 to stop SRO fires: require sprinklers inside living areas.”

But no action followed. Instead, I think some committee was formed to study the problem.

I wrote on February 20, 2015 (“Media Misleads Public on SF Fires”) how the media avoided recommending sprinklers as the solution to stopping fires. If the media’s goal was to stop Board of Supervisor action to protect tenants from displacement by fire, its strategy has worked.

After a November 6. 2015 Mission District fire displaced even more tenants, I asked on November 30, “Why Are Fires Still Displacing Mission Tenants?” I suggested that maybe the best way around political opposition was to limit the fire sprinkler legislation to the Mission—but even that proposal went nowhere.

Nor has the election of a progressive Board of Supervisors majority brought action. There are always other priorities, even though unlike Ellis Act evictions the lack of fire sprinklers can be remedied locally (Mayor Lee’s Small Sites program did recently stop the Ellis eviction of tenants in six buildings, showing again that the mayor is doing more to reduce Ellis evictions than any other politician).

Fires Destroy Rent Controlled Housing

While nearly everyone believes San Francisco must do everything to preserve its rent-controlled housing stock, even progressive politicians have done nothing to stop the loss of such housing due to fires.

Part of the problem is that not enough tenants are clamoring for an apartment sprinkler law. Most tenants don’t think about losing their home by a fire until it happens to them or someone they know. And whereas Ellis or other no-fault evictions give tenant groups the chance to organize against an evil speculator, most fires are not the landlords’ fault.

That the 22nd and Mission fire may ultimately result in the building’s demolition is not a rare event. Apartment buildings are lost to fire all the time. And when that happens the newly built housing is permanently exempt from rent control under state law. Displaced tenants lose all rights to return to the new building at their former rent because under the law their former home no longer exists.

With Campos termed out, Hillary Ronen and Joshua Arce are the two leading candidates to replace him in representing the Mission (District 9). I would think both would get votes if they showed they cared about protecting tenants from displacement and preserving rent-controlled housing by backing an apartment sprinkler law for the neighborhood (Arce has since posted support for such an ordinance on Facebook).

Apartment fires are horrific and potentially even fatal. Elected officials should be protecting San Francisco tenants from this calamity.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. He proposed the original regulation ensuring that tenants displaced by fire could return to their renovated homes at their former rent.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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