SF Urgently Needs Fire Sprinkler Law

by on June 23, 2016

The recent 29th Street and MIssion fire

Last week’s tragic fire at 29th and Mission is the latest in a wave of fires that has displaced tenants and eliminated rent controlled housing.  Yet for all the sorrow expressed over those fleeing fires and forced to find new housing, sufficient pressure has not built to bring the single action necessary to prevent these tragedies: an apartment sprinkler law. Activists battling displacement and gentrification—which hotel fires cause— must tell supervisors that enacting this law is a priority.

The impact of sprinklers was brought home in a comment by Department of Building Inspector Tom Hui. Hui told the SF Examiner that the Graywood Hotel adjacent to the source of the fire “had a sprinkler system, otherwise it would be worse.” The reason the Graywood and other SRO hotels have sprinklers in rooms is because the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s Central City SRO Collaborative pushed to enact an SRO fire sprinkler law.

That law was backed by Supervisors Chris Daly and Gavin Newsom, an unlikely couple that found common ground in protecting tenants and rent controlled housing from fires. What is holding back today’s Supervisors from extending sprinkler protections to apartment tenants?

I’ve asked this question repeatedly (see my stories of February 22 2016, “Missing Sprinklers Costs Tenants Their Homes”, November 30, 2015 “Why Are Fires Still Displacing Mission Tenants?”,  February 20, 2015 “Media Misleads Public on SF Fires,” and February 2, 2015 “SF Needs Apt Sprinkler Law.”

In response, I’ve heard that some believe that requiring sprinklers is too expensive. My response to that is twofold.

First, San Francisco enacted a soft story retrofit ordinance that imposes significantly higher tenant passthroughs and overall costs to owners than a sprinkler law. If cost is the issue, that retrofit law should not have passed.

Second, the cost of any tenant passthrough for sprinklers is dramatically less than the  increased rental costs displaced tenants will pay for new housing. Supervisor David Campos is trying to get the city to help the tenants meet this higher rent burden, and that’s commendable. But this becomes a case of the city subsidizing the financial impacts of not requiring owners to install sprinklers.

Further,  fires eliminate rent controlled housing forever.  If new units are built to replace he duplex and two units above Cole Hardware those lost to fire, they will be exempt from rent control (also the likely fate of the large apartment building burned repeatedly at 22nd and Mission).

Far more tenants have lost their homes to fire than earthquake. And fires have eliminated more rent control housing. The comparison in numbers is not even close yet San Francisco has decided to protect against the less likely disaster with a bigger price tag for owners and tenants alike.

The reason is not the costs or risks but rather the politics.

Sprinkler Politics

The SRO sprinkler law passed because we had an SRO tenants group actively pushing it, two supervisors behind it, and a group of SRO owners who lacked the political clout to stop it.

We face a different situation with apartment sprinklers.

First, for all the talk on Facebook about fires as an agent of gentrification, the Mission activists battling Google buses and large market rate developments have not aggressively pushed for an apartment sprinkler law. In fact, no tenants group has made this critical issue a priority.

In light of Mission fires causing displacement and loss of rent-controlled housing, not pushing for sprinklers is huge mistake. Mission activists have a lot on their plate, but with the wave of fires in the Mission the sprinkler campaign has to emerge from that neighborhood.

Second, no Supervisor has embraced the issue. Mission Supervisor David Campos has indicated a willingness to introduce sprinkler legislation, but tweeted to me this week that he needs to hear from the community that this is a priority.

The third and perhaps leading reason we already do not have an apartment sprinkler law is that the opposition politics are different. Landlord groups oppose sprinklers and will fight the legislation. The Board’s progressive supervisors have challenged landlords on Ellis evictions and strengthening rent control, but a sprinkler law imposes costs on “good” landlords as well as wrongdoers. I know from years fighting to strengthen the city’s Hotel Conversion Ordinance that even progressive Supervisors don’t like getting into conflict with law-abiding owners; but that’s what passing an apartment sprinkler law requires.

As a result of these three factors, virtually none of the response to the recent fire from the city’s elected officials mentioned the need for sprinklers. Local politicians who recognize that an assault weapons ban is necessary to stop systematic mass killings continue to treat the victims of fire without addressing the underlying cause: the lack of sprinklers that stop fires in the first place.

Like mass shootings, these fires in the Mission and elsewhere are not going to magically stop absent legislative action. Measures proposed by Supervisors requiring fire alarms and tenant fire drills are the type of indirect measures the NRA backs to avoid gun restrictions.

If you agree that San Francisco must protect tenants from losing their homes due to fire, please let the supervisors know.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

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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