Turning Point In Mission Fire Crisis?

by Steve Clayton on May 5, 2016

Since my April 26 article (“Is SFFD Committed to Protecting Tenants”?), a broad coalition of Mission tenants, landlords, artists, and small business, as well as the Fire Fighters Union have demanded action. Specifically, they demanded enforcement of the Fire Code at a special Mission District meeting of the San Francisco Fire Commission on April 27.  Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White didn’t make it, and neither did the local media.

Before a packed house at the Mission Neighborhood Center, the Fire Department gave a 90 minute presentation, in which they asserted that the number of fires in the Mission were merely an average amount compared to other neighborhoods.  “As you can see from these figures,” Fire Marshall Dan De Cossio said, “it’s in the middle of the pack.”

But Gabriel Medina, of the Mission Economic Development Association, challenged that notion.  Using data from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, Medina showed that 3785 units were impacted  by fires in the Mission, exceeding any other neighborhood in SF.

Tairo Romero, a tenant living at Mission and 26th Streets, said, “The Fire Department’s numbers are trying to tell us that what we are suffering and experiencing is not real.  I don’t see any plans for making the landlords accountable.”

Fire Marshall De Cossio reported that the Fire Department currently sends Engine Companies to inspect 25% of apartment buildings that require an annual inspection, and that an inspection unit, which has long been dedicated to only high-rises, is now addressing apartment complaints.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee called for fire inspections of buildings with fewer than nine units, “performed by trained inspection personnel, like the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) has.”  He also demanded Notices of Violations, penalty hearings and litigation against negligent landlords, and transparent records made available online, “like DBI has.”

Diana Flores of Causa Justa/ Just Cause echoed Avicolli Mecca’s remarks, and told the Fire Commissioners, “There’s interest for you to be accountable to us.  We’re definitely going to continue to show up.”

Good Samaritan landlord Spike Kahn, who is housing fire victims, castigated the Fire Commission over information that she had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get.  Regarding the 22nd and Mission Street property, “Year after year, the same violations were noted by the Fire Department with no corrective actions taken – no citations, no penalties, no lawsuits,” she said, pointing to a graphic that showed life safety violations of the Fire Code on Fire Department reports, on 15 different dates over a four year period.

Michael Bustamante of the Coalition United to Save the Mission, termed the situation “a crisis.” He reiterated a finding from the recently issued report of the Fire Safety Task Force: “Withhold business licenses from owners running unsafe buildings,” he said. “Things won’t change without stiff penalties and consequences.”

Iris Bibliowitz, a tenant activist from the San Francisco Tenants Union (and one of their best volunteers for nearly 30 years), asked, “Where was the Fire Department?  The fires are contributing to an emergency state in the Mission and the Fire Department is part of the problem.”

Adam Wood, a board member of the Fire Fighters Union, noted the “defensive tone of the Fire Marshall’s report,” which “misses an opportunity to form a partnership with the community.”

“The Fire Marshall’s report doesn’t paint the whole picture of the impact these fires have had on the community over the last two years,” Wood said.  He called for “more inspectors with more authority.”

Carnaval founder Roberto Hernandez, excoriated the Fire Commission for initially refusing to hold a meeting in the Mission.  Hernandez also noted the absence of Fire Chief Hayes-White, “at a time when our neighborhood is in crisis.”

“There are plenty of uniformed personnel here who are very eloquent,” Hernandez said, “Any one of them could have covered for the Chief at her other speaking engagement.”

Joshua Arce of Laborers’ Union 261 spoke of the picket line his group had organized at the 22nd and Mission site, due to the owners’ choice of contractor.  “It’s time to send a message… and put this building in the community’s hands,” he said.  Arce is running for Supervisor and Democratic Central Committee on the real estate-backed “perform” slate.

The Fire Commissioners were quick to disassociate themselves from the meeting controversy, leaving one to wonder if the resistance came from the party who was not in the room.  Commission President Frances Covington promised an internal task force and future meetings in the Mission.

Will we look back at this night as a watershed moment in the Mission? Or will it be just another snub from the powers-that-be?  Stay tuned.

Filed under: San Francisco News