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Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! (Yawn.) 

Lame city regulation leaves burned-out residents of nine SRO hotels completely SOL

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999
As video of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake rolls on the small television screen, one woman in the audience visibly winces; a piece of the Bay Bridge is no longer there, and an unsuspecting car is sucked downward into the abyss. "Which section of San Francisco was hit the most?" she asks, gesticulating with the potato chip clenched like a cigarette between her fingers. The crowd throws up other semirandom queries: Is BART safe during a quake? Do you need canned food? Are you supposed to stand in a doorway? As a whole, though, the audience, a group of 40 or so people dressed primarily in drab, '80s, thrift-store fare, seems more restless than interested. A Russian woman in a purple velour leisure suit sleeps soundly, tongue resting on her bottom lip.

"Now, fire extinguishers have needles," Fire Department Inspector Kaan Chin says, abruptly switching off the video, "that show you the pressure is working." The segue to fire safety is sudden, confusing. The audience, a collection of survivors of residential hotel fires, had come to this windowless Mission District conference room for a city fire prevention workshop; somehow earthquake preparedness training had intervened. Now, it seems, they are back to the subject of fire.

Again, marginally pertinent questions fly: Where can you get a fire extinguisher charged? Should you use the elevator during a fire? What about sprinkler systems?

"Shouldn't there be a law in San Francisco that everyone has to have a smoke detector?" asks a small man, his thin hair tied back with a rubber band. "Wouldn't this cut all this out?"

A chorus of yeses has Inspector Chin looking overwhelmed; he grabs a detector, one of three, from his display. Several people in the crowd ask the price.

During the last two years, nine single room occupancy hotels, or SROs, have caught fire in San Francisco, displacing more than 600 residents, most of them low-income. As part of a new, "aggressive" response, the city formed an SRO task force that, among other things, decided to put $245,000 into education. This is one of the results: trying to teach fire prevention to the drunks, drug addicts, mentally ill, and other people who reside in SROs.

Even the community organizations that work closely with the SRO community have doubts. "It's Fire Prevention 101," says Richard Marquez, co-founder of Mission Agenda, a 3-year-old group that works to improve conditions for the homeless and SRO residents. "Within the limited confines of public service, it has some value. But without an enforcement and litigation component, it becomes meaningless over time. It shifts the burden of responsibility onto tenants."

A review of public records suggests that, in response to the fires, the city has indeed done little but blame down-and-out SRO residents. City fire and building codes intended to reduce the incidence of fire are only sporadically enforced. Even when repeated violations are noted, those records show, city agencies seldom refer SRO cases to the city attorney for litigation. In a city with severe housing shortages and the type of boom economy that ought to spur private residential construction, eight of the nine SROs ravaged by fire remain empty and unrepaired; in at least some cases, the city's own rent control ordinances appear to be the reason. And as private rebuilding efforts have failed to materialize, the city has made few moves of its own to provide affordable housing for the more than 600 SRO residents displaced by the fires.

But fire prevention classes are held every week. Pizza and chips are always free.

In May 1997, James Hensley left his room at the Star Hotel to cash his welfare check at the manager's window; not long thereafter, other tenants reported a fire that gave Hensley second- and third-degree burns to his neck, shoulders, and face when he ran into his room for his belongings. The blaze, which the Fire Department determined had been caused by "discarded or unattended smoking materials," displaced 53 tenants.

The Delta Hotel at Sixth and Mission streets burned that August. Jerry Moore, a smoker who had been drinking throughout the day, briefly left his room, then returned to find it thick with smoke. The cause of the fire again was found to be discarded smoking materials. One resident died of smoke inhalation; 180 tenants were burned out of their rooms.

About a year later, fire struck the Jerry Hotel on 16th Street, forcing out all 20 residents; the blaze is still under investigation as a possible case of arson.

On Dec. 22, 1998, the Leland Hotel on Polk Street burned due to a welding accident; another 90 residents were forced to move.

A week later, just two days shy of 1999, fire destroyed the Thor Hotel at Mission and 17th streets, leaving its 53 residents -- some in T-shirts, some without shoes -- housed in a Muni bus overnight. According to fire investigation reports, the blaze started in tenant Roger Wayard's room. The reports, which describe Wayard as drunk and vomiting, say he insisted that the fire had been started by a man he had befriended and left in his room. The cause was determined to be a hot plate left on Wayard's bed.

Two months later, on Feb. 12, the Hartland residential hotel on Geary at Larkin caught fire, burning 150 people out of their homes. The case is under investigation as possible arson.

Then on March 1, the Park Hotel at Sutter and Grant went up in smoke, displacing another 100 tenants. The cause of the fire, which began in an air well, remains undetermined.

The Park fire marked the seventh major residential hotel blaze in less than two years. With each new fire, the media buzz grew. Images of displaced tenants were splashed across the newspapers. Outraged that the city hadn't moved fast enough to find housing for those tenants, low-income housing advocates joined with Supervisor Tom Ammiano and several city departments to spearhead a comprehensive fire prevention and response plan. A task force was formed; it would draft legislation that advocates hoped would resolve a situation they deemed a "slow-motion emergency."

About The Author

Dara Colwell


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