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Don't Go Chasing Fire Sprinklers 

Wednesday, Jun 10 2015
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On the night of Jan. 28, Topher Lafata and his fiancé had plans to move in together in his Mission District apartment, where he had lived for 18 years.

Fate had other plans.

That night, a suspected electrical failure at 3222 22nd St., where Lafata lived, would spark the first deadly blaze of the year. The conflagration raged until the early morning hours, when firefighters finally overpowered it. Lafata and more than 60 other residents were rendered instantly homeless, and 36 charred businesses were boarded up and abandoned. One man, Mauricio Orellana, died of smoke inhalation.

As the smoldering wreckage cooled, its former tenants numbly tried to piece together what would come next.

"Losing everything you are familiar with in the blink of an eye is a harrowing experience," said Lafata, also known as the electro-rap artist and producer Gold Chains.

The fire took many things away from Lafata — his apartment, his cat, and all of his personal recording equipment. It also took San Francisco from him: Over the years, rent control had shielded Lafata from the city's endlessly rising real estate prices. Now, with that shield reduced to ash, there was no way he could afford to stick around.

Lafata and his fiancé went looking for a new home across the bay. It was like "being forced to break up" with his community, he said. And compared to what he used to pay, Oakland offered little succor. "My rent has more than doubled," he said.

The massive, burned shell in the Mission District became a symbol and an ill omen, reminding politicians that San Francisco's bank of older, rent-controlled homes are not only slowly evaporating — as real estate speculators take units off the market — they're also apt to go up in smoke. Since the January inferno, four other Mission District buildings have caught fire, displacing at least 15 people. One of the fires took the lives of Amal Shaibi, 13, and her father, Mohamed. Another fire in the Tenderloin displaced 18 people. Another, near Alamo Square, displaced 25, according to neighborhood news site Hoodline.com. All had been under rent control.

Supervisors Jane Kim and David Campos, who represent much of the territory where the fires occurred, are trying to set up a Fire Safety Task Force. Possible solutions to the rash of fires include compelling building owners to install sprinkler systems, an idea Kim broached at an April meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Committee. There, the city's chief housing inspector guessed that about 5,000 buildings lack the kinds of sprinklers that would save lives and property.

Building owners have pushed back hard on the idea. They say installing sprinklers in older buildings can be invasive enough to temporarily dislodge tenants. "You need to literally put pipes in the ceiling," said Robert Noelke of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute. Besides, sprinklers aren't cheap. Brook Turner, executive director for the Coalition for Better Housing, recounted one property owner's tab: $350,000.

That's a lot of dough but, ah, here's the rub: Though building owners initially foot that bill, city law allows them to make the money back by slowly raising rents over time, even in rent-controlled buildings. It's called a "pass-through."

For many tenants in the city's aging rent-controlled buildings, that pass-through might stack on top of another one. Right now, thousands of buildings are undergoing mandatory, costly earthquake retrofits, and those landlords will be able to recoup 100 percent of their costs in the same manner.

For residents of the old buildings, it's a catch-22: If the fires or earthquakes don't get you, the costs of surviving them will.

About The Author

Noah Arroyo

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