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Power Failure 

A three-month electrical outage exposed a tenderloin apartment building as a firetrap. How did the nonprofit property manager let things get so bad?

Wednesday, Feb 28 2007
Ali Algahim was working his usual night shift as a janitor when his family called to tell him the lights had gone out. He was worried and wanted to rush home, but didn't have anybody to fill in for him. When he returned to his small, one-bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin three hours later, he found his wife and four children without heat, without electricity, and without hot water.

The family tried to be patient after the Nov. 13 power outage. They had lived in the building at the corner of Polk and Post for nearly 15 years and there were occasional problems — rats and roaches — but nothing horrific. The five-story building, after all, was 100 years old and the rent was reasonable, only $875. They didn't even mind the ugly billboards hanging on either side of their building, or the store windows belonging to the ground-floor shops that usually glow with beer ads, signs reading "checks cashed," and red neon lights lining the porn shop.

For Algahim and those renting the other 35 apartments there, this was home. So they waited when the landlord assured them the power would be back on soon.

A second night passed without the power coming back on. Then came a third night of darkness. The Algahims lived by candlelight and bathed with cold water heated on their gas stove. Algahim's wife fell down the darkened stairs and hurt her back. Before the power outage, he'd been watching his cholesterol and trying to work out regularly at the gym. Suddenly, he was bringing home Burger King or pizza almost every night. He'd moved to the United States from Yemen hoping to make a better life for his family, but between taking his children to school in the morning, walking them home in the afternoon, and rushing to work at night, he was exhausted. At least his home in Yemen had electricity. He called the landlord again, only to be told again that things would be fixed soon. This time, he lost his patience.

Furious, Algahim called city officials because management seemed slow to fix the problem. He didn't know the power failure was the symptom of a disaster waiting to happen. If the lights hadn't gone out, it could have all ended much worse — with the whole building going up in flames. Faulty wiring had caused the power outage — faulty wiring that, it turns out, an electrician had warned about in 2003 but was apparently never fixed properly. After Algahim's and others' calls, the city red-tagged the building as a fire hazard and ordered the landlord to evacuate the tenants — mainly Yemeni, Vietnamese, and Chinese immigrant families — for their own safety. Little did they know at the time that it would be months before they could return to their apartments.

"I didn't think this [could] happen in America," Algahim said. "The problem, like we [are] in Africa or the Middle East."

The evacuated apartment building is not managed by some typical slumlord out to maximize profits by skimping on repairs. This is Asian Inc., a nonprofit that has a stated goal to help the "unserved and underserved" by providing "decent, safe, sanitary" and affordable housing for San Francisco residents.

Residents were assured by Asian Inc. that they would be back home as soon as possible, but one month passed and the power still hadn't been restored, then two months. February began, and the residents still were stuck living in hotels, although they continued paying rent on their apartments. At least one family squeezed as many as eight people into one hotel room, too afraid to ask for more space. During that time, some reported that Asian Inc. moved them to different hotel rooms over and over again.

Danny Dang, who has lived in the building for about 14 years with his wife and son, says his family moved four times from one hotel to another while waiting to return home. "It make you feel bad," he said, while staying at one of the hotels earlier this month.

Dang works as a janitor and his wife does nails, leaving them without much money to spare. Being away from home — in a hotel with no cooking facilities — forced Dang and others to eat out all the time. Many became reliant on cheap fast food. Dang says he and his family were eating McDonald's almost every day. Dang's neighbors complained that constantly eating fast food was making their elderly relatives sick. "I have been so busy taking my relatives to the hospital that I have had to quit school and English classes for this semester," one building resident wrote in a December letter to Supervisor Chris Daly.

The building owner, a for-profit partnership with ties to Asian Inc. named 1030 Polk Associates, had initially paid a $30-a-day food allowance to help residents. But a Dec. 12 notice from Asian Inc. told tenants that the owner couldn't provide any food money for the next three weeks, citing a "cash shortage." It added that the owner intended to pay the allowance at a later time.

Some say they never got food allowance payments after mid-December. But Asian Inc. President Michael Chan insists the allowance was simply "deferred" due to the approximately $300,000 owners have spent to handle the situation. The organization tried to disrupt tenants' lives as little as possible, Chan said, and mainly moved them from different hotels due to pre-existing reservations during the busy holiday season. "It's very remarkable that you would have owners meeting the shelter needs and the food needs" of its tenants, Chan said.

To Asian Inc.'s credit, the organization put up tenants from its Polk Street building in decent places like the Cathedral Hill Hotel while they waited for the power to be restored.

But the evacuated tenants may be entitled to money under the newly passed Proposition H, which requires relocation payments for no-fault evictions and temporary evictions due to capital improvement work, said Tim Lee, a senior administrative law judge with the city's Rent Board. He added that the courts would have to decide whether this case is indeed an eviction.

It wasn't just the residents who were affected by the power outage. Four shops on the ground floor, including the Polk Valley Launderette, lost electricity, too.

"No power, no good," said Tony Chan, owner of the Launderette, while brushing clothes in his shop with a lint roller.

His wife added that three months was a long time to go without electricity. "In Hong Kong, one week," she said. "Very fast."

Earlier this month, Joseph Khalaf, the owner of J&D Grocery and Liquor, walked through the dark, cluttered aisles of his shop holding a flashlight, passing piles of food and supplies waiting to either be tossed out or restocked. He peered into warm coolers still full of beer and soda he feared had gone flat. And he pointed to a broken window and the front glass doors he says were smashed during the power outage.

He's run J&D Grocery and Liquor since 1997, and over the last 10 years, Khalaf says he and his brothers have worked from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. seven days a week to avoid losing customers to the competition. He worries that many of his regular customers have started shopping somewhere else, and thinks that closing down for three months cost him more than $200,000 in sales.

Khalaf started keeping a binder stuffed with papers gathered during the power outage, or what the family calls his "stress vacation." He says that more than three years ago, Asian Inc. had been put on notice about the building's faulty wiring.

Back in May 2003 Khalaf had a power failure and hired an electrician to fix it. The electrician, he says, discovered that a previous contractor had botched the electrical work, posing a serious safety hazard to not just the store, but the whole building, including the 36 apartments above. The Department of Building Inspection issued a correction notice to the building's owner, a limited partnership that's owned the property since July 1992, the following month.

Records show that a contractor hired by Asian Inc. in 2004 took out a permit to fix the problem. However, there are no records showing whether the work was ever done. James Sanbonmatsu, coordinator of the code enforcement outreach program for the Department of Building Inspection, says the contractor never contacted the city to do a follow-up inspection to review its electrical work.

Sanbonmatsu says it's the responsibility of a contractor to arrange an inspection after obtaining a permit. "This contractor did not do the right thing," he said. "And the owner is responsible."

The Khalaf family also holds Asian Inc. and its partners responsible. "All of this would have never happened if the landlord did what he was supposed to do," said Saeed Khalaf, 26, who helps his older brother run the store.

Asian Inc. was founded in 1971 by the late Harold Yee, a Chinese community activist with political connections from the Avenues to Chinatown to City Hall. Over the years he earned the reputation as a relentless taskmaster, an eternal optimist, and an inspiration to others before dying in 2004 following heart surgery. "He really was a great man, one of those once-in-a-lifetime leaders who really devoted his whole life to the community," said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who cites Yee as one of the reasons she got into politics. "You don't find too many people like that today."

Yee was reputed to have started more than 100 charities, although Asian Inc. was his crowning achievement. By the year of his death, Asian Inc. reported $2.3 million in net assets. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gushed in a memorial statement to the House of Representatives, "Asian Inc. helped launch many minority-owned small businesses in San Francisco, trained young professionals for the rigors of running their own businesses, and encouraged the development of trade associations."

Yee's charity also boasted creating more affordable housing in the city. Asian Inc. manages about a dozen apartment buildings including the market-rate apartments on Polk Street, says current President Michael Chan.

Asian Inc.'s Web site says that through public-private partnerships, the organization has mobilized more than $62 million in funds for affordable housing projects, assisted in the new construction and rehabilitation of more than 800 housing units, and directly manages more than 250 units.

Last year, one of those "public-private" partnerships attracted unwanted attention for Asian Inc. Back in October during a committee hearing, Supervisor Aaron Peskin railed against Asian Inc. for its involvement in what Peskin and others have labeled a "scam" at another Tenderloin apartment building at 1030 Post St. At the Post Street building, a profit-driven real estate developer used tax dollars earmarked for affordable housing to buy the place and make it less affordable. The developer, KDF Communities LLC, hired Asian Inc. for $50,000 to help with that property's renovation. (See "Rent to Evict," SF Weekly, Nov. 8, 2006.)

Peskin ended the hearing with a clear message to the nonprofit and its president: "And then finally, to Michael Chan and Asian Inc., I will remember that you guys aided and abetted this, and it is absolutely contrary to everything that you purportedly stand for, that Asian Inc. purportedly stands for," he said. "Which is to protect low-income tenants with affordable housing opportunities in San Francisco."

Peskin added, "For $50,000, to sell these good people down the river is unconscionable, Michael."

The Tenderloin building on Polk Street that lost power for more than three months was also one of Asian Inc.'s public-private partnerships. While Asian Inc. manages the building, it's owned by 1030 Polk Associates, a for-profit partnership that includes another local charity for which Chan is treasurer, the Neighborhood Housing Renewal Corporation, and a local contractor named Matthew Huey. Huey, who says he's a silent partner for 1030 Polk Associates, came under scrutiny in 2005 when under Mabel Teng he had more than $100,000 cut from the assessed value of a property he owns. Huey, Teng's personal contractor, had contributed $500 to her campaign. Teng later resigned.

Until now, Huey has heard little criticism over the conditions at the Polk Street building. Before the recent power outage, the building had drawn far less serious complaints. It had a problem with bed bugs. The elevator broke down last fall. The heat stopped working occasionally.

City code enforcement coordinator Sanbonmatsu says that while his office does get complaints about Asian Inc. properties periodically, they are typically "not to this degree."

The building's electrical problems were so severe that PG&E spokeswoman Melissa Mooney said a company "Trouble Man" sent to the site had no choice but to shut off power completely. "PG&E has an obligation to safety of life and property," she said. "The Trouble Man quite possibly and probably saved this property and owners from more serious consequences."

When the Trouble Man arrived, he found the main wiring in the basement burnt out and the control panel smoking badly. He could also smell burnt insulation.

Then an electrician, initially called in by Asian Inc. to repair the problem, said he discovered a fire hazard throughout the basement due to illegal, dangerous wiring. But the problems didn't get fixed right away. In fact, tenants say Asian Inc. and its partners dragged their feet fixing the problem.

The landlord may have also added as many as four weeks to the project, according to PG&E. One delay was caused when the company changed its contractor and the scope of work at the site, and another when the new contractor waited until after the first of the year to start excavation, Mooney said in an e-mail.

There were additional obstacles to getting power restored. On Nov. 22 another notice of violation was issued. This one said the basement was a "rodent harborage" overwhelmed by mice, fleas, and cockroaches — as well as stuffed with other fire hazards like piles of debris, old furniture, and boxes.

But Matthew Huey, a contractor who's also one of the general partners of 1030 Polk Associates, says he moved quickly after learning of the situation. However, he says nobody told him about the power outage until mid-December. Huey's company took over as the contractor on the job and hired an electrician as a subcontractor (different from the electrician who initially examined the building after the power was shut down). He estimates that about $180,000 of work was done, including more than $45,000 paid to PG&E.

By Feb. 4, after nearly three months of hoping he and his family could return home any day, Algahim looked worn out. That Sunday afternoon he sat next to the stove in the kitchen of his small, darkened apartment with his son, Yahyia, while taking a break from helping his wife and daughters clean. Yahyia, 8, crouched near his father and complained that he missed his mom's cooking and was sick of eating hamburgers, pizza, and Indian food.

Finally, on Feb. 6 PG&E workers arrived at 3 a.m. to re-energize the building. By just after 8 a.m., a PG&E crew were winding down a rickety set of narrow wooden stairs that led into the dark, cavernous basement. Minutes later, a bulb hanging over the stoop in front of the building illuminated. Outside a few eager tenants who'd gathered at the front gate cheered when they saw the bulb go on. "Yeah!" cheered one tenant, pumping his fist in the air. Afterward, an older resident wearing a long white tunic walked back and forth about four times carrying stuffed garbage bags and supplies. A woman yanked her luggage back and forth trailed by a young girl pulling her own small pink heart-shaped suitcase. Some families walked along lugging shopping bags, others arrived home by taxi.

Algahim was relieved to be returning to his family's cramped apartment, but talked about how things could have been handled differently. "If something happen to other people," he said, "I hope they do better next time."

For the next few hours, the mass migration of residents hauling their belongings back home was unceasing — perhaps because a letter from Asian Inc. told them they needed to be out of their hotel rooms by noon that day, or they would be billed for any extra time.

As for the building itself, it remained a work in progress during the homecoming. On Feb. 7, the day after residents moved back in, a city building inspector issued a new notice of violation. It ordered the landlord to comply with a variety of requirements, including cleaning and sanitizing the hallway carpets and storage area, providing pest and rodent control measures, repairing fireproofing to the basement area, replacing expired batteries in smoke detectors, and having the fire-escape ladder, crank, and cable as well as all moving parts inspected. Those problems are being corrected, according to city building officials.

But the check-cashing shop may ask for help covering lost wages, and the Khalaf family has been debating whether to file a lawsuit over expenses for J&D Grocery and Liquor. Lately, Khalaf has been busy dealing with some of his neighbors and local police officers who had hoped the liquor shop would go out of business. "Obviously, we would like to see it permanently closed," Capt. Kevin Dillon said at a recent Lower Polk Neighbors association meeting.

Aside from Polk Street residents, few people contacted by SF Weekly had even heard about the power outage on Polk Street. And among those living there, many who voiced frustration with the situation didn't want to be quoted because they feared they'd be punished by the landlord.

This reluctance to come forward, as well as a language barrier, may be why James Keys from Supervisor Daly's office got only one complaint about the power outage. But, he said, while Asian Inc. "could have been a little better with the dissemination of information" to residents, he's heard far more complaints about other property management companies. "This is the first Asian Inc. incident that I've ever had, and one doesn't make you a bad person," Keys said. "This will give Asian Inc. the opportunity to clean the building up. I can only hope that they learn from this incident and move forward in a positive light."

As for Algahim, he says he has been warned by other residents not to complain about the power outage. But he insists he's not afraid to speak his mind. "We are in America," he said. "We have the justice here."

About The Author

Mary Spicuzza


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