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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.

About The Author

Mary Spicuzza


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