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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

Page 3 of 4

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."

About The Author

Mary Spicuzza


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