Scott Strazzante / San Francisco Chronicle / AP

Hot rental market sparks suspicions of landlord arson in San Francisco

More than 200 residents displaced by fires in and around rapidly gentrifying Mission District over past three years

SAN FRANCISCO — A city official held a public hearing in March about the unusually high number of apartment fires in recent years that have hit the Mission District, the neighborhood at the center of San Francisco’s gentrification crisis. Many locals and housing rights activists believe some of the fires may be landlord arson — efforts by building owners to push out lower-income tenants in favor of higher-paying ones.

“There are a lot of suspicions on the part of some folks. Is there arson? Is there malfeasance?” Supervisor David Campos asked during the hearing. Satirical posters pasted around the neighborhood by the direct action group Gay Shame warn of the “PYROflipper,” a “time-saving app” that offers landlords in the tech-saturated city an innovative way to continue the San Francisco tradition of “burning people out of their homes for profit.”

San Francisco has some of the nation’s strongest tenant protections, including rent control. In buildings built before 1979, landlords may increase rent only 1 or 2 percent each year until tenants vacate their apartments.

According to the SF Human Services Agency, at least 223 residents have been displaced in and around the Mission District because of fires in the past three years. No one keeps track of what happens to these people after they’re burned out of their homes. But with the median rent for one-bedroom apartments at $3,500 per month, many can’t afford to stay in the city.

The problem recalls the frequent fires of an earlier housing crisis in San Francisco, during the 1970s and 1980s. The low-income International Hotel in what is now North Beach became an icon of this earlier housing battle as developers sought to redevelop the area, then known as Manilatown. Arson attempts at the I-Hotel were so frequent, community members established night watches, with volunteers stationed in the basement and cars parked nearby, keeping in contact using CB radios.

A 1975 fire at the five-story Gartland Apartments in the Mission District left 12 dead. The Gartland’s owner was Beatrice Presant, whose buildings experienced as many as 20 fires in the two years preceding the Gartland fire.

Housing activist and local journalist Lynda Carson believes she was the victim of landlord arson in 1985, when she was burned out of a low-income hotel in nearby Berkeley.

One of her neighbors died while trying to escape the fire through a window. “She bounced off the fire escape and landed on the sidewalk below and died from her injuries,” remembered Carson. The owners of the UC Hotel were never convicted of any crime.

Fire officials investigate whether fire alarms and fire escapes were working properly after a massive blaze ripped through a Mission District building in January, killing a man and injuring five other people.
Ben Margot / AP

For a landlord with a rent-controlled building, a fire could be a boon. Insurance covers the rebuild, and any tenants who don’t move back — such as those who died or who can’t afford to wait for the reconstruction — make room for market-rate tenants.

Arson is a nearly perfect crime. Bill Smith, a retired fire captain from nearby Fairfield, explained how difficult they are to prove. “There’s a very small percentage, probably less than 5 percent, that make it to court,” he said. “How are you going to link someone to [arson] unless you actually observe them doing it? It’s that tough.”

Carson has written several articles about the 2011 case of landlord Richard Singer, who was found guilty of soliciting a professional arsonist from New York to burn down Singer’s Hotel Menlo in Oakland. Singer admitted in court that he agreed to pay $65,000 to a federal informant who was acting as an arsonist, and Singer was sentenced to 27 months in prison and a $60,000 fine.

“What was strange about Richard Singer is that he got caught before he had a chance to set the building on fire,” Carson said.

She, like many others, believes many more Richard Singers are lurking in the Bay Area.

“Given the hot rental market we’re in — no pun intended there — I don’t think anybody can be too paranoid,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a longtime housing organizer with the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee. “Landlords are doing all kinds of things to be able to increase rents on rent-controlled apartments. San Francisco really has become a cutthroat city, and it’s all because of the real estate market and everyone wanting to make a billion dollars.”

Paul Boden directs the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a local housing rights organization. He said the problem isn’t unique to the Bay Area. “I grew up in New York, and the South Bronx was burning all the time. In Detroit, buildings were burning all the time,” he said. “It seems to be one of the facets of gentrification. But I couldn’t prove it. It’s just an educated assumption on my part. And it’s a hell of coincidence.”

‘I grew up in New York, and the South Bronx was burning all the time. In Detroit, buildings were burning all the time. It seems to be one of the facets of gentrification.’

Paul Boden

housing rights advocate

In January one of the largest blazes the city has suffered in years razed a three-story building at 22nd and Mission streets, next door to Vida, a posh new high-rise where two-bedroom apartments rent for $7,500 per month. One person died, and 40 were displaced.

Alessandro González, 13, was home alone in his family’s second-floor apartment when the fire broke out. “I opened the door to see if I could get out. You cannot see nothing, just a bunch of black smoke … It actually hurts just breathing,” he said.

On the street, people watched as he kicked out the window above a fire escape and crawled out with his dog in tow. He pushed his dog off, then jumped into the arms of a police officer below. All his family’s belongings were lost in the fire.

Right now the González family is living on Treasure Island, a spot of land in the middle of the bay with infrequent public transportation. His mother, Mayra González, has put off looking for a new job because of the lengthy commute she now has in order to take her son to school.

Speaking in her native Spanish, she wondered aloud why her family has been relegated to living on an isolated former Navy base where there are concerns of radiation exposure.

Asked whether the apartment blaze could have been the result of landlord arson, she said, “Yes, that has crossed our minds.”

“The day right before the fire, the power went out for three hours, and then the fire alarms would go off by themselves when there wasn’t anyone around. Why would that have happened?” she said, adding that the manager told tenants to ignore the alarms. The day of the fire, the fire alarms failed.

At the San Francisco Fire Department investigation unit, fire examiner John Darmanin pointed to an odorous chunk of electronics on a table in his office. “We discovered surveillance cameras and the recording device. CSI will pick it up and take it to the lab,” he said of the fire that destroyed the Gonzálezes’ home. In the last few years, staff at the unit has been cut from 11 to four — a small investigation team for a city that has 20 to 40 major fires each year.

Darmanin estimated that 60 percent of fires the arson unit is called to investigate are deliberately set, with the rest accidental or undetermined. He said there is officially “no reason to believe” the fire at 22nd and Mission was intentionally set.

Local reporter Tim Redmond, writing on the blog 48Hills, noted that the Fire Department doesn’t account for “surrounding geopolitical circumstances — for example, the fact that landlords are desperately trying to get rid of rent-controlled tenants.”

Darmanin said during the public hearing on March 19 that fire investigation is “a scientific process” and taking into account outside factors might contribute to bias. But Redmond echoed the sentiment of other residents.

“When police investigators look into a series of murders that may be connected, they consider (or should consider) all the relevant factors, including the social and economic context that might tie the killings together.” he wrote. “And that would seem to be something that arson sleuths might consider too.”

Hawk Ling Lou, the owner of the building where the Gonzálezes lived, has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements related to lawsuits for safety violations at the 19 San Francisco buildings he owns. In the case of this recent fire, fire escapes were locked, and the doors to the roof were blocked, but in press interviews, he stated he did nothing wrong.

Mecca, the housing rights organizer, believes that until housing is seen as a common good, many landlords will continue to go to great lengths to maximize profits, even at the expense of human lives.

“Landlords are waging class warfare in San Francisco,” he said. “To preserve long-term tenants in their tenancy, that has to be a goal of the city right now, because the reality is, the biggest stock of affordable housing in the city is the rent-controlled stock.”

Under the city’s right-of-return ordinance, the Gonzálezes are guaranteed a unit at their previous rent ($1,082 per month) after the building at 22nd and Mission is rebuilt.

“It might be a year and a half, two years or more,” said Mayra González. “The law doesn’t tell the landlords how long they have.”

But for now, the building is still boarded up and blackened with smoke. And landlord arson or not, the family is one of many paying the price for the city’s affordability crisis.

With additional reporting by Kentaro Kaneko

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