SF Orders Demolition of Burned Building, Tenants May Lose Right to Return

Friday, February 19, 2016
Linda Wenus with Joe Rivano Barros
Mission Local

The Department of Building Inspection on Friday ordered the demolition of the fire-damaged building at the corner of 22nd and Mission streets, citing a concern that a moderate earthquake would collapse the building outward and cause harm to the public.

If the building is demolished, more than 60 tenants displaced by the fire may lose the right to return to their units after reconstruction.

San Francisco guarantees rent-controlled tenants who are displaced by a fire the right to return to their units after repair at their previous rent, though few do. But with the demolition, that protection no longer applies: New buildings are not subject to rent control because of state law and not subject to the right to return. No-fault evictions on the basis of demolition are also allowed under city law.

District 9 Supervisor David Campos said his office has been scrambling to find a legal solution since word first reached him that the demolition order might be imminent. He said that by state law, demolition removes the landlord’s obligation to offer the displaced tenants their units back.

“The right of return, legally – [it] appears that it is eliminated,” Campos said. “The way the law works right now, there is a perverse incentive, in a way, for the owner to wait. Because if the building becomes so bad, the building has to be demolished, [that] takes away the rights of the tenants.”

It appears that was the case for this building.

Engineers for both Hawk Lou – the building owner – and the Department of Building Inspection have examined the building three times since the fire. In a report dated February 18, the city’s engineers affirmed the opinion of a private engineering company that the site’s fractured structure, sagging under the load of sodden debris, poses a hazard, and indicated it might have been possible to repair the building if this decay had been prevented.

“The initial report last January looked only at the extent of fire damage. It did not anticipate the building would be left in the same state for a year,” the report noted.

Now, the engineers wrote, there is little material left to save. Mold and a structure weakened by water damage pose a hazard to any work crews that would be tasked with making repairs.

“I have no idea why, after this building has sat over a year, why all of the sudden a 72-hour notice is an issue,” said Gordon Kaupp, an attorney representing one of the displaced tenants in a civil suit against Lou. “If it was so imperative, why wasn’t it issued before?”

Kaupp also voiced concern that demolition of the building would destroy any remaining evidence that could be used in the five civil cases against Lou.

“I am very upset that the owner of this building has allowed things to get to this point,” Campos said. “The expectation from the very beginning has been that they’re going to move to fix the building as quickly as possible, so that the residents of this building could move back in, and clearly that hasn’t happened.”

Campos said his office has been trying to find some alternative legal solution for the tenants since he first got word of the demolition, but did not give specific details about what those options might be beyond the possibility of introducing local legislation.

“Unfortunately, it is … because of state law, and there’s only so much we can do,” he said. “But we are going to do everything we can. If we can pass a law to guarantee that locally, we will.”

Lou was ordered by the city on Friday to start the process of demolition within 72 hours. If he ignores the order, the city will take over the demolition and charge him for the work.

According to the Department of Building Inspection, Lou filed applications to repair the third and fourth floors of the building, but they were never approved because necessary information was not provided.

Lou’s attorney did not immediately return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Department of Building Inspection said the department has been in touch with Lou’s legal counsel and believes the landlord will comply with the order. But according to tenants’ rights attorney Scott Weaver, ignoring orders like these rarely meets with severe repercussions.

Matt Dorsey of the City Attorney’s Office would not specifically comment on what enforcement measures could be taken against Lou if he fails to comply.

“We’re working closely with our client department and the property owner’s legal counsel to ensure full and prompt compliance with the order,” Dorsey wrote in an email. “Right now, we have no reason to expect non-compliance. So, I’m disinclined to speculate about our further enforcement options – other than to acknowledge that the City Attorney has enforcement options available to him should they become necessary.”

According to fire investigators, the source of the fire was an electrical short inside a third-floor wall. The blaze completely destroyed the third floor, and the remainder of the building was severely damaged by water, leaving it uninhabitable. Many of the displaced tenants, both residential and commercial, have found temporary refuge but are still struggling with the aftermath of the blaze.

“I’m really sorry that they are in this predicament,” Campos said. “It’s unfair, it’s unjust, and we are trying to see what we can do locally, legally, to address that.”

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