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City’s response to Geary Boulevard disaster reflects lessons from fires of the past

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PG&E crews work at the site of a gas line explosion and subsequent fire outside the Hong Kong Lounge II restaurant at Geary Boulevard and Parker Avenue on Friday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Licking the sky above Geary Boulevard for hours, the five-story-tall flames from Wednesday’s gas line explosion did more than just ravage a building.

They destroyed at least one family’s decades-long home, a beloved restaurant, and left a nonprofit that helps homeless children itself homeless, or at least its Richmond District branch.

But San Francisco has long-ago learned hard-wrought lessons in aiding displaced merchants and tenants, after fires from the Mission District to Chinatown prompted new laws to emerge that aid San Franciscans long after flames have been extinguished.

From merchant financial assistance to programs finding housing for displaced tenants, even skeptical sources say when it comes to fire San Francisco is The City That Knows How.

And soon, perhaps only weeks after this Geary Boulevard and Parker Avenue fire, a newly introduced anti-vacancy law may help other tenants displaced from fires regain their homes.

But resources only help when you know who to give them to. City officials are still trying to identify every tenant displaced in Wednesday’s fires, and are urging anyone in need of city assistance to contact the Human Services Agency, Office of Economic and Workforce Development, or The Mayor’s Office.

“My first priority is to help those who have been affected by the fire, and my office is available to help connect people with housing and services,” said Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents the neighborhood affected by the explosion. “I will also work with City departments to determine what exactly caused this gas explosion so we can prevent future emergency situations.”

While it is known a gas line was hit as contractor MasTec installed fiber optic lines, federal and city agencies are still investigating fault.

So far The City has identified four displaced tenants in need of housing, The Mayor’s Office said late Friday evening.

These tenants have not been named. At least one among them did not qualify to be provided city-subsidized housing but is being placed in the “Good Samaritan” program, which matches up tenants displaced from disasters with landlords who have vacant apartments, under the agreement that these rentals are not subject to rent control.

Some among those tenants, The Mayor’s Office confirmed, lived above the burned-out Hong Kong Lounge II restaurant, though this family has said they are staying with relatives for now.

Although it is not confirmed that this family is the same as the one who reached out to The City, the Chinese-language newspaper The World Journal identified one tenant living above Hong Kong Lounge II for 38 years as Liu Aying, a 64-year-old man who recently was laid off from his job just this year. Aying said he lived above Hong Kong Lounge II with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law.

Nearby landlords have also given clues about more possibly displaced tenants. Warren Li, who owns property across Parker Street from Hong Kong Lounge II, told the San Francisco Examiner in an email that he still needs to repair water damage to his building and “help my tenants get back to normal ASAP.”

There are four apartment units in his building, three of which will be habitable in “a few days,” but one of the units will take “weeks” to get back to normal. Commercial tenants on the ground floor also experienced flooding from the roof.

Though all of the Geary Boulevard fire’s displaced tenants have yet to be identified, recent history in San Francisco shows two possible paths they could take.

In Chinatown, 19 displaced tenants returned home within a year-and-a-half after one savage fire, whereas in The Mission, a community of 60 people displaced by a fire never saw their building rebuilt, and were dispersed across The City.

In both cases, sources said the key difference between whether the tenants returned home, or not, was the landlord.

Chinatown landlord cooperates with city

The fire that tore through Chinatown’s Golden Plaza on 801 Pacific Avenue left 19 single room occupancy hotel tenants, mostly seniors, displaced in its aftermath, as well as several markets.

But Supervisor Aaron Peskin said the aftermath was a tale of a community coming together, rallying as quickly as possible to find housing for its elders.

“Literally in minutes after the fire,” Peskin said, the Chinatown Community Development Center, a housing nonprofit, sent staffers to spend the night with people at the Salvation Army and offer translation services for emergency officials. Even Lava Mae, the mobile shower service for the homeless, showed up with a shower truck because there are no showers at the Chinatown Salvation Army, he said.

Funding from The City’s fire response rental subsidy program helped those seniors pay market-rate rent while they temporarily stayed in other apartments and SROs, which the late Mayor Ed Lee, CCDC and many in the Chinatown community swiftly acted to find for them.

By September 15, 2018, every senior except for one (who found preferable housing elsewhere) moved back into the SRO. That’s because Burton Lee, the landlord of the burned building, worked hand-in-hand with The City to rebuild as quickly as possible, Peskin and others said.

“It was really a moving experience for me” to see the community mobilize so overwhelmingly Peskin said. “It doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because we have community leaders and people in The City who go the extra mile.”

Latino tenants flung far from the Mission

Displaced Chinatown merchants in that 2017 fire were also aided by a fund from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which now disburses $10,000 grants to businesses destroyed in natural disasters.

After the Geary Boulevard fire, that same fund will likely help Hong Kong Lounge II and the youth nonprofit Huckleberry House get back on their feet.

Joaquin Torres, director of OEWD, said that fund was launched with $200,000 after The City initially struggled to help merchants displaced in a deadly 2015 fire at 22nd and Mission Streets.

“There were significant barriers,” to accessing business loans, Torres said, “We really felt during that time very strongly that we had to create a much more flexible fund we could work with our partners on.”

Those emergency funds are dispersed by the Mission Economic Development Agency, a nonprofit that partners with The City. Christopher Gil, a spokesperson for MEDA, was glad to see the success in helping merchants get back on their feet. But he noted that the building that burned at 22nd and Mission Streets to this day has yet to be rebuilt.

“The owner hasn’t done anything with it at this point,” Gil said. “He hasn’t built anything, he hasn’t sold it. If you go by there, it’s just a hole in the ground — what are we at, four years?”

That had major impacts for the 60 displaced tenants as well, he said. Many were offered affordable housing on Treasure Island, and some landed in Parkmerced.

Jorge and Lucia Flores lived at 22nd and Mission Streets for 19 years. Jorge was burned by the fire, but survived.

The Flores family was relocated to the Parkmerced apartments in below-market-rate housing, but even though they and the other tenants have a right to return to 22nd and Mission Street, because it has never been rebuilt, they have no home to return to.

As immigrants from El Salvador, they still shop and eat in The Mission, where they find cultural touchstones, they told MEDA in 2017 — Parkmerced doesn’t feel quite like home.

In the coming weeks, Peskin plans to introduce a vacancy tax at the Board of Supervisors, to ding property owners who leave storefronts empty. But, he told the Examiner, in the language the City Attorney’s Office and his office are drafting now, it’s possible the tax could also target landlords who fail to rebuild damaged properties in a timely fashion — leaving tenants out in the cold.

“There are property owners who are less scrupulous and will wait them out” so that they can raise rents. “We don’t want vacant land, we want to house people on our land.”

As for the residents of Geary Boulevard and Parker Avenue, no matter what city services they eventually use, they’ll undoubtedly benefit from fires that came before.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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