Franciscan Towers resident gets new lease on life

Desiree Barnes, 57, sits in her Franciscan Towers apartment with her dog snow. The low-income housing building in the Tenderloin was rebuilt after a large fire in April 2011, and tenants were recently allowed to return. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Long-time Tenderloin resident Desiree Barnes comes home from her overnight job as a security guard to a messy apartment most mornings.

Her beloved Chihuahua-­terrier mix “Snow” has usually strewn his toys all over the apartment. One time, Barnes even found a Mickey Mouse toy in the bathtub.

“He looked at me with his big brown eyes like to say, ‘Oh, Mommy, I’m tired,” Barnes, 57, recalled with a laugh.
Barnes, however, doesn’t mind the mess. She’s just happy to have an apartment to come home to. Three months ago, Barnes was living in a temporary single-­room occupancy unit at the Ambassador Hotel on Mason Street, around the corner from her current home at the Franciscan Towers at 217 Eddy St.

But Barnes’ new home isn’t just an apartment. It’s the first apartment she ever lived in, the place she called home from 1994 when she pulled herself out of a lifetime of homelessness until April 5, 2011, when a three­-alarm fire ripped through the six­-story building and left 125 residents, including Barnes, displaced.

“That night was really frightening,” Barnes said, her usually cheerful voice lowered. “We had to go down the fire escape. We had to go to the emergency room because [my dog] inhaled some smoke and I inhaled some smoke. Everything turned out all right, thank God.” The official notice that Barnes would be allowed to move back into her old home came last winter, after the nonprofit developer Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation that owns the Franciscan Towers and 30 other residential buildings in The City completed a more than $31 million rehabilitation of the 105­-unit building.

The repairs conducted were significantly greater than what was required or what the insurance proceeds provided from the fire, said Don Falk, the TNDC’s chief executive director. On top of insurance money, the TNDC raised another $15 million to conduct seismic, plumbing, electrical and mechanical upgrades.
“We ended up with a settlement that we could have restored what was damaged, but instead we saw this as a great opportunity,” Falk said.

Occupied rehab projects, in which one floor is vacated at a time, are much more challenging and drastically reduce the scope of work, he added. That’s why the TNDC opted for a greater level of improvements that otherwise may not have been possible.

“Here we had a damaged, empty building, so we took advantage of that opportunity to do a rehab we couldn’t do if the building was occupied,” Falk said.

Today, the white building stands out amid others the Tenderloin neighborhood. Fresh paint coats the walls, and residents like Barnes are enjoying amenities added with the building’s rehab, including a new laundry area, community room and full kitchen in the basement.

TNDC offices and the Tenderloin After­School Program, both of which originally occupied the Franciscan Towers building, have moved back in after temporarily relocating to trailers across the street.

A third of the building, which still has 105 units, is devoted to homeless residents. Others must earn no more than $40,750 annually to qualify for residency there. The units are primarily studios, some of which are large enough for two people, and some one-­bedrooms.

Liz Orlin, TNDC’s chief operating officer, and Delene Rankin, a social work unit manager at the nonprofit, both came to San Francisco the night the Franciscan Towers caught fire, along with other staff members.

They look back today on the fire and the weeks and months that followed, in which every resident who was displaced was ultimately offered a temporary home at another TNDC property while the building was repaired, with a shared sense of accomplishment.

“In a way, it was the most vivid reminder of how important affordable housing is,” Orlin said of the fire.

Rankin said she was especially grateful that many of the residents were able to stay close, at least temporarily.
“That was a big goal of ours, to keep our folks close to home until we could bring them back home,” said Rankin.

Of course, not all of the 125 displaced residents returned when the building reopened in August, though everyone was offered his or her unit back. Some had moved away. Some died. Some had children and need more space.

But Barnes is one of a handful of residents who opted to return.

“Everything in here is brand new,” said Barnes, beaming, as she clutched her dog Snow in her lap and looked around her apartment.

“I love coming home from work. I run home from work,” she said. “I love my home.”

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