S.F. Tenant Advocate Says City Needs to Add Sprinklers to Fire Safety Initiative

San Francisco firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze in a mixed residential and commercial building at 22nd and Mission streets on Jan. 28, 2015. One person died and more than 60 others were displaced by the fire.  (Rebecca Bowe/KQED)

At least five members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the Fire Department, the Department of Building Inspection and the city's landlords have come out in support of a set of measures aimed at improving fire safety in residential buildings.

But a longtime housing advocate says the proposals don't go far enough because they fail to require sprinkler systems in the city's older apartment buildings.

"Only sprinklers stop tenant displacement and stop fires," said Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

The fire safety measures unveiled by Supervisor David Campos on Tuesday focus in large part on fire alarm systems. Landlords would have to file annual reports with the Department of Building Inspection showing that their devices work and are loud enough to wake sleeping residents.

The head of the San Francisco Apartment Association says that although she's concerned the rules will be overly burdensome to property owners, the group is backing the measures.

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"We do think that this is a first good step in trying to improve fire safety in multi-unit buildings," said Janan New, the group's executive director.

The association has criticized proposals to retrofit older buildings with sprinklers as too expensive and too complicated to install to be practical.

But Shaw said the new safety measures could, and should, go further.

"It's fine to make sure that landlords have to make sure that the alarms are working, but it doesn't stop tenants from being displaced by a fire because alarms don't put out fires," Shaw said.

In recent years, Shaw said, the city has moved forward on rent control and eviction protections in the face of landlord opposition.

"It becomes different when it's sprinklers, and it doesn't make sense," he said. He noted that the city required sprinkler systems in single-room-occupancy hotels.

"We keep having these fires that displace tenants, eliminate rent-controlled housing, and yet we don't do anything about it," Shaw said. "It's sad to say, but sometimes more tragedies have to follow before we can finally get the board to move on this."

Another tenant advocate, Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, says he doesn't believe requiring sprinklers is feasible at this point.

Last year, Avicolli Mecca called sprinkler retrofits "a no-brainer" that would help save lives. But Tuesday he said the cost of installing the devices and the potential that some residents would be displaced has made him reconsider -- at least for now.

Among the many parties endorsing the proposals Campos unveiled Tuesday was the Fire Department.

"SFFD has been working closely with Supervisor Campos's office and we support the legislation," said Jonathan Baxter, a spokesman for the department, in a text message.

The other city agency tasked with enforcing the changes is behind them.

"We feel it's definitely a step in the right direction to try and reduce the number of fires, especially those ones that lead to so many tenant displacements," said DBI spokesman Bill Strawn.

Support for the measure crossed the usual political divide on the Board of Supervisors, with moderates Scott Wiener, Norman Yee and Katy Tang lining up behind a proposal from progressives Campos and cosponsor Jane Kim.

"It's all in the name of safety for everyone," Tang said in an interview. "We always put aside our differences for something like this."

Wiener, who's running against Kim for the state Senate, said in a statement he agreed the city needs to take strong action on fire safety.

"It's not good enough just to help displaced tenants -- we need to prevent these fires from happening in the first place," Wiener said. "This legislation is a step in the right direction."

Yee said he backs the changes but wants to make sure it's easy for landlords to comply.

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"I am supportive of this critical, common-sense proposal that could save lives," Yee said in a statement. "I also recognize that in order to maximize compliance, we need to create a process that is easy and streamlined."

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