By Alexis Terrazas
It may not have been her home, but losing unit 217 to the flames that engulfed the building at 22nd and Mission streets during the 4-alarm fire on Jan. 28 still hurt Karen Van Dine.
“Starting completely over from scratch, at this age, it’s pretty devastating,” said Van Dine, who watched in horror from the television as the fire blazed.
For 15 years, the 73-year-old’s artistic life’s work was housed in that second floor studio. In a large room that once displayed etchings, drawings and a series that included 112 small boxes with sculptural elements, everything lay drenched and broken along the debris-ridden floor. On her first retrieval trip up to her workplace, she had five minutes to grab what she didn’t lose.
Yet others, the dozens of mainly Latino-owned businesses, lost more.
“I have complete compassion for my neighbors. They’ve lost their livelihood—their major form of income,” said Van Dine. “I thank God that guy stood up and had a fundraiser for the tenants, because they’re really still in an extremely hard place. I can’t even imagine what they’re going through.”
That guy was 26-year-old Zack Crockett, who through a GoFundMe campaign raised over $180,000 for the 54 displaced residents at 22nd and Mission streets. Crockett teamed up with the nonprofit Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) to distribute the amount among the displaced families.
MEDA steps in
Following Crockett’s lead, MEDA kicked off a similar fundraising campaign through Tilt.com for the 36 displaced businesses and 71 employees on Feb. 20. As of press time, MEDA has raised $1,354 of it’s $100,000 intended target.
“It’s really a little microcosm of the city,” Van Dine said. “We small businesses, who are really interesting and fun, we’re disappearing. Economically, there are no places for us in the city. There’s no place in the Mission.”
“The neighborhood lost a lot that night in the fire,” said MEDA Senior Content Marketing Manager Christopher Gil. “We are trying to help people find spaces throughout the neighborhood, which obviously is not easy in this economy.”
MEDA has also formally expressed interest in purchasing the building at 22nd and Mission streets through its commercial real estate team, though Gil acknowledged that talks were preliminary and that a letter of interest has been sent to the building’s landlord Hawk Lou.
“There has basically been nothing built for 10 years in the Mission that’s affordable. So we’re trying to do something around that directly,” Gil said.
The charred building meets MEDA’s criteria of one that they’d like to help maintain in the neighborhood; and they could do so through the city’s Small Sites Program (SSP).
The city’s new SSP helps keep housing affordable and has been expanded to include residential buildings with some commercial spaces.
“[That] is what we would do if we could buy that building,” Gil said. “Let all the tenants come back, the businesses, anyone who wanted to come back. Obviously the tenants would still have their rent control.”
Difficult road ahead
While MEDA awaits Lou’s response, displaced business owners grimly weigh their options.
“We don’t really know what’s going to happen to [any] of us. They keep talking about, ‘Oh we might be able to give you a loan.’ But we don’t see any improvement,” said Reyna Portillo, owner of Kosa Bella. Portillo ran two clothing stores located on the damaged building’s bottom floor for almost 10 years. “We’re looking for a new space to move, but rent is so expensive here in the Mission nowadays. Like I said, we don’t know what’s going to happen to [any] of us.”
Portillo was one of the many business owners who crammed a room at the City College of San Francisco’s Mission campus on Feb. 17, seeking help from the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD). Many attended the meeting intent to learn of their rights as commercial businesses, especially since the San Francisco Chronicle—just days prior to the meeting—published an article citing years of safety violations at the 22nd and Mission street building.
“In a residential you have a lot of protections [as] tenants … there’s these standards that a landlord must maintain the property. That’s not true for a commercial lease,” said Miya Saika Chen, staff attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the SF Bay Area, which has been assigned to help the displaced business owners, free of charge. “The law assumes that you’re a savvy business negotiating with another savvy property owning business. Which means that everything—the law—is in your contract, which is your lease.”
Chen continued to explain that “99.9 percent” of commercial leases are built to favor the landlord, and generally include that the business owner, and not the landlord, is responsible for maintaining the property.
“What people don’t realize is that people can negotiate every clause in that contract,” Chen said. “So for all these folks, my sense is they’re going to have to enter into new leases and new spaces where they go. So it’s imperative for them to sign a good lease to protect them from a situation like this.”
Chen said that business owners could renegotiate their leases after they have signed them, but that would depend on the “goodness of the landlord’s heart.”
Business owners have tried to contact the landlord Lou to talk about their leases, but have not succeeded.
Lou has declined to comment on the fire or what happens next for his tenants per the advice of his attorney.
For more information on how to donate, visit https://www.tilt.com/