Getting Fire Victims into Affordable Housing

This Op-Ed was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on July 11, 2016

By Scott Wiener

Tenants can be displaced by fire for days or weeks or months. Sometimes even years. Some will never be able to get back into their homes. When I first came into office in 2011, a series of arsons struck the Castro, driving dozens from their homes. We have seen fires throughout our city, with countless residents, particularly in the Mission District, being burned out of their homes.

Each time one of these fires hits, the first question we ask is whether everyone is safe. The next question is where is everyone going to sleep that night and the night after that?

When fires hit my district, we immediately work to make sure that displaced tenants know how to access the Good Samaritan Program, which I authored in 2011 after the Castro fires. The Good Samaritan Program allows property owners to rent out vacant units on a temporary basis to victims of fires and other natural disasters at a discounted rate without triggering a full tenancy. I’m proud of this legislation — which was supported by both tenant and landlord groups — but the Good Samaritan Program is about addressing those temporarily displaced by fires who need a few months, maybe more, until their homes will be repaired.

We also need more permanent solutions for the worst cases when people cannot return to their homes. That’s why I’m authoring legislation to give tenants displaced by fire preference in the affordable housing lottery.

Under the current affordable housing lottery system, there is a category of preference for “displaced tenants.” Twenty percent of the units in each affordable housing lottery go to those displaced by the Ellis Act or Owner Move-In evictions. I’m proposing that we add victims of fire to the Displaced Tenant category. This will allow those who find themselves suddenly without a home a real shot at getting into permanent affordable housing. This preference can be the difference that keeps a senior living on a fixed income in The City. It can be the difference that keeps a janitor from having to pull her kids out of their local school. It can be the difference for between housing and homelessness.

Making sure fire victims have homes isn’t the entire solution to the epidemic of fires in our city. We need to do more to make our buildings safer and protect our communities from fires. We need to improve enforcement of our building codes and to step up safety inspections. Over the past two years, I authored legislation to improve and unify our code enforcement process across all departments, including Fire and Building Inspection, because too often these processes were disjointed and lacked accountability. That new process is just being put into place now, and we will see better enforcement against unsafe buildings.

Yet, sadly, we will not prevent every fire. There will always be tenants who lose their homes, and we need to make sure they have housing options. The Good Samaritan Program is one option. We also need to create more avenues for assistance, like creating and funding the Human Services Fire Assistance Victim Fund, which board President London Breed and Supervisor David Campos have worked together to move forward. Enacting my legislation to give a preference to fire victims in the affordable housing lottery is another solution that needs to move forward.

Scott Wiener is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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