Marcela Cordova had just finished dinner with her daughter when she started hearing the sirens. They sounded like they were getting closer and closer, so she told her daughter to stay put and opened the front door.
“It was pitch black and the heat just like hit me in my face,” Cordova tells me. “I just remember slamming the door and telling my daughter that we had to try and see how to get out because the building was on fire.”
Cordova and her family were living in a mixed-use building on 22nd and Mission in San Francisco. The bottom floor was occupied by more than 30 businesses, and residents lived above. In January 2015, the building was consumed by a roaring fire.
Cordova’s daughter ran into her bedroom where the fire escape was -- but the bars on her window where welded shut. Her daughter began to panic: “She was just pulling it and saying we're gonna die,” Cordova, says. “And I started screaming until the firefighters came and found us.”
Cordova had to be alerted to the blaze in her own building by outside fire trucks because the fire alarms inside weren’t working. Additionally, the fire escape ladders didn’t touch the ground, and one of the exits was padlocked shut. This building had known fire code violations dating back to 2011.
Cordova says she was unaware her building was so unsafe. “You have all these families, all these kids,” she says. “And we're living in this building that could collapse any day.”
‘This doesn’t feel like my home’
58 residents of the building were displaced by the fire and all of the businesses were destroyed. One man, Mauricio Orellana, was killed. The Salvation Army set up a shelter, where Cordova and her family stayed. Eventually the city was able to make them an arrangement with the Treasure Island Development Authority, to offer vacant housing on the Island at the rate they were previously paying. They’ve been living there for the last year and a half, in an apartment shared with another woman from the original building.
“For me, it's hard,” Cordova says. “Because I was born and raised in the city . . . this doesn't feel like my home.”
There’s one small convenience store at the entrance of the Treasure Island and that’s it. To do your laundry you have to go to the city. Public transportation is limited. To get into the East Bay for instance, you can take the one bus that goes to San Francisco and then take BART across the Bay. Her roommate works early mornings in the city, and sometimes she has to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to get to work in time.
The trauma of the fire lingers. It’s hard for Cordova to sleep at night.
“I can't be in the dark, it keeps coming into my head,” she says. “I feel like I can't breathe sometimes. My anxiety is really bad.”
One big source of this anxiety is her future housing. Technically Cordova has the right to return to her old building at the previous rate she was paying, but right now it’s a pile of rubble. It’s caught fire since it first burned down, most likely from squatters living there illegally, and the landlord hasn’t shown any real initiative to get the building back up and running. Cordova doesn’t want to live on Treasure Island forever, but she can’t afford to move back.
“If they don't rebuild the building I think we will be forced to move out of the Bay Area.”
When temporary housing feels permanent
Cordova and her family didn’t just lose their home, they did so in the middle of an affordable housing crisis, which is making it harder for her and all the other Mission residents who have been displaced by fire in 2015 to get back on their feet.
Ben Aymes is the Disaster Response Manager for the San Francisco Human Services Agency. He carries a pager everywhere he goes.
“There is an event, let's say it is a fire,” Aymes says. “My pager goes off and I monitor the fire.”
After that, he works with the Red Cross to set up a shelter for the displaced, and figures out which residents need housing through something called Good Samaritan Tenancy - where the city asks landlords to voluntarily offer vacant apartments at the original rate displaced tenants were paying.
“The higher the displaced persons’ rent it is, the better success they have with using the Good Samaritan legislation,” Aymes says.
This is because The Good Samaritan Tenancy relies on the generosity of landlords.
“This is a business for them,” says Aymes. “They don't necessarily want to come and offer up units at substantially reduced cost. If you have one apartment building, and it's your livelihood, this is a big ask for the city.”
Good Samaritan Tenancy is just supposed to be a temporary fix. The reduced rate lasts for one year, and after that you can renew your lease for another year. It’s fairly new legislation, just about five years old. Which means there isn’t exactly a road map of what to do when those two years are up and there’s no apartment to move back into.
“I haven't had that issue where people are at the end of their second term at the end of their lease that can't go back,” Aymes says.
But hypothetically, a landlord could sit on a ruined property until tenants became priced out of the city, making it harder for families to claim their right to return. A lot of the other families from the 22nd and Mission fire are housed under the Good Samaritan legislation, which begs the question: what is going to happen if the building isn’t ready by the time the other families’ Good Samaritan leases are up?
“We have to sit down and have a conversation with my administration and look at this and talk to our political leaders and come up with a decision,” Aymes says.
I asked Aymes to imagine what an ideal situation would look like.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I've heard that people want to extend the periods of the lease, that might be able to help, and other than I haven't heard a lot of people who are thinking that far forward.”
A nice view
There have been some changes. For instance, this summer the Board of Supervisors passed legislation to give fire victims priority in the affordable housing lottery. And now landlords are required to create an action plan for displaced tenants, to give them a better sense of when they might be able to gather their belongings, and eventually return.
But as Aymes sees it, true recovery from disaster in this city is all tied up in a greater problem.
“San Francisco is really generous. If you need stuff replaced? We can get you a refrigerator, we can get you a mattress, we can get you pots and pans,” he says. “But because of the housing market, what is the biggest challenge is finding affordable housing. And that is an issue that is way bigger than my office.”
Our housing policies for people displaced by disaster are designed to be temporary, but in this current housing climate, they can feel actively like permanent displacement. Treasure Island is slated for redevelopment, which means Marcela Cordova’s temporary home will most likely be torn down in several years.
Last week I checked in with Cordova. She says that she hasn’t been able to find housing in the city since she doesn’t qualify for low-income apartments, but can’t afford to move back. She hasn’t heard any updates on the building.
In the meantime, every day for work she drives close to the neighborhood she grew up and made a home in and returns back to an island in the Bay.
“There's nothing here,” says Cordova. “Just a nice view at the entrance.”
From her house, you can see the whole city’s skyline. It looks close, but it feels far away.