In an attempt to make SF’s Residential hotels safer, a measure that would require over 300 hotels to install automatic sprinklers in their buildings is brought to SF’s Supervisors.
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Town Hall Meeting Set On Residential Hotels
In its most significant attempt to improve living conditions in residential hotels in nearly two decades, San Francisco supervisors are considering a measure to order more than 300 hotel owners to install automatic sprinklers throughout their buildings.
The ordinance, proposed by Supervisor Gavin Newsom, aims to end a “near epidemic of residential hotel fires” that have killed three people and destroyed 840 rooms in the past four years.
Newsom has scheduled a town hall meeting today at the Seneca Hotel to hear from the public about the proposed reform. A hearing on Newsom’s ordinance is scheduled June 26 before a Board of Supervisors committee.
Newsom said he hopes to generate support for the reform measure, which is designed to protect and preserve residential hotels – the only homes many of the city’s poor, elderly and disabled citizens can afford.
Should the measure be approved by the Board of Supervisors and signed by the mayor, advocates say it would represent the most important regarding hotel living conditions since 1983, when the city ordered owners to provide heat and hot water.
The committee at its testimony on measures that would bar residential hotels from charging fees for visitors and order hotels to provide rent receipts.
11 hotels shut recently
During the last four years, fires have closed 11 residential hotels, eliminating 840 rooms. Three people died in fires at the Delta (in 1997), the King (1999) and the Kinney (2000) hotels.
Some of the hotels reopened after extensive renovation, including the 137-room Hartland Hotel on Geary Street. But most, including the 180-room Delta Hotel on Sixth Street, remain closed.
When fires destroy their buildings, tenants have few places to turn for housing, given the city’s skyrocketing rents and the shortage of affordable housing.
The cost of a “low-income” hotel room (with a public bathroom) now starts at $600 a month.
“Over the past several years, the city has experienced a near epidemic of residential hotel fires, resulting in significant loss of life, injuries, the loss of many residential units, and significant property damage,” the proposed ordinance says.
The measure requires owners to install sprinklers in hotels that contain 20 or more guest rooms, or are three or more stories tall. More than 300 of the city’s 450 residential hotels meet that criteria.
The sprinkler systems, which must meet the approval of the San Francisco Fire Department, would have to be installed by June 30, 2002.
Newsom said he is investigating whether the city could tap into unused funds, designated for seismic upgrades on unreinforced masonry buildings, for low-interest loans for hotel owners.
Newsom said taxpayers have an economic stake in the issue because city, state and federal funds help pay the rent when a tenant receives welfare, disability and Social Security checks. When a hotel burns down, taxpayers also pick up the tab for firefighting, emergency medical care and temporary housing, he added.
“People need to realize the economic consequences of a hotel fires are a big deal,” Newsome said. “The costs are extraordinary.”
Most hotel fires can be attributed to smoking or cooking in guest rooms, and “either carelessness or malicious behavior by residents, ex-residents and property owners,” the ordinance says.
John Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, said sprinklers are effective because they put out a fire when it’s small – when a smoldering cigarette ignites a mattress in a hotel room, for example – while simultaneously sounding an alarm.
“There has never been a multiple-death fire (three or more people killed) in a fully sprinklered building,” he said.
Viniello said people who live in San Francisco’s dilapidated hotels deserve the protection.
“I know the conditions those people live in…. If that same situation existed on Nob Hill, they’d be putting sprinklers in those buildings,” he said.
Most of the city’s residential hotels are located in the Mission, Chinatown, South of Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods – usually in distressed, high-crime areas. The hotels are often cited for violations of the city’s housing codes.
Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a tenant advocacy group, said the measure is long overdue.
“The scenario in every residential hotel fire is virtually the same: A cigarette is left burning as someone falls asleep, or, as happened at the Thor Hotel (in a 1998 blaze), a hot plate was left on the bed,” Shaw said. “The fire starts in one room and doesn’t get suppressed.”
Shaw said the sprinklers minimized the consequences of such accidents. One room may sustain water damage, but the hotel stays open.
“I can’t imagine there could be any opposition to it,” he said.
But the proposed law raised concerns at the San Francisco Apartment Association, whose roster includes hotel owners.
Janan New, the group’s executive director, said retrofitting hotels with automatic sprinkler systems will be expensive.
Since owners won’t be able to recoup the investment by raising rents – increases are limited by the city’s rent are limited by the city’s rents ordinance – it may be hard to get bank loans for the work, she said.
Jane Graf, president of Mercy Housing California, a nonprofit housing developer, said the group put sprinklers in every room when it renovated the Rose Hotel on Sixth Street.
The town hall meeting is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. today at the Seneca Hotel, 34 Sixth St.