2 Investigates: Public housing elevator problems persist, despite promises of a fix

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - 2 Investigates discovered the elevators at a San Francisco public housing complex that have repeatedly broken and trapped people inside are still experiencing problems more than a year after the city promised a fix. 

Tenants at the Clementina Towers high-rises say the problem has been so bad for so long that they decided to sue last year. Shortly after, in April 2014, Mayor Ed Lee announced $5.4 million in emergency funding to repair elevators at several properties operated by San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA). 

But tenants at the Clementina Towers tell 2 Investigates that repairs are just now beginning, 15 months later, and residents are still consistently getting stuck or stranded.

Prisoner in Her Own Home

Alexandra Elvir, who uses a wheelchair to get around, says she was trapped in her 13th floor apartment over Fourth of July weekend. One of the building's two elevators was already out of service for maintenance when the second elevator got stuck with someone inside. Firefighters rescued that person. But it took repair crews more than 24 hours to get the elevator running again.

"This has happened on more than one occasion," said Elvir, who was also unable to leave her unit to take her service dog outside to relieve itself.

Tenant Terrance Bagby says he has been stuck in the elevators before. He says the situation could be life and death for him and his neighbors, who are elderly or disabled, and unable to climb up to 13 flights of stairs. Bagby says pleas to the SFHA, the mayor, and others have gone unanswered.

"Just because we're low income doesn't mean we're low priority," he said.

"It is a total disregard for the health and safety of San Francisco residents," said Joseph Tobener, the attorney representing the 21 tenants at Clementina Towers, including Bagby and Elvir, in the lawsuit against the city.

The lawsuit accuses the city of negligence and failing to "timely and adequately" repair the elevators. In an answer filed with the court, the Housing Authority said that tenants caused some of the problems.

"You push the emergency call button too much. You stop the elevator on certain floors and then it gets stuck," said Tobener, listing the responses he says he's received from the Housing Authority. "A lot of blaming of the tenants, that's what's going on."

Waiting for Repairs

2 Investigates found that an elevator repair company opened more than 60 "service tickets" at the Clementina Towers since the beginning of 2014. Problems include elevators getting stuck, doors that won't open or close, and cars that "jump" while in motion, among other complaints.

The SFHA says so far they've used the emergency funding to fix elevators at four properties -- 1760 Bush Street, 990 Pacific Avenue, 1750 McAllister Street, and 666 Ellis Street -- and to "modernize" elevators at two other locations -- 1880 Pine Street and 838 Pacific Avenue. Clementina Towers is slated for repairs that just began recently and are scheduled to be completed by November.

In a written statement, SFHA Executive Director Barbara Smith insisted that repairs are on schedule at Clementina Towers. But residents say that living with broken elevators and waiting two years for a solution is just too long. 

In her statement, Smith said the Housing Authority has also been working to find money to overhaul the elevators since last year. Email records obtained by 2 Investigates show that Smith has been aware of the problems even longer. In an email from September 2013, Smith wrote, "This elevator situation is a horrible mess."

She went on to complain that the repair company, ThyssenKrupp Elevator Corporation, was not available for after-hours repairs.

In June, Tobener and his team filed a motion to add Thyssenkrupp and Otis Elevator Company, which has also worked on the Clementina Tower location, as co-defendants in the tenants' lawsuit.

According to records, OSHA gave the SFHA a pair of July deadlines to fix more than two dozen specific problems with elevators at Clementina Towers. But 2 Investigates learned that state inspectors have granted the city an extension to next month. If repairs aren't made by then, the state may begin issuing fines.