Mission Street fire victims scrambling to find new homes

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) – The people who lost their homes in a massive fire on Mission Street nearly two weeks ago are now scrambling to find new housing as they prepare to leave temporary quarters at a Salvation Army shelter.

The Red Cross is footing the bill for a hotel on Geary Street just outside the Tenderloin District. Many displaced renters said they’re happy to have more privacy but worry about finding a permanent home in a city known for sky high rents -- especially when they live on fixed incomes.  

"I had only been there 35 days,” said Stephanie Wilson, referring to the apartment she lived in that went up in smoke. “We heard the fire alarms, so we went outside to see what was going on and they wouldn't let me back in at all."

Wilson was homeless for three years before a non-profit agency helped her get into the apartment on Mission and 29th streets. After the fire on June 18, Wilson and 39 other people ended up at the Salvation Army shelter on Valencia Street.

"The last fire was about four weeks that they stayed and we were ready for the long haul and love these families for as long as they needed to be here,” said Salvation Army Lt. Megan Young, referencing the 22nd Street fire that occurred in January 2015. 

The displaced fire victims will leave the Salvation Army shelter by 9 p.m. Tuesday night.

"They're going to put us on Geary somewhere in one of the motels up there," said Jose Montoya. "It's only until the 5th of next month.” He said he would have preferred to stay in the Mission District, where he grew up.

Most of the fire victims are low-income residents, who waited a long time for affordable housing before moving into the apartment building that burned down. Several said they have anxiety finding a new affordable apartment in San Francisco.

"Try it. Try it. That's how hard it is. Try it,” said Wilson, who paid $600 a month for her last apartment. "My girlfriend over there pays $1,400 a month . . . for SRO."

San Francisco supervisor Scott Wiener said fire is an event that can force people into homelessness.

"You can definitely become homeless or you might be forced to leave the city,” said Wiener, who is working on legislation that would give low-income fire victims priority status for affordable housing units.  

"People who have been burned out of their homes by fire are in a pretty unique situation,” he said. “It's out of left field (with) no warning." He said such tragedies can devastate those on low incomes.

 The fire victims, many of whom were born in San Francisco, said they’ve already lost everything they’ve owned, so they don’t want to lose their home city, too.

"I just love this city,” Montoya said.

"This is all I have of my family and my whole life,” said Wilson.

Under the city’s rent control laws, the landlords have to offer the tenants their unit back at the same price. The problem stems from how long it takes for landlords to rebuild after a devastating blaze.

The Salvation Army said it attributes the many donations to fire victims for helping move them to more comfortable housing within two weeks. 

KTVU reporter Leigh Martinez contributed to this report.