After deaths, fire threats in SF public housing persist 

click to enlarge Lateefah Barnes, who lives with her two children in a two-bedroom unit in the Potrero Terrace housing projects, says she fears her unit, which is already a health hazard, could also be a firetrap. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.f. Examiner
  • Lateefah Barnes, who lives with her two children in a two-bedroom unit in the Potrero Terrace housing projects, says she fears her unit, which is already a health hazard, could also be a firetrap.

The cockroaches in her kitchen and the spiders biting her two children first led Lateefah Barnes to ask the Housing Authority to be transferred out of her two-bedroom unit in the Potrero Terrace housing projects.

Then came the popping noises in her 5-year old daughter's bedroom late one night last summer, followed by screaming.

Nobody was hurt, but almost a year later, scorch marks are still visible above the electrical outlet that Barnes said went haywire, emitting smoke.

Barnes and her children remain in the unit, waiting to hear if they can move. In the meantime, she said she fears her unit, already a health hazard, could also be a firetrap.

When a Housing Authority electrician checked the wiring in her home, built in 1941, he said it dates from the 1940s as well, Barnes told The San Francisco Examiner on Thursday.

"It could go up at any time," she said.

And following the fatal April fire in The City's Sunnydale housing projects, where smoke detectors were inoperable, there are other people living in public housing in San Francisco with other fire risks, records show.

Earlier this year, records show that fire officials found fire risks in need of fixing at two high-rise public-housing buildings: Rosa Parks Senior Center at 1251 Turk St. in the Western Addition, and Clementina Towers at 330 Clementina St. in South of Market.

These included broken and wedged-open fire doors and incomplete or missing records for inspections and tests of sprinklers and fire alarms.

The problems at Clementina were fixed, a Fire Department spokeswoman said Thursday. The status of Rosa Parks was not immediately known.


Meanwhile, there appear to be more hazards elsewhere in San Francisco's dilapidated public-housing stock, which is funded by the federal government but managed by a director and board of commissioners appointed by Mayor Ed Lee.

The Fire Department conducts annual inspections of the Housing Authority's high-rise buildings only, and checks low-rise housing like the unit Barnes lives in only after a complaint or referral.

More than 1,000 units in Visitacion Valley, Potrero Hill and Bayview-Hunters Point, out of more than 6,000 units throughout The City, are in low-rise buildings.

However, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development does conduct random spot-checks of some units.

In 26 units inspected at random in 2012 in Barnes' development at Potrero Terrace, the most-recent check conducted, five "life-threatening" violations were found, records show.

These included a unit that had its emergency fire exits blocked by barred windows and one unit with five inoperable smoke detectors.

The smoke detectors were also out in the low-rise building at 76 Brookdale Ave. in the Sunnydale projects, where 32-year-old Esther Ioane and her 3-year old son died in a fire in April.

Ioane put in a request to have the detectors fixed two weeks before the fire. The fix was never made, an attorney for the Housing Authority claims, because an electrician was never given access and the detectors were removed in order for occupants of the unit to smoke methamphetamine.


The government has essentially given up on providing housing for low-income citizens. Instead, both The City and the federal government are relying on public-private partnerships, where private capital rebuilds public housing and nonprofits are hired to run it.

Potrero Terrace and Potrero annex are slated be rebuilt into a 1,600-unit mixed-use development next year.

In the meantime, it's not clear what action The City is taking for fire safety in its existing stock, much of which is being transferred to nonprofits to manage under a program called RAD, or rental assistance demonstration.

Joaquin Torres, a mayoral staffer who serves as president of the Housing Authority's board of commissioners, did not provide comment Thursday.

A spokeswoman for the Housing Authority also would not comment.

Barnes, meanwhile, has roaches in her kids' closet and likely bad wiring above her head.

"They should have the money to fix this up for people," she said. "I don't understand."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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Monday, Oct 24, 2016


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