In 2011, Tim Caraher’s home burned down, three days shy of Christmas. It took him four years before he could move back in.
“Me and my wife took off over a month to figure things out,” said Caraher. “There’s no playbook. No one will tell you what to do. You literally wake up with a shirt on your back and you have to figure out what to do—and it’s a process. It’s been four years and four months, and there is still scaffolding around my building.”
Caraher was one of two dozen people in attendance a fire response meeting Thursday night. The event, one of District 5 Supervisor candidate Dean Preston’s Neighborhood Organizing Projects, explained the resources available for people displaced by fires.
Fires aren't uncommon. In the past 10 years, 2,654 fires have impacted 31,000 units in the city.
In attendance at the meeting were several people displaced by the Fulton Street fire that occurred only a month ago. Having lost most of their possessions, they've just begun their own long journey of figuring out how to proceed in the aftermath.
To support them, you can give to one of the crowdfunding websites set up for the different buildings impacted, or stop by the Independent on Monday between 6 and 8pm for a fundraising event organized by NOPNA and District 5 Supervisor London Breed. You can also fill out this form to provide non-monetary aid.
Regaining your home after a fire is a lengthy process, but Caraher said there were things he was glad he had done beforehand. He and his wife had an emergency plan in place that they had both gone over with their daughter. “We were both downtown working at the time, and no one could get ahold of us,” remembered Caraher. Because of the plan, his daughter knew who to call next.
He also had displacement coverage in his insurance plan, which set him up in comparable accommodations in the same neighborhood. “What I always tell people is call your insurance and talk to an agent: What would happen if my house burned down? Use it as a case study. Walk through what the coverage is.”
Here are a few takeaways from the meeting:
Preparing For a Possible Fire
Test your smoke alarms monthly; replace them every 10 years.
According to Red Cross, you need to be able to exit your building within two minutes. Plan which exits you'll use and keep a grab bag near your main exit, with necessities such as:
- Important documents, including as your passport, birth certificate, insurance policies, and deeds
- Change of clothing
- Credit card
Provision for Pets
Make sure your pets are wearing collars with identification, and have their leashes or carriers convenient.
Buy homeowners or renters insurance. Renters insurance is inexpensive compared to other forms of insurance—according to the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, "The average cost of renters insurance is $12 per month for about $30,000 of property coverage and $100,000 of liability coverage."
When you call to have an agent walk you through what will happen if your home burns down, be sure to ask about:
- The loss of use or displacement coverage—how and how long you will be housed
- Whether they'll pay for the full value or the depreciation value of your possessions
Then take pictures of every room in your home to document what your possessions are.
Ready.gov will walk you through how to make an emergency plan. It's important to know:
- How you and loved ones will get in touch if phones don't work or the Internet is out
- Where you will meet
Steps You Can Take After a Fire
While, as Caraher pointed out, there's no playbook for what to do after a fire, he and Mary Catherine Wiederhold, a tenant's rights attorney specializing in fires, had a few tips.
- The Red Cross can house you short-term and help you replace prescription medications and eyeglasses.
- Be very careful about signing things such as paperwork to gain access to your property, so as not to give away any rights. Wiederhold says she recommends "the tenants don't sign anything without having a SF Tenants Union counselor or an attorney review it. Landlords and property managers will often try to condition access to a tenant's apartment on signing a release first."
- Document communication with your landlord. Emails leave a record, while phone calls do not.
- Stay in touch with neighbors to see what's going on in the building. You can also check the Department of Building Inspection website regarding repairs to the building.
- You do not have to pay rent while the apartment is uninhabitable; this means you have that month's rent prorated.
- What’s not covered by insurance is causality loss—take it out of your gross income on your taxes.
Right To Return
Tenants of rent-controlled apartments have the right to return. Make sure you document that you have told the landlord how to reach you. Seek counsel if your landlord threatens the Ellis Act.