A series of strange and unsettling fires in the Mission District have people wondering: Are the city’s landlords using arson to drive out low-income tenants? And is this the deadly endgame of gentrification and tech-boom greed? Jon Ronson investigates the mystery.
One of the dead was Mauricio Orellana, a 40-year-old Salvadoran who worked at a moving company. There’s a theory why Orellana didn’t know flames were licking at his door. It’s that he was wearing his new headphones. That’s the last thing his friends remember about him—how happy he was to have saved up for them. Maybe that’s why he was oblivious to the screaming and the running, his neighbors throwing themselves and their dogs out the windows. The fire alarms might have been loud enough for him to hear over his music, but they weren’t working.
So Orellana found himself trapped in his tiny bedroom on the third floor of his apartment building on the corner of Mission and 22nd Streets, a big old wooden structure with a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen below and rickety staircases and fire escapes above. He died on the evening of January 28, 2015.
When I visited the site of the fire, in December 2016, there was nothing left of the building, only a muddy, waterlogged crater with a vast new luxury-condo development right next door to it. It’s a great modernist slab called the Vida. Two-bedroom apartments there have reportedly gone for $7,499 a month, which isn’t unusually excessive for this city: It’s the most expensive place in the country to rent.
I became aware of a man standing next to me, gazing into the hole, too. He was wearing a waistcoat as flamboyant as a bullfighter’s. With his pencil mustache, he looked like Zorro.
“I used to come here for the Popeyes chicken,” he said. He told me he was Spanish—from the Pyrenees—but he wouldn’t tell me his name. “It was greasy stuff that would certainly kill you, but once a week was okay. On the first floor was a guy who’d sell me gizmos for my PC. He’s gone now, of course, with everybody else.” He paused. “There’s been a lot of fires around here lately. A lot of fires. Very interesting.”
And with that he was gone, like Zorro, and like Latino culture from the Mission.
A short time later, two local activists, Spike Kahn and Gabriel Medina, showed me the neighborhood. Medina works at the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), an advocacy group for the Latino and low-income populations. We passed a store that sold “artisan pizza” and “button-up shirts for the timeless tomboy” and “wood-free ukuleles” and—well, you know.
“This is for the new people,” said Gabriel. We stepped on a paving stone that had a Mexican carving in homage to the district’s heritage.
“There is nothing I want more [than] to assure my constituents that arson is not a factor in these fires. Unfortunately, at this point, I cannot say this with certainty.” —David Campos of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors
“They recognize this is a Mexican neighborhood until someone dangles some money to do a luxury condo and suddenly it’s not so important it’s a Mexican neighborhood,” said Spike. “They like everything about them except for them.”
We headed south and reached another fire-gutted apartment building—the Graywood Hotel. This one was an SRO, a single-room-occupancy building for the transient-homeless population. It burned on June 18, 2016, displacing 77 people. Investigators called it an accident and blamed “discarded smoking materials.” As I stared at the charred walls, a passerby called out to me, “Was it arson or something?” Then he shrugged and answered his own question: “I guess nobody knows.”
When I’d arrived in town, my plan was to solve the mystery once and for all. I wanted to somehow unearth arsonist landlords, persuade them to talk, and unpack with them the thought process that led them to such a catastrophic decision. So far I’d had no luck. When I called David Campos, the local politician who’d written the intriguing San Francisco Examiner op-ed, he retreated from his boldest claims.
“I’m not saying there is arson,” he said. “The fire department tells me there isn’t. They haven’t found evidence of arson.”
“Have you come across any clues?” I asked.
“Nothing’s come up,” he said.
“Are there rumors?”
“There are comments,” he said. “Like with that fire that happened at the car-repair place.”
He meant the Rolling Stock tire-shop fire of November 8, 2015. It destroyed the shop and two adjacent apartment buildings, displacing 21 people. Fire investigators ruled this one an accident as well, most likely started by an electrical fault or, again, discarded smoking materials.
“The owner [James Albera] was sort of, ‘Hey! Now I guess we can go and build condos,’ ” Campos continued. “It was an odd comment that fed into the speculation.”
Later, I found Albera’s verbatim comments to the media: “It’s terrible. It’s been in the family since 1960.” And then, when asked what he planned to do next: “I’d like to go residential, with stores on the bottom.”
I e-mailed Albera several times to ask him about what Campos told me. Personally, I didn’t find his response to the fire suspicious. Even so, he didn’t reply.
The numbers cited by Campos and others—45 fires in two years—also weren’t necessarily as suspicious as they seemed. It turns out that 25 fires a year is about average for the Mission. But there’s a reason that arson is on everyone’s mind: While the number of fires has stayed steady, the value of the real estate in question has not. The 27 fires that burned in the Mission in 2006 caused $2.6 million in damage; the 22 fires in 2015 caused almost $15.6 million in damage.
I later spoke with the former head of the San Francisco Fire Department’s Arson Task Force, John Darmanin. He told me he didn’t know of any cases of arson explicitly tied to landlords wanting to get rich from gentrification but that the arson department was so overloaded and under-resourced that cases “do not get the level of professionalism and investigation that they deserve.” There were fires, he said, that “very well could have been arson, but we just didn’t have the manpower to devote to those cases.” I decided to continue my search.
Gabriel from Meda and I had lunch at a local Mexican place, San Jalisco. He introduced me to Rocio Ponce, a young woman who’d lived in the building where Mauricio Orellana died. She’d been out getting something to eat when the fire started, and so she watched from the street as everything she owned burned.
“We had music in the hallways on weekends,” she said. “Most of the tenants were Salvadoran. It was a very tranquil place.” The only downside, she said, was the landlord, Hawk Lou. “There were a lot of cockroaches. He’d clean the graffiti, but he wouldn’t do anything else. He’d say he didn’t have time.”
Hawk Lou owns several properties in the area and has been sued multiple times for negligence. According to an article in Mission Local, one of his apartment buildings used to house a butcher shop on the ground floor. A tenant explored the basement one day and discovered that what looked like blood and animal tissue had been congealing there for years, forming a thick wall of mold. (Hawk Lou maintains that the tenant failed to pay rent and was illegally living in a commercial space. He didn’t respond to my request for an interview.)
“Do you think your home was destroyed by arson?” I asked Rocio. Investigators had blamed the fire on an electrical short.
“There’s a lot of suspicion,” she replied, “because of the new building next door [the Vida] and because the fire grew so rapidly, like something had been put on it to make it go faster. And so some of my old neighbors, three families, confronted the building manager to ask him if he did it.”
“What did he say?”
“That he was in his home, he didn’t see anything, and he didn’t know anything.” Rocio shrugged.
I was curious to know more about the confrontation with the building manager; Rocio said one of the people involved was her former neighbor Nancy Caro, and so the next day I took an Uber over the Bay Bridge to visit Nancy in her new home on Treasure Island.
Treasure Island sounds exciting, but it’s actually an artificial slab of landfill in the water between San Francisco and Oakland, parts of it radioactive because it was where the U.S. Navy used to clean ships involved in nuclear tests. Most of the residents from the fire in Hawk Lou’s building were rehoused there, in drab prefabricated suburban houses on the very edge of the island.
Nancy was at the store when the fire started, and so, like Rocio, she watched her possessions burn from the street.
“I lived in that building since 1999,” she said. She’s young and full of life, even here in her bleak new accommodations. “Everybody knew you. The people in the grocery store would say hi to you. But now…?”
She fell silent. When I played back our interview later, I was struck by the absence of background noise—no traffic, no chatter, only seagulls.
“Everybody wants to go back to the Mission,” said Nancy. “We don’t have anything to do here.”
“Is it true that you and your husband confronted the building manager and asked him if he’d started the fire?” I asked her.
Nancy looked puzzled. “No,” she said.
“That’s the rumor I heard,” I said.
“So many rumors,” she said.
So many. I dug around for months for any plausible clues to landlord arson. I followed lead after lead, but I got nowhere. And then, just as I was about to quit, I found Gideon.
Don’t screw me over,” Gideon says.
The way I’d screw him over would be to name him. He’s a little threatening about it: “If you name me, you’d be pretty screwed,” he says. “You’d never get anyone else to be anonymous with you. I’d make sure of that. Those days would be over.”
And so I’ll call him Gideon. I’m not thrilled by Gideon’s demand for anonymity, but I wonder if it’ll have an upside. Maybe it’ll allow him to be honest.
I found Gideon’s name buried deep in the cuttings. His crime had been barely reported. I e-mailed him to ask if he’d talk to me as a cautionary tale, a warning to other San Francisco landlords who might be contemplating arson.
“I will, just as a Good Samaritan, answer questions,” he wrote back.
I’ll call Gideon’s building The Mountain View. He bought it at auction for $10,000. He had never owned an SRO before and thought he’d done something amazingly smart. His workload would be minimal. If the roof needed fixing, or whatever, he’d get it done. Otherwise he’d sit back and watch the rent money come pouring in.
But he soon realized he had a problem: He found the tenants he had inherited to be repulsive and frightening.
“This building was the bottom,” he says. “The bottom of housing. The residents had been there years. You can imagine. The bottom of the population pool. These were people who couldn’t live anywhere else, people straight out of prison, drug rehab, people who never worked a day in their lives, people who couldn’t function in society.… I didn’t want to walk in the door. I was scared. I hated it.”
“You hear me in the recordings saying, ‘Are they out of the building? Don’t do anything until they’re out of the building.’ That’s all recorded.” —“Gideon,” on his plan to burn down an apartment complex he owned
And so he did the obvious thing. He turned it over to a management company, “to a guy who had experience running places like that. On paper that sounded great. I wouldn’t have to go there. He’d deal with everything. The problem was, if there were issues with habitability, they still go to the building owner. So I still got dragged into it.”
The tenants started to sue Gideon.
“For what?” I ask him.
Gideon sighs. “Violation of civil rights. Habitability. It’s all bullshit. They’d shit on the floor and take a picture of it. I had a guy who glued bologna sandwiches to his wall and sued me because his room had roaches.”
At this, Gideon launches into a tirade against San Francisco attorneys who specialize in tenants’ rights. He paints me a picture of a city filled with attorneys who “prey off of buildings like this. They claim to be for the people, but they’re full of crap. They live off the carcasses of people that don’t really have anything. With these tenants you can sympathize: ‘Yay, an attorney’s going to take me to lunch and get me a peanut-butter sandwich! They like me! I’m important to them!’ If I was like them, if I had nothing in my life, if I was like a pigeon, paid to live—seriously, all they do is live off handouts their whole lives…”
Gideon trails off, caught up in his pitying and scornful thoughts about his former tenants.
Gideon imagined The Mountain View would be his cash cow; instead the lawsuits were wreaking havoc on his mental health.
“I’d close my eyes, and my mind wouldn’t stop all night long. I don’t mean not sleeping. I mean not sleeping. You go to bed and you’re up all night. And then, the next day, you go to work…”
And then a man asked Gideon if he wanted The Mountain View burned to the ground. And Gideon said yes.
This man, let’s call him Frank, was in trouble for some financial infraction. Frank cut a deal with the authorities. They’d go easy on him if he’d wear a wire and lure Gideon into plotting to burn down his building. Of course, choosing Gideon as a target couldn’t have come from nowhere. He must have been grumbling around town about how he’d do anything to get rid of The Mountain View. Whatever: “I went in,” Gideon says. “A slight push and I went for it.” Frank told Gideon that for $65,000 he could get a man to burn the building down. Gideon agreed. “It was a bad, crazy moment in my life, and they pushed the right buttons to make me say the wrong thing.”
He shoots me an accusatory look. “Why don’t you not sleep for a couple of weeks and then have someone offer to get rid of something you really hate? See what you’d do.”
It lasted five days. For five days, Gideon was going to be an arsonist: “Five days between me meeting the guy and, bam, the cops knocking on my door.”
To his credit, The Mountain View was supposed to be empty on the day of the planned fire. His insurance company had been paying his tenants “to get the fuck out of the building.” And they were relocating. “They were taking off like roaches,” he says.
Half an hour ago, Gideon referred to his residents as pigeons. Now they’re roaches.
“No one was meant to be hurt,” he continues. “There were just two people left in there that were supposed to leave. One of them, she was in a wheelchair. That building was her life. She wanted to stay. The other guy, he just wanted to make a few extra thousand dollars. Whatever, you hear me in the recordings saying, ‘Are they out of the building? Don’t do anything until they’re out of the building.’ That’s all recorded.”
Gideon isn’t looking for sympathy, he says. He knows that even with the building empty, people could still have died. “With fires, firemen show up. You kill a fireman? That’s not a minor thing. That dude [could have] had a kid and a wife. He’s 30 years old, and now he’s dead.”
Gideon turns to address my voice recorder, as if speaking directly to a Mission landlord plotting arson. “You want that to be on you?” he says. “So you get a boat or a better car? Is it worth it?”
There’s something I don’t understand about Gideon’s story. If the building was empty, weren’t all his problems solved?
“This is where the craziness comes in,” he says.
He explains: Other SRO owners might burn down their buildings for rational reasons. “San Francisco is this little sliver of desirable space, this bubble that wants to develop. The tech companies, the financial companies, people want to live here. And so the right building could be significantly undervalued because of the rent-controlled tenants in it. Clearing out the tenants would be a good way to do it. Not good in an ethical sense. Expedient. So you can get a much higher value for the building.”
That’s the rational reason for committing arson in San Francisco. But he wasn’t being rational. “With me, the lawsuits were 100 percent resolved. The last two people were leaving. The building was going to get bought.”
So why burn it down?
Gideon shrugs. “I had all this shit bothering me for 12, 18 months.” The complete destruction of the building felt like the only solution. “There’s something about having significant pressures and have them go away. I can only theorize. I’m not making excuses. I did a wrong thing. I’m just trying to tell you what goes on mentally. It’s a weird psychology.”
Gideon was jailed for 17 months. He hung around with the other Jewish prisoners. They were popular. Gideon says the non-Jewish inmates would ask their advice on starting businesses or trading currencies.
“It sounds like you had fun in there,” I say.
“My stress levels were actually greatly reduced,” he replies.
“And how has your life been since your release?”
He smiles. “Dating actually works out pretty well.”
“You tell the women you date that you plotted arson?”
“Dating someone with money is not a big problem in San Francisco,” he explains. “Whereas dating someone with my background? That’s one in a million.”
“Some women are intrigued?”
“It’s never been a hindrance,” he says.
Gideon had agreed to talk with me for “Good Samaritan” reasons. But, honestly, he doesn’t seem quite as remorseful as I had anticipated.
“I went out to the hallway,” Bobby says. “I saw jet-black smoke. Me and two other guys started banging on doors: ‘Hey! Everybody get out of the building! The hotel is on fire!’”
“Do you regret it?” I ask him.
“I do,” he says, “but life’s a journey. I look at it like a guy that’s handicapped, a guy that’s lost his legs. I have a handicap. My handicap is that I committed a felony. In this country, that fucks you. But I do a lot of stuff with that handicap.”
I think Gideon’s answer to that last question reveals some narcissism. He regrets how the crime has impacted his life, but there’s no warmth toward the people who struggled in his building, nor much concern for the neighbors who may have died had the fire started and spread. The Mountain View was in a busy part of town, butting up against other buildings. During Gideon’s recorded conversations with Frank, there was one especially chilling exchange: Gideon suggested the fire department might be slower to respond if they were to receive several false alarms first. He really wanted his building gone.
I appreciate Gideon’s candor, but our conversation demonstrates just how contemptuous San Francisco entrepreneurs can feel about the residents who aren’t rich or hipsters or tech workers.
Today I’m having lunch with one of those unfashionable people. His name is Bobby Montoya. He lived at the Graywood, just south of the Mission, until the day fire destroyed the place. The Graywood was an SRO for transient homeless people, just like Gideon’s building. Bobby moved there when he lost his job in a tire shop and stayed for nine years. Bad things have happened at the Graywood. In 2004 a young man used a meat cleaver to castrate and kill his father there. According to one newspaper account, he apparently blamed him for “coddling him and fostering his drug addiction.” He was convicted of murder and aggravated mayhem.
Still, Bobby has happy memories of his old home. “Everybody got along,” he says. “Sure, they had bedbugs. My brother had big welts on his body the size of…” He points at his Chihuahua’s face.
“Your brother had bedbug welts the size of a Chihuahua’s face?” I ask.
Bobby nods. He was born in the United States to Mexican parents. He’s handsome, in a weathered, seen-some-life way, with slicked-back hair, a motorcycle jacket, and wraparound shades. He has struggled with drug addiction, “but I’ve told my doctor, ‘I’m not going to do any more street drugs. I’m just going to take the medication you gave me.’ ”
“Did you like everyone at the Graywood?” I ask him.
“No,” he says. “There were some people on the ground floor who did drugs and stole bikes and took them apart and put them back together as a new bike. They’d be in and out all night, arguing. A lot of times the police would come up into the building because of them. They had to handcuff the woman. She was rolling on the floor: ‘Why are you taking me to jail?’ Yelling and screaming like a maniac.”
“Did you feel sympathy for her?” I ask.
“No,” he says.
On the afternoon of the fire, Bobby was in his room watching a movie when he heard the smoke alarm go off.
“I went out to the hallway,” he says. “I saw jet-black smoke. I thought, Something tells me something’s not right. So me and two other guys started banging on doors: ‘Hey! Everybody get out of the building! The hotel is on fire!’ We were banging with our fists. I couldn’t even breathe. I banged on my good neighbor Nancy’s door. She’s 77. But Nancy was looking for her cat. She was lying on her stomach because her cat got scared and ran underneath the bed into a little cubbyhole. I said, ‘Nancy! We’ve got to get out of here right now!’ She was more worried about her cat than herself. I said, ‘Nancy, you can always get another cat. We can’t get another Nancy.’ Right? Makes sense?”
“I’m worried this story’s going to end up badly for the cat,” I say.
“She left her cat there,” says Bobby. “We went back three days later. The cat was still there, hiding in the little cubbyhole.”
“No!” I say.
“She got her cat,” says Bobby. “And that’s the end of the story.”
Bobby takes a swig of beer. “I’m just glad we got everybody out,” he says. “No scratches, no burns. Everybody got out safely.”
“You were heroic,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. He looks proud. “I just did what came to mind. That’s what I do. I like to help people.”
Last I checked, the Graywood was on the market again. It last sold in 2004 for $1.65 million. Its asking price now—roofless and fire-gutted and empty of tenants—was $3.5 million.
During my walk through the Mission with Spike and Gabriel, Spike pointed up a hill and told me a terrible story: “There was a kid up there called Alex Nieto. He was eating a burrito. One of the white dog walkers felt threatened by seeing a brown-skinned Latino person eating a burrito. He called the cops. Within 30 seconds of leaving their cop car, how many bullets?”
“Fifty-seven bullets?” said Gabriel.
“They just massacred him,” said Spike. “That was two years ago.”
“He was 28,” said Gabriel. “He worked in non-profits, like I do.”
Later, I learn some more details about Alex Nieto’s killing. He was a former youth counselor and had lived in the area his whole life. The dog walker, his name was Evan Snow, worked in tech and had moved to the neighborhood six months earlier. Snow’s dog, a Siberian-husky puppy, wanted some of Nieto’s chips, so it careered toward him, pushing him onto a bench. Snow was unaware of his dog’s aggressive behavior because he was distracted by a passing female “jogger’s butt” at the time—as he later explained in a court deposition. Nieto got out his Taser (he carried it for his job as a nightclub bouncer) and pointed it at the dog. The two men yelled at each other; then Snow left. A few minutes later, a white couple—also newcomers to the area—saw Nieto looking upset and pacing, his hand on his Taser. They called the police. Four officers arrived almost instantaneously, saw Nieto’s Taser, and—after Nieto apparently waved it at them—fired 59 bullets at him.
There’s a mural of Alex Nieto on Clarion Alley in the Mission, close to a bar called the Elbo Room that’s about to be knocked down and turned into luxury condos.
I wonder how real estate agents are attracting buyers for all these new apartments. And so, posing as a prospective client, I arrange a viewing of a fancy condo. Not long ago, a real estate agent named Jennifer Rosdail blogged that the Mission should be re-christened as “The Quad, a newly defined meta-hood.” “Quadsters are young,” she wrote. “They like to hang in the sun with their friends. They work very hard—mostly in high tech—and make a lot of money.”
The man showing me the condo is less brash; in fact he’s very nice. So is the apartment, even if $2.6 million seems crazily excessive for 1,800 square feet. But it has a beautiful roof deck, which the two of us now stand on. It’s a lovely evening. A few streets away, I can see the empty space where Mauricio Orellana lost his life. I can also see Lazy Bear, a restaurant off Mission Street that does a 14-course tasting menu for $185, including foie gras and rabbit and sweet-pea custard.
“A new restaurant opens here every week,” the agent says. He pauses as we gaze out over the Mission’s rooftops. “It’s funny to think that a few years ago you wouldn’t be seen dead in this neighborhood.”