MissionLocal: MEDA Launches Fund for Businesses Displaced by Fire

Original article from MissionLocal

By Andra Cernavskis

Inspired by the quick success of a GoFundMe Campaign for the residents of the 22nd and Mission Streets fire last month, the Mission Economic and Development Agency, known as MEDA, has decided to attempt a similar fundraising campaign for the 36 businesses and 71 employees who worked in the building.

The funds will go both towards helping the businesses with their financial losses and providing financial assistance to employees, many of whom are undocumented and don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. Many may not have a job for some time.

Christopher Gil, senior content marketing manager at MEDA, said that he hopes that major donations will come from tech companies as many have employees who live in the Mission.

“This fire lets people see the issues that have been happening in this neighborhood. Where do tenants go? Where do businesses go? If we were in Kansas City, they would already have a new place with the same rent,” Gil said.

He worries, however, that MEDA’s crowdsourcing campaign might not have the same results as the GoFundMe campaign launched by Zach Crockett on the night of the fire when many reading the news on places like Mission Local wondered how they could help. In the end, many turned to the fund and it has raised more than $180,000 from 2,000 unique donations.

MEDA sees the new fund as part of the triage effort that has been necessary in helping the victims in the immediate weeks following the fire. The fundraising page, which MEDA posted to Facebook Wednesday morning, says that there are 22 days left to donate.

This effort is independent of the City’s response to the businesses, which many business owners feel has been lacking, according to complaints at a meeting held Tuesday at City College. It was the third meeting the city had set up specifically for businesses and since then the city has set up a webpage with resources.

Although Tuesday’s meeting focused on getting businesses legal counsel for filing insurance claims, during the open discussion before that began, most businesses were most concerned with getting access to their former stores.

Arcelia Espinoza of Thalia’s Jewelry, located on the first floor of the building, sat at the meeting with her insurance documents resting in her lap. She is one of the few owners who might be able to recover some of her merchandise but worries that her jewelry will continue to rust as each day passes. She has been allowed in the building three times for 15 minutes each time.

“They don’t let us take anything out,” she said.

Her insurance inspector was turned away when attempting to assess the losses.

“At least he would see we weren’t lying [about not being able to get in],” Espinoza said.

The city assured owners that it would deal with Hawk Lou, the owner who is responsible for getting businesses into their former spaces. Those businesses who have tried to contact him said they got no response.

Once public discussion came to an end, the City provided lawyers from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area to help the two dozen owners who attended understand their insurance and rental agreements.

Aaron Hue, who owns Angel’s Flowers and had been in the building since 1986, said that he could not remember whether or not he had State Farm or Farmworks Insurance. He has been trying to contact both companies to figure out his problem, which has been exacerbated by the fact that his insurance papers were inside the store at the time of the fire. With Valentine’s Day inventory alone, he lost over $25,000.

Reyna Portillo and Delmy Estrada both owned Kosa Bella, the clothing boutique with two storefronts on 22nd Street, for 10 years. They had been planning on expanding their business when the fire occurred. Portillo said that they had stored all of their merchandise in the basement of the building and estimated that she has lost $250,000.

For many, dealing with insurance companies has proved confusing, and they are uncertain of their rights.

“The insurance told me they went to assess the building and told me that I wasn’t covered, but I want to see if there is any clause they may be breaking because they said they can’t pay me anything,”Aminta Calderon from the Los Antojitos Salvadorenos Aminta Restaurant said.

Calderon said that she has paid her insurance for six years, but that they say they will not pay because the fire did not start in her business. She estimated about $200,000 in losses.

With not enough time to address everyone’s concerns in the one meeting, the lawyers agreed to meet with people again at no cost.

The City is currently waiting on a declaration from the governor that will allow the state’s Small Business Administration to release funds for emergency loans that the businesses could then apply for. These could be ready as early as next week depending on if the state declares the fire a disaster.

While the focus of both MEDA and the City has been on immediate relief for the businesses, Gil said that MEDA is also starting to look at how to provide long-term relief to the businesses and their employees.

The first and foremost issue is finding space for the businesses to operate out of either temporarily or permanently. Currently, MEDA is offering space for five of the businesses in its own building at 19th and Mission Streets (Disclosure: Mission Local has accepted an offer to space at the MEDA building that includes one month’s free rent.).

MEDA is also trying to find other spaces in the Mission through their community connections.

Portillo of Kosa Bella said that she and her mother are actively looking for another space. MEDA encouraged them to take a space in their small business incubator, but the space was too small at 180 square feet for Portillo.

“It doesn’t work for us,” she said.

“We want to get back in businesses, but rent is so high in the Mission these days,” Portillo continued.

Two businesses have been able to find new space on their own. Many, however, are currently unable to run their businesses or keep their employees. Eight of those laid off have enrolled in an employment program, and three have found a job through MEDA.

Lydia Chávez, Andrea Valencia, and Laura Wenus contributed to this report.