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Rise In Mission District Fires Spark Arson Suspicions Among Housing Rights Activists

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A spike in San Francisco apartment fires is causing housing rights activists to become suspicious of landlords trying to push out lower-income tenants.

According to an Al Jazeera America report, more than 200 residents have been displaced by fires in and around the rapidly gentrifying Mission District over the past three years.

Three recent fires, two of which were deadly, became a tipping point for many residents, who along with Supervisor David Campos, hosted a public hearing on the issue.

"There are a lot of suspicions on the part of some folks. Is it arson? Is there malfeasance?" Campos asked during the meeting.

A fire could be a lucrative disaster for a landlord owning a rent-controlled building, the report mentions. Insurance covers the rebuild and tenants who don't move back in, either because they died or can't wait for reconstruction, makes room those able to pay market-rate rent.

The possibility has created suspicion among members of the direct action group Gay Shame who started posting satirical flyers around the neighborhood, warning residents of the "PYROflipper," an app that helps landlords "[burn] people out of their homes for profit."

But San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmaldge told CBS SF that none of three recent fires in the Mission District appeared suspicious.

In fact, investigators determined on Wednesday that the major apartment fire in January that claimed the life of one man was not intentionally set and may have been the result of an electrical fault.

The cause of another fatal fire above a liquor store in the Mission District in March that killed two people remains under investigation, Talmadge said, but appears to have started from inside a wall.

And even if they were deemed suspicious, proving arson is very hard.

Bill Smith, a retired fire captain from nearby Fairfield, told Al Jazeera America, "There's a very small percentage, probably less than 5 percent, that make it to court," he said. "How are you going to link someone to [arson] unless you actually observe them doing it? It's that tough."

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