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‘From bad to worse’: Tenants face displacement from illegally constructed units

A stop sign stands across from a building on San Bruno Avenue in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. The building located at 2867 San Bruno Ave. is under investigation for allegedly having non code compliant units. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Shawnte Beck has lived with her daughter in her apartment in the Portola District for nearly seven years, but it was only in the past few months that she was informed she’d likely be forced to leave her home due to illegal conduct by the building owner.

“We’ve heard absolutely nothing from the owners, but have been in contact with the city,” Beck said. “We don’t know when we’re going to find out, we don’t know when we’re going to leave, we don’t know and we’re just waiting.”

The plight of Beck and her neighbors are evidence of the human toll in the sordid tale of 2861-2899 San Bruno Ave., a mixed-use building where owners illegally built 19 additional apartments in a structure where plans only listed 10 units. 

Outside of the illegal construction, the development also violated a number of additional safety and building codes. Instead of a secondary emergency exit, for example, the owners instead left “temporary” scaffolding that still stands today. 

Scaffolding stands behind the building on San Bruno Avenue in San Francisco on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

The building was signed off by Bernie Curran, a former Department of Building Inspection employee who pled guilty last year to accepting bribes in exchange for favorable decisions on building permits.

“I can only agree that we’re descending into a deeper level of hell with this project. It keeps going from bad to worse,” said SF Planning Commission President Rachael Tanner at a Feb. 16 meeting. 

The commission was weighing a plan that would revert the project to its previously approved configurations and lower the unit count to 12, which would mean the displacement of at least six households. 

A number of tenants threatened with displacement testified at the meeting, which many reported as the first public hearing on the matter they were aware of, even as the city’s attempts to bring the building into compliance has stretched over years. 

Empty mailboxes sit open in the building on San Bruno Avenue in San Francisco on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Most of the tenants were monolingual Spanish or Chinese speakers and said they were only informed of what was happening during recent outreach by city officials. 

“I feel very helpless. Me and my wife, who is 71 years old, did not receive any written or verbal notice from authorized organizations, and now we are notified that we need to move out from the place that we live,” said tenant Kop Yang Yee through tears. 

Tenants who spoke report continuing to pay their full rent even as their building remains in violation of serious safety and building laws. 

“We never received any notification from anyone, or anybody to inform us what was happening,” said tenant Carrengo Rellena. “In our apartment, we have three minors. They are in danger, and we need an answer; how can we save our family?”

Many of the tenants and their supporters called on the Planning Commission to legalize the existing units, a proposal that city officials had weighed previously. 

A woman walks past a “Notice of Public Hearing” sign posted on the building on San Bruno Avenue on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

However, after considering the extensive construction necessary to bring the building up to code—which would likely mean the displacement of all tenants, at least temporarily—planning staff settled on the current proposal. 

The project’s owner was required to come up with a phased construction plan to bring the structure into compliance, but they failed to do so. Planning staff drew up their own plan, which includes three- to six-month timelines for completion.

Impacted tenants have been working with tenants’ rights attorney Mark Hooshmand to determine their legal recourse around back rent, rent payments going forward and potential relocation payments. 

“They don’t have a plan, and there is zero assurance that they will keep people housed in San Francisco,” Hooshmand said at the meeting. “Where the owners have made hundreds of thousands of dollars benefitting from their wrongs, I would hope to see them use that money to help out these hardworking residents.”

The Planning Commission continued the matter to its March 16 meeting, where it requested additional detail about the full array of options that the city has in compelling the landlord to help with tenant relocation. 

A “Notice of Public Hearing” sign is posted on the building on San Bruno Avenue on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

“Some of it is to be determined. Who’s moving when, what their options are, what resources are available and what we’re looking for in terms of buyouts,” Tanner said. “I want to make sure it’s clear, because if it’s not clear for us, it’s not going to be clear for other folks.”

The city is somewhat limited in its enforcement actions against the landlord because of a prior settlement signed with the building’s ownership group, which includes Yin Kwan Tam and Cindy Zhou Lee.

The owners agreed to pay $1.2 million as part of the settlement, which includes a pledge to “make all reasonable efforts to bring the properties to code compliance.” The settlement also prohibits the building from taking on new tenants until all violations are resolved.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes the Portola, said her office went door to door in the building to help inform tenants of their situation.

Ronen has used the development as a test case to introduce legislation meant to more strongly punish scofflaws like the building’s owners, including hiking fines for violating city planning or building codes to $1,000 per day from the previous $250 per day penalty.  

Scaffolding stands behind the building on San Bruno Avenue on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

She plans to introduce a new piece of legislation this week to give tenants who are displaced through illegal construction preference in the search for new housing. 

“I’m relieved that after many, many years, the monolingual, non-English speaking tenants truly understand what’s happening and have hired a lawyer to protect their rights,” Ronen said.