One San Franciscan raised a red flag over an aggressive contractor who shouted at neighbors for parking in reserved spots. Another kvetched over a new fence blocking their view. Many, many more bemoaned construction waking them up in the early hours of the morning.
San Franciscans are passionate about their city. And that fervor, as anyone who’s tuned in for the colorful public comment at government meetings knows, is often expressed through complaints. While those complaints may start as hyperlocal quibbles, political movements in recent years have harnessed residents’ dissatisfactions to help unseat some of the city’s most powerful officials.
To better understand what’s bugging San Franciscans these days, The Standard dug into one city agency that stands at the business end of many local complaints: the Department of Building Inspection. The Standard requested a copy of all complaints the department received during the first week of June. The result was a 435-page document containing hundreds of complaints ranging from petty neighborhood squabbles to serious violations of local regulations that could place residents at risk.
That’s just a sliver of the complaints this single city agency fields; the the department received nearly 11,000 complaints in the last fiscal year, its spokesperson Patrick Hannan told The Standard.
Some San Franciscans expressed ire over their neighbors' side hustles—especially the noisy ones.
One Presidio Heights resident blew the whistle on a motorbike rental company they said was being run out of a residential garage. “15 motorbikes are stored there and rented out to riders every afternoon,” the complainer wrote. “Motorbikes everywhere and not being ridden safely.”
In the Tenderloin, someone claimed a bar was illegally selling hookah without a permit or proper ventilation.
Both were barking up the wrong tree, however, as the Department of Building Inspection punted those complaints off to other departments.
A building inspector did, however, bring the hammer down over a complaint of an illegal marijuana grow in the Bayview. Whoever answered the door wouldn’t let the inspector in, so the official contacted the owner, according to the complaint log. After eventually gaining entry, the inspector issued a notice of violation over $30,000 worth of work happening on the property without a permit, though it’s unclear how that may have been connected to the alleged cannabis cultivation.
Many locals were spurred to file a complaint with the building inspection department over loud noises in the wee hours of the morning.
“There are alarms coming from the job site that are on the same decibel level as a siren from a police car going off through the night,” one person bemoaned in a report to 311 that was referred to building inspection. The crew at the Sunset neighborhood work site started hammering every morning at 6:30 a.m. six days a week and loud diesel trucks pulled in for delivery regularly before 7 a.m., the complaint alleged.
Generally, contractors in San Francisco are not allowed to do noisy building before 7 a.m. or after 8 p.m., according to local regulations. But there’s a major exception: Contractors can obtain night noise permits from the city for a variety of reasons, including minimizing utility disruptions, avoiding traffic interference on city streets or minimizing neighborhood economic impacts of prolonged construction projects.
In the case of the Sunset project, the building inspector found that the contractor had a night noise permit, so the complaint was in vain. Night permits foiled several sleep-starved residents, including another Sunset local who cried foul about a concrete pumping truck revving up at 4 a.m. in the mornings.
Even when contractors didn’t have a night permit, noise complaints didn’t always bear fruit quickly.
One Sunnyside neighborhood resident told 311 that a nearby construction project regularly kicked off at 6:40 a.m. The next day, an inspector went by the job site. Nobody was there, so the official left a notice, according to the public complaint log. There were no additional entries in the log until two months later, when a different inspector noted that they spoke with the construction contractor, who agreed to keep work during the legal hours after 7 a.m.
The department’s standard procedure for early-hour noise complaints is to start with a conversation with the contractor, Hannan said. If the issue persists, inspectors notify the police, who have jurisdiction over noise complaints.
During the last fiscal year, running July 2022 through June 2023, it took an average of 40 days for building inspectors to resolve complaints, Hannan said. But about one-fifth of the complaints from that period remain open.
Many of the complaints the Department of Building Inspection fielded during the one-week period examined by The Standard appeared to be grounded primarily in neighbor-to-neighbor tiffs that were only sometimes related to actual regulation violations.
One Noe Valley denizen complained about a new fence erected by their next-door neighbor. The solid fencing was “blocking the view,” the complainer said. An inspector checked the fence out and found everything to be kosher, according to the complaint log.
A Marina resident was also likely disappointed. This person called into the city complaining that their neighbor was encroaching into a natural landscape they thought ought to be preserved. The inspector responded by explaining that the nearby work was all approved under a landscape permit.
In Ashbury Heights, a contractor was regularly “getting into residents' faces” about parking restrictions adjacent to a nearby construction site. “When he gets in peoples’ faces, he states that he does not have to explain anything in regards to why the dates are being extended,” the complaint said.
But the complaint wasn’t valid, an inspector concluded. “Contractor has paid for and posted enforceable no parking signs,” the inspector wrote in the complaint log. “Personal disagreements are not a DBI issue.”
Not all complainers came up empty-handed, though. In the Excelsior, a resident reported a strong odor wafting over from a nearby property. They thought it could be coming from an improperly installed dryer vent and appeared to be correct. An inspector found that the dryer duct from the building was too close to the property line. A month later, the owner moved the duct’s exit back to four feet from the line, meeting city code, according to the complaint log.
Some tenants turned to the complaints system in a Hail Mary to get serious building defects solved.
A Tenderloin tenant complained that their hot water heater had been broken for over two weeks and a SoMa resident expressed concern that their elevator had been out for a month, burdening disabled tenants.
Someone living in Silver Terrace filed a complaint that their electricity didn’t work, they didn’t have any heat and their plumbing was leaking. When an inspector arrived, the official found a slew of code violations, including a lack of windows and smoke detectors in bedrooms, no present heater and exposed electrical wiring.
The inspector issued a notice of violation to the building owner, but as of the latest entry in the complaint log, made in late August, the heater issue still remained unresolved.
Noah Baustin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org