Skip to main content

San Francisco hired him as a building inspector. Then he inspected his own home

An illustration showing building plans and a photo of building inspector Van Zeng and his home.
An illustration depicts inspector Van Zeng, right, and the evolution of his property at 1296 23rd Ave. | Source: Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard

Van Zeng’s home wasn’t always four stories tall and big enough for two families. It cost an estimated $2.1 million for him and his parents to buy and transform the once-shabby house into the modern structure it is today.

Lucky for Zeng, he knew someone who could help him navigate San Francisco’s byzantine permitting process and sign off on construction at his property.

That person was him.

Exactly a month after he was hired as a city building inspector in March 2020, Zeng conducted an inspection at his own property in the Sunset District.

The approval was only the first in a series of questionable inspections by Zeng that The Standard uncovered through an extensive review of property filings, building inspection reports and other public records.

Over the following two years, Zeng personally conducted or signed off on another 19 inspections for three different properties owned by his mother and other investors, as well as on two permits sought by his father, a longtime contractor in the city, The Standard found.

Zeng took these actions despite the Department of Building Inspection’s code of conduct requiring inspectors to recuse themselves from “any issue in which they, a family member of a close personal acquaintance, has an interest.”

The Standard began pulling records on Zeng, 35, on Oct. 18 after revealing that his father, Kelvin Zeng, had allegedly arranged illegal payments for a senior building inspector, Bernie Curran, who is at the center of a corruption scandal. 

By Oct. 26, a spokesperson for the department said that Van Zeng was “recently” placed on administrative leave. The spokesperson, Patrick Hannan, declined to say exactly when or why.

“We investigate all allegations of wrongdoing but are prohibited from disclosing personnel actions about individuals,” Hannan said.

Van Zeng did not respond to requests for comment made via phone and email. Attempts to reach his mother and father were also unsuccessful.

This picture of Van Zeng appeared in a Department of Building Inspection newsletter in July 2020.

Adam Gasner, an attorney for his father, Kelvin Zeng, declined to comment, citing an “ongoing administrative proceeding.”

The Standard’s findings expand the scope of potential wrongdoing within the long-troubled Department of Building Inspection, where an FBI investigation toppled its former director, Tom Hui, in early 2020 and led to criminal charges against Curran in August 2021. 

While the city attorney found that Hui provided preferential treatment to a powerful permit expediter and Chinese billionaire developer, he was not charged. Curran pleaded guilty over the past year to state and federal charges related to him taking payments from people whose properties he inspected and is expected to begin serving an up-to-two-year prison sentence shortly.

The scandal widened again Friday when federal prosecutors filed felony fraud charges against two former engineers with the department, Cyril Yu and Rudy Pada, for allegedly taking bribes in exchange for expediting permits.

John Pelissero, a senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said the inspections approved by Van Zeng pose an “obvious conflict of interest” after The Standard described the situation to him. 

The danger they create is that an inspector, such as Van Zeng, could approve an unfairly lenient inspection for himself or for a family member, he said.

Buildings that are not up to code can endanger renters, neighbors or even the owners themselves. An inspector who signs off on work done under a permit for a relative could also save—or make—their family member money by approving work that falls short or goes beyond the approved plans.

“Even if they make a decision by the book and they follow all of the proper laws or policies that are in place, it looks bad,” Pelissero said.

Led by Director Patrick O’Riordan since March 2020, the building inspection department has a “zero tolerance policy for ethical indiscretions” under its current leadership, said Hannan, the spokesperson. He said the department enacts discipline quickly and refers violations of public trust to authorities when necessary.

As for the inspections performed by Zeng, Hannan said the department is evaluating its policies to determine if additional safeguards are needed.

What City Rules and Laws Say

The Department of Building Inspection’s code of conduct directs inspectors to avoid conflicts. “In no case will I use my title or position to advance personal or political interests, or secure advantage or favor for myself, my family or my friends,” it reads.

Under San Francisco’s financial conflict-of-interest law, city employees are barred from making official decisions that they have a financial interest in. Violators can face misdemeanor charges, such as the ones filed against Curran by the District Attorney’s Office.

Bernie Curran, wearing a gray suit and red tie, leaves court.
Bernie Curran exits the Phillip Burton Federal Building after a sentencing hearing on July 14, 2023. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Michael Canning, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Ethics Commission, said city officials are barred from making decisions that would impact properties they own or entities from which they have recently received income.

“These rules are important tools for preventing conflicts of interest and ensuring government decisions are made on a fair, impartial basis,” Canning said, without referring to the inspections by Van Zeng directly.

In this case, Zeng conducted an inspection on his own home.

He also worked for his father’s company shortly before performing two inspections on permits sought by his father and his father’s firm. City employees are barred from making official decisions directly benefiting an entity that paid them $500 or more in the prior 12 months.

Van Zeng was hired by the city in March 2020. His resume from when he applied for the job showed that he was working for his father’s company, Mutual Seiko Construction, as of at least August 2019.

He conducted those inspections connected to his father in September and November of 2020, department records show.

San Francisco also requires officials to publicly disclose their personal, professional or business relationships with those who are the subjects of their decisions, according to Canning.

Van Zeng did not make any such disclosures, according to the building inspection department.

Under a different law, the city requires certain employees to disclose their financial interests each year on what’s known as a Form 700.

Zeng did not disclose owning his home on his Form 700 for 2020, the same year he conducted an inspection on the property. He certified under the penalty of perjury that he had no financial interests. This is despite Zeng disclosing that he owned the home on an earlier Form 700, which he filed when he got the job, and in subsequent years.

It’s unclear whether Zeng was required to report owning the property at all, because state guidelines say that Form 700 filers do not have to disclose their primary residence. However, his property is a duplex with two units, one of which has a separate address.

While barred by department policy, it does not appear to be illegal for Zeng to approve inspections on projects associated with his parents just because he is related to them.

The only relatives who San Francisco’s financial conflict-of-interest law bars employees from financially benefiting are their “immediate family members.” 

This restricted group only includes an official’s spouse or dependent children—not parents.

While the definition comes from state law, San Francisco could change its local rules to bar employees from benefiting a broader set of relatives. Pelissero, the ethics expert, said San Francisco may want to do so.

The Zeng Construction Family

Van Zeng comes from a well-to-do real estate family in San Francisco.

His father, Kelvin Zeng, is CEO of Mutual Seiko Construction, a residential and commercial remodeling firm based in San Francisco. His father has pulled nearly 250 building permits in the city since 2000 and remains active.

His mother, Nancy Zeng, has bought and sold various properties around town, including the three that had inspections her son signed off on, property filings show. She has identified herself as a homemaker on donations to political campaigns.

Van Zeng and his sister have not strayed far from the family business.

His sister, Silvia Zeng, is a real estate agent who was involved in the sale or purchase of the three homes previously owned by their mother that had inspections approved by Van Zeng.

As for Van Zeng, he worked as superintendent for his father’s company from 2012 until at least August 2019, according to his resume.

His only listed reference when he applied for his city job was his father.

The Questionable Inspections

The questionable conduct by Van Zeng spanned nearly two years.

It all started with the one inspection of his own home.

In July 2018, Van Zeng and his parents bought the house near the corner of 23rd Avenue and Irving Street, property records show.

Drag to compare
Press left and right to compare
Left, an image of 1296 23rd Ave. is seen before renovations. Right, the exterior of the same property is pictured on Tuesday. Slide to see the differences. | Courtesy Google Streetview, Gina Castro/The Standard

It cost them a reported $1.2 million, according to the real estate website Compass, which listed his sister, Silvia Zeng, as a real estate agent involved in the sale.

By December 2019, an architect for the owners pulled a permit for $900,000 worth of work expanding the low-slung home into a four-story building, Department of Building Inspection records show. Van Zeng’s parents paid the permitting fees.

The property was in the middle of the remodel on April 4, 2020, when Van Zeng conducted a “rough frame, partial” inspection on it, department records show.

He found that the walls of the structure were “okay” on multiple floors and notified the contractor to stop work on the job site because of the then-emerging pandemic. It’s unclear who the contractor was.

The project was completed by the end of 2020, and voting records indicate that Van Zeng and his sister live in the two units at the property today.

With the inspection of his home months behind him, Van Zeng turned his attention toward the two permits sought by his father. One was for a $20,000 kitchen remodel; the other was for a $35,000 window replacement.

Zeng performed the final inspection on each of the permits in September and November 2020, respectively, finding that the work was completed.

Zeng’s mother was in the process of flipping the three homes that he either personally inspected or signed off inspections for.

Nancy Zeng was among different groups of owners who bought the homes in 2020 and 2021 and later sold them for much more than their original purchase prices, according to property records and real estate websites.

Van’s sister, Silvia Zeng, helped buy or sell all of them as a realtor, according to listings on the websites Zillow and Compass.

For one of the homes, on 25th Avenue near Santiago Street, Zeng conducted six inspections between March and June 2021 on a permit to perform $80,000 worth of work relocating and reconfiguring a number of rooms, Department of Building Inspection records show. Zeng found errors that he ordered corrected during one of these inspections. Still, he was the only person at the department to approve an inspection on the permit from beginning to end.

Zeng also performed the final inspection for another $45,000 remodeling permit for the property on June 29, 2021.

Nancy Zeng and two others bought the home for $1.4 million in December 2020 and sold it for $2.5 million by the following August, after her son completed the inspections, according to property records and the real estate website Redfin.

Zeng signed off on what are known as “special inspections” for the other two properties bought by his mother. These types of inspections are required to be done as an additional layer of oversight for certain types of construction. While they are conducted by a third party, a Department of Building Inspection inspector, such as Zeng, must sign off on the paperwork confirming they are completed and adhere to the approved plans, according to the department.

Zeng signed off on the paperwork for four special inspections in December 2021 and March 2022 on a permit to add and remodel rooms at a house near 29th Avenue and Kirkham Street, according to department records. The permit was for $200,000 worth of work.

His mother was among a different group of three owners who bought the house for $1.5 million in October 2021 and sold it for $2.75 million about a year later, according to property records and the real estate website Zillow.

The other six special inspections that Van Zeng signed off on were for a $260,000 remodeling permit for a house at the corner of Foerster Street and Flood Avenue, department records show.

Nancy Zeng and two others bought the home for $1.5 million in September 2021 and sold it for $2.7 million the following year, according to property records and Zillow.

Alysabeth Alexander-Tut, interim president of the Building Inspection Commission, said she had confidence in the current leadership at the department despite The Standard’s findings about Zeng and the newly announced charges against the former engineers, Pada and Yu, who allegedly accepted bribes.

The department’s director, O’Riordan, has set a new tone at the top and is implementing reforms to make the department more transparent, Alexander-Tut said. But she said the department still needs more internal tools to prevent situations like this from occurring.

“We have a ways to go to restore faith in DBI and to show that the reforms that we are making actually have an impact and are stopping this,” Alexander-Tut said.

Matthew Kupfer contributed additional reporting to this story.