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Drama trailed troubled San Francisco builder for years, records show

The collage shows a house under construction, two people in inset images, and a document from the San Francisco Planning Department.
An illustration including Tad Nguyen, Kim Nguyen and their home at 456 Urbano Dr. | Source: Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard; Photos by SFGovTV

Long before Tad Van Nguyen was named to San Francisco's short list of bad-apple contractors, the builder had repeated run-ins with city officials and state regulators. Though authorities repeatedly fined him, suspended his license and heavily scrutinized his work, Nguyen continued to do construction on building projects in San Francisco and beyond.

A Standard review of Nguyen’s track record revealed controversies and violations that have trailed him going back to 2006, when he and his wife applied for a permit to expand their single-story, three-bedroom home in Ingleside Terraces for their growing extended family. They wanted to transform the house into a seven-bedroom, two-story structure.

The massive project stretched over years. During that time, the Nguyens allegedly violated building rules and worked without permits. Public records show that, more than once, the city halted construction. Neighbors complained repeatedly, and the neighborhood association went to the Planning Commission to protest. Finally, one neighbor sued.

Aerial view of a neighborhood, marked arrow pointing to a house under construction among intact homes.
Tad Van Nguyen’s home at 456 Urbano Dr. in San Francisco is seen from an aerial view during remodeling and construction in 2008. In 2006, Nguyen and his wife, Kim, applied for a permit to expand the single-story, three-bedroom home in Ingleside Terraces for their growing extended family. They wanted to transform the house into a seven-bedroom, two-story structure. | Source: Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department

Over the next 15 years, drama followed Nguyen as he embarked on other projects across San Francisco.

In late December, he was finally flagged by the city’s building department as one of San Francisco’s most troubled builders. Under a new law, the Department of Building Inspection highlights any contractor or developer who faces more than three serious violation charges within a year. Rodrigo Santos, an engineer convicted as part of a corruption case, was the first. Nguyen is only the second name to be put on the list. 

The law directs the building department to notify state regulators of violations and requires senior inspectors to review complaints. The law was enacted in response to a corruption scandal that involved a scheme by Santos, who had his clients donate to specific entities in exchange for favorable treatment by a city inspector. That scandal was followed by another, which involved even more inspectors being charged with corruption for taking bribes from developer Sia Tahbazof. 

In its review of Nguyen, the city highlighted four projects as problematic. City, state and federal regulators have had many other issues with Nguyen, yet he has faced few real consequences.

While he refused to speak about many specific projects, in an interview with The Standard, 65-year-old Nguyen denied allegations of wrongdoing made by the city and state and said that a troubled building department is making him an example. 

“I don’t want to create a fight. I just want to do my work in peace,” Nguyen said. 

“I am very disappointed. Do I violate some of the codes? Yes, I do. Anyone does.”

Home Project Leads to Neighborhood Feud

Nguyen’s long history of questionable construction practices flagged by the city and other regulators began in 2006, several years before he was even issued a state license to work as a contractor.

Nguyen and his wife, Kim, wanted to expand their modest home just east of San Francisco State University in the Ingleside Terraces neighborhood, most of which was built in the 1920s and did not have any non-white residents until 1957.

Nguyen’s project was bogged down from day one by neighborhood opponents, who said his planned home was too large and did not meet the area’s design standards. The area’s homeowner association rules bar exterior alterations to its homes due to their historical nature.

Two headshots: a bald man with glasses and a woman with long hair, both speaking in a formal setting.
Tad Van Nguyen, left, and his wife, Kim, right, speak during a San Francisco Planning Commission meeting at City Hall on Dec. 20, 2007, about their plans to add a vertical addition to their home at 456 Urbano Dr. | Source: Courtesy SFGovTV

Nguyen’s planned changes veered from the area’s historical architectural rules, the association insisted.

The neighborhood association confronted him at the Planning Commission when he tried to get his altered building plans, which had made the house nearly 2 feet higher than approved, and to get an unpermitted garage addition approved.

At the 2007 hearing, Nguyen and his wife defended themselves and did not admit to any violations.

“Our house is smaller than our neighbors',” Kim Nguyen told the Planning Commission. “I think they have a grudge against us.”

Pat Daly, a neighbor, told the commission that she did not oppose the Nguyens expanding their home, but she said she just wanted them to obey the law.

“He just has to follow the rules like the rest of us do,” Daly said.

The next year, Nguyen went ahead and began construction as an owner-builder, which allowed him to do the work without a contractor license.

Over the next several years, the city found Nguyen continued to violate numerous rules and regulations, city records show. He worked without permits, encroached on a neighbor’s property, built his home nearly 2 feet above what was approved and built a chimney far larger than allowed, according to Planning Department records.

A white house with a tan top. A two-story yellow house with a tile roof, driveway, green lawn, and a silver SUV parked outside.
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Before and after images show Tad and Kim Nguyen’s remodeled home at 456 Urbano Dr. in San Francisco in 2008 and 2022.

Nguyen used a different point of reference when measuring the property height when he submitted a revised plan, which differed from the originally measured height, planning staff alleged. At one point, the police were called, according to the Planning Department, which did not give any details about the incident.

Nguyen would not comment on the incident with the police.

In 2008, one of Nguyen’s neighbors sued him, contending he had built a garage addition without a permit that encroached on her property. Nguyen claims his neighbor walked away from the lawsuit because it could not be proven. It settled for no money out of court, according to court documents. The neighbor did not respond to a request for comment.

In a 2011 report that was produced when Nguyen requested that the property’s unapproved modifications be approved after the fact, the Planning Department staff chastised Nguyen, saying that as a contractor he should have known better.

“It is a precedent-setting situation that will have a negative effect in the Ingleside Terraces neighborhood, and potentially city‐wide, if approvals are given after the fact, for a project that intentionally disregards the scope of work authorized in the permit,” the report said, adding that Nguyen had worked on three other projects in the neighborhood—all with alleged violations. The report did not specify their locations.

The Planning Commission voted that same year to deny Nguyen’s request to retroactively make his home legal and force him to complete the project according to his original plan.

Despite continued alleged violations in 2011 and 2012—including erecting scaffolding on a neighbor's property and working outside of the scope of his permit again—his massive home was built and stands today.

In September 2013, a final inspection approved the work done as planned in accordance with the original 2006 permit.

Nguyen said his home is fully legal now.

A two-story yellow house with a tile roof, driveway, green lawn, and a silver SUV parked outside.
Tad Van Nguyen’s remodeled home at 456 Urbano Dr. in San Francisco, pictured in 2022, was approved by the city in 2013. | Source: Google Street View

A License, Then Citations

Nguyen was granted a state contractor license on Aug. 1, 2011. Within two years, the state would cite him three separate times. One of those citations could lead to suspension, records show.

The state first cited Nguyen in May 2014 for work he had performed the previous year, according to state records. In that instance, he was fined $3,500 and had his license suspended for failing to provide workers' compensation on a project at a building that he and his wife owned.

Nguyen said at the time he thought that as an owner-builder he wasn't required to have workers' compensation, records say. He appealed the citation and fine and didn’t pay until after a 2015 letter from the state. Still, after paying, he continued to drag out the matter by taking the state to court, arguing that it had not presented any real evidence to prove he had violated the law. The court denied his request to overturn the state’s findings.

Again in 2014, he was cited and fined for nearly $15,000 for a series of alleged safety violations on a project that year. He paid the fine. But it was far less than initially assessed. He made a settlement agreement with the state and agreed to pay $2,000.

A third citation was issued in 2015 for work he had done on another project in 2013 where he put in bamboo flooring that allegedly buckled and failed to complete other aspects of the project.

“I don’t back down when I am right,” Nguyen said about his tenacity when under fire.

Since then, there have been at least seven additional properties—including the four the city flagged as evidence of his troubled track record—that he and his wife own with multiple complaints related to allegedly illegal building.

One of those properties, an apartment building at 188 Winfield St. in Bernal Heights, has multiple complaints from neighbors and residents, as well as a long list of claimed building violations.

A beige two-story house with a white picket fence, surrounded by palm trees, under a clear blue sky.
Sunlight hits the facade of 188 Winfield St. in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco in 2023. The building has been the subject of multiple complaints from neighbors and residents. | Source: Google Street View

A former longtime resident, who asked to remain anonymous because he wanted nothing to do with his former landlords, said the Nguyens often did questionable work on the property, failed to notify residents of work and damaged property in the process.

Nguyen denied he did anything wrong at the location.

In November 2019, a neighbor of the Winfield apartment claimed unpermitted excavation at the address. The complaint said that the work may have been “undermining the neighbor's foundation.” When a city inspector came to the site, he found that an earlier stop work notice had been ripped down, and a new stop order was issued.

In June 2020, during the Covid pandemic, a neighbor complained to the city about workers taking down a fence at the same address, according to a building department complaint.

“I came home yesterday afternoon to find a worker on my property, unmasked—and when I went out back I saw he had removed part of our fence. ... Today, the contractor came into my yard and started threatening me,” the neighbor said in the complaint to the city. “I don't want to call the SFPD unless it's an emergency, but these guys are aggressive and on my property and not wearing masks. And I now don't have a fence dividing the property.”

Nguyen called the allegations “ridiculous" and called the neighbor a “loudmouth” who harassed him. 

A number of other complaints came from anonymous residents fearing for their safety due to the construction, records say.

Nguyen said that any work he did was safe.

But a former resident who requested anonymity said, “They’ve always got to do what they want.”

Regulators from the Contractors State Licensing Board said in a statement that the agency has taken appropriate action to discipline Nguyen in the past and any new complaints will be investigated.

“CSLB staff will reach out to the City of San Francisco next week to determine why they have flagged this contractor, and if there is cause for CSLB to investigate the issues supporting the flag,” the agency said in a statement.

The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection said that its powers are limited to enforcing the city building code, which it has done. Previously, the department said that the flagging of Nguyen for his numerous violations shows that the new oversight program works.

Meanwhile, Nguyen's contractor license is active on the state's website. While he has not pulled any permits since December, he continues to have eight active permits in San Francisco at five addresses, according to the Department of Building Inspection.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at jonah@sfstandard.com