Can SF prevent 15 low-income renters from losing their homes?

The city gives breaks to tech companies and big developers; it must be possible to prevent military vets from getting evicted

Fifteen low-income tenants, many of them military vets, some formerly homeless, still face eviction this fall as the city struggles to figure out how to handle their scofflaw landlord.

The issue comes back to the Planning Commission Thursday/5, but it’s proposed for continuation until November — because, I suspect, none of the commissioners quite know what to do.

Tenant John Brown in his living room

The landlord, Judy Wu, is breaking the law, according to City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who is suing her. She bought a dozen Bayview houses during the foreclosure crisis, and cut them up into small apartments, creating 49 units.

The city allows one additional unit in single-family houses, and she’s seeking to get some of the units legalized under that rule.

But there will still be 15 that can’t be legalized under current codes — and that means the must be “removed,” and the tenants tossed out.

Nobody wants to encourage the sort of behavior Wu allegedly engaged in (although we allowed Airbnb, Uber, and the Google buses to break the law with impunity for years, so maybe if she created a tech startup called “Homeless Vets Bnb” the Mayor’s Office would support her).

But  the tenants have done nothing wrong. They had no idea the units were illegal when they moved in, and they’ve paid the rent in good faith every month. There is, quite literally, nowhere else for many of them to go.

City officials have offered to move some into SROs, but these are folks who have been living in their own apartments, with their own kitchens and bathrooms, for some time now, and they don’t want to move into much smaller units with none of those amenities.

So what happens now?

Here’s one idea: Why not, as a penalty for building the illegal units, tell Wu she has to donate all of her profits on those units for five years to a homeless veterans’ group? Or fine her so much that she loses any possible profit — which would discourage others from doing the same thing?

Make her clean up the trash and bring everything up to code. Then pass a special zoning variance that allows the tenants to stay in their homes.

We give big developers special zoning all the time, almost every week.  Can’t we do something for these tenants?

  • Venlin

    If the units are illegal, then they are illegal, and no variances should be given

    The city should fine Judy Wu for engaging in illegal activity, and order her to pay to relocate the tenants to other affordable housing of similar size and quality and have HER pay to cover any increase in the tenant's rent for a certain number of years–that makes more sense than simply having her donate money to charity.

    • Yonathan Randolph

      <a href="http://www.advancingjustice-alc.org/news_and_media/our-hidden-communities-secondary-unit-households-in-the-excelsior-neighborhood-of-san-francisco/">Thousands of illegal in-law units</a> have existed in San Francisco for decades and have helped keep outlying neighborhoods like the Excelsior, Bayview, and Ingleside affordable for longer. The Dwelling Unit Density Limits in <a href="http://library.amlegal.com/nxt/gateway.dll/California/planning/article2usedistricts?f=templates$fn=default.htm$3.0$vid=amlegal:sanfrancisco_ca$anc=JD_207">PC§207</a&gt; do more harm than good, and the legislature and BoS have gradually been catching on. If this had been caught before 2014, 29 units would be removed. Today, it is 15 units that cannot be legalized. My hope is that none of the units should need to be removed due to a Dwelling Unit Density Limit.

      • Venlin

        Millions of crimes have been committed throughout human history. It does not matter if someone chooses to violate the law, we do not condone something just because some selfish people choose to break the law and do it. She is taking advantage not only of the system, but of her tenants. Your linking to a blurb from the Asian Americans Law Caucus does nothing to further this discussion.

        The units should and MUST be removed. If the law is changed to allow them, the landlord can reapply LEGALLY, provided she brings the units up to code, pays the permit fees, and meets all the other requirements. In the meantime, this slumlord needs to be fined, her units need to be shutdown, and she needs to pay the tenants to relocate to legal, safe, and clean housing. I repeat, Judy Wu is a sleazy person who is breaking the law and exploiting her tenants. She needs to face the consequences of her actions.

  • Alex Lemberg

    If they're in the Bayview, please send any tenants who need free legal assistance to Open Door Legal. Our team will be happy to represent any and all of them.

  • sebra leaves

    We also grandfather in developers under the rules they started their entitlement projects under. Why are some departments grandfathering and others not? is this legal or ethical?

    • Kraus

      "Grandfathering" is the sensible/fair principle that says if you already have a project underway and, subsequently, the government decides to change the rules, then you are allowed to continue and complete your project under the previous rules. For instance, this principle is applied every 3 years when there is an update to the Building Code.

      "Grandfathering" has nothing to do with the issue(s) described in this article.

      The property owner illegally chopped up her properties into multiple dwelling units without bothering to get Planning nor Building Permits. Even if she had decided to pursue such permits, she would have not be allowed to do so since neither the Planning nor the Building Codes permit her illegal configurations.

      From a Building Code perspective, any building with more than 3 units is considered a multi-family structure which has to be both of 1-hour fire-rated construction and fire-sprinklered — which none of her illegally-modified single-family properties are.

      Additionally, since the units are clearly illegal and a fire-life-safety hazard, she is also likely subject to criminal fraud prosecution since she was receiving government-subsidized rent payments from her tenants.

      "Variances" are not allowed to increase density in this fashion and certain not to somehow attempt to normalize/legalize a clearly dangerous situation as far as the Codes are concerned. For the the City to do so would be grossly irresponsible and subject it (i.e., the taxpayers) to considerable liability.

      Not going to happen.