The strange saga of 114 Lyon St

Owner wants to convert four-unit building into single-family home -- because someone else did it illegally years ago. We investigate

In what longtime planning observers say is a highly unusual move, the owners of a building in the Haight are asking legal permission to convert it from four rent-controlled units to a single-family home.

The property at 114 Lyon was illegally converted about 20 years ago, the City Planning Department says. 

Nice Victorian, but an illegal loss of four rent-controlled units

Now an architect who bought it in 2015 is asking the city to legalize that conversion, arguing that it would be too expensive to restore the apartments.

I asked Sue Hestor, who has been a land-use lawyer in this city for more than 40 years, if she could remember another similar request.

“Never,” she said. “Not once.”

The city generally doesn’t allow the destruction of rent-controlled units, so converting a four-unit building to a single-family house is not a normal request.

In this case, the owner, Lucia Howard, a Lafayette-based architect who owns other property in the Bay Area, argues that when she bought the place, it was already a single-family house with a second unit in the back yard.

In legal briefs filed with the Planning Department by her lawyers, Reuben, Junius, and Rose, who often represent developers, say that the Queen Anne Victorian “has functioned as a single-family house for more than 20 years.”

The brief says that Howard was told at the time she bought the place in 2015 that it was code-compliant as a single-family house with an in-law. Records show the property was investigated by building inspectors in May, 2015 based on a complaint that four units had been illegally merged into one, but the city took no action. Howard bought the place in June, 2015. 

The case was re-opened in August, 2015, when someone complained that the kitchen from one of the units had been removed.

Property records show she and co-owners Max Howard and Margaret Majua paid $2.8 million for the property.

Property records also show that Howard, with David Wiengarten, owns a $3 million house on Estates Drive in Lafayette, and she listed that address on the tax records for the Lyon Street property. 

I tried to contact Howard at her architecture office, which she shares with Weingarten, to ask if she intends to live in the Lyon St. unit or sell it, but haven’t heard back.

The CU brief says that “no special authorization was required when the number of units was reduced from four to two,” but Laura Ajello, the planning staffer on the project, told me that “the building was illegally converted.”

She said “it is not known” when that happened.

It’s not clear from a review of Assessor’s Office reports which owner might have done the work.

There are no building permits on file for any substantive conversion in the last 30 years.

In fact, every single building permit — including ones issued in the past two years — refer to the place as an apartment building with four units.

Rent Board records show that a tenant was evicted in January, 1999 for an “owner move-in.” That was shortly after Kathleen Bisaccia and Peter Bruce bought the place for $665,000, records show. They sold the building in 2012 to Lester Levy and Mary Tilbury for $2.2 million. Levy and Tilbury sold to Howard, Assessor’s Office records show.

Howard and her partners put down more than $1 million cash as part of the deal, the records show.

In the CU application, Howard offers to add back a ground-floor unit, “at considerable expense,” as a compromise.

I am intrigued with this case in part because Howard is asking the city to do something that the rules don’t typically allow — but since she has the money to hire one of the top law firms around, the commission may well grant her request.

There is no indication in any city records that officials took action against the previous owner who broke the law by converting the property to a single-family house.

And of course, city planners and building inspectors have access to the same records I do. 

And yet, the city hasn’t found a way to protect 15 tenants who face eviction because a landlord did the opposite — turned single-family houses into multi-unit buildings that she rented out mostly to disabled veterans.

We shall see where the rules apply and who wins and loses.

  • Don Sebastopol

    If it was originally a single-family home why not restore it? I presume there are currently no tenants there anyway.

    • Jake McTavish

      if the tenants were removed illegally, this should be a nice payday for them to even things out.

      • curiousKulak

        You mean, winning the "San Francisco lottery"?

        • Casual_Economy

          Not much of a lottery these days with the price of rent. Even a $30k payout is nothing if you live and work a middle class job in San Francisco and would like to live in th community where you work.

          • curiousKulak

            but they don't refer to the Daly City Lottery or the Brisbane Lottery or the Mill Valley Lottery, do they?

          • Jake McTavish

            Who is this "they". You're the only person I've encountered who tosses that phrase around. It's not exactly commonplace, so let's keep the speculation in perspective.

          • curiousKulak

            No one talks about the Daly City Lottery … cuz there isn't one, Cuz!

          • “They” would be the type of people who see tenants as cashing in on those poor, oppressed owners of multiple homes costing millions of dollars.

      • Don Sebastopol

        That was 20 years and two owners ago and it was an owner move-in eviction, which is legal. Apparently, units have not been rented out for 20 years. They could now do a Ellis eviction.

        • Jake McTavish

          They could. They didn't. According to the information above they demolished units and made significant modifications without even pulling permits, and therefore without inspections as well. That's entirely illegal. Ellising the property does not have anything to do with the legality of converting it from a 4-family to a 1-family btw. If they had legally Ellised the tenants, they would now have an empty 4-unit property, not a magically-transformed 1-family.

          • Don Sebastopol

            Yes, I guess rent control and converting without a permit are different issues. If Ellised I assume the could sell the units as TICs.

          • Jake McTavish

            … with a condo conversion restriction and the other caveats that go along with getting into a TIC, though with the illegal work done on the place it's not apparent to me (a layperson) that they would even be marketable as is without some work to correct the permit/inspection situation. the place is on the books as a 4-family then they can't just strip it down.. though they apparently did anyway because laws are for other people.

    • Casual_Economy

      The article is saying that the house was built as a 4-unit, and was a 4-unit rent controlled building, but was illegally converted to a single family home 20 years ago, now the new owner is trying to make that illegal conversion officially legal. That was my reading of it.

      The new owner said "she was told" it was converted legally. Buyer beware!!!

      • Don Sebastopol

        See above. It was converted from single family in 1977. It was first built in 1863. Just judging from the front and the design it was a single family home when built.

        • Casual_Economy

          Ah thanks for the clarification.

          They are still rent controlled units since it was converted before 6/13/79 and since it was illegally converted back to a single family after that It is still legally a 4-unit rent controlled building. the authors point still stands I think.

          • Don Sebastopol

            I don't know, but there apparently there was an OMI eviction 20 years ago and they have not been rented since. I guess if rented they would be subject to rent control, but they are not rented. An owner can legally get out of the rental business.

          • Casual_Economy

            True! But they are still rent controlled units. So they can rent them at market rate or leave them vacant. But apparently the city must approve "demolishing" rent controlled housing supply.

          • Don Sebastopol

            But if they are no longer rentals, couldn't the sell the units as TICs? With an Ellis eviction they can do that.

          • Casual_Economy

            Possibly. There are certain requirements for condo conversion, there is a lottery in fact! I don't fully understand when you can convert and when you can't, but I know there's some form of regulation.

            In this case, it seems the owner wants to make it a single family home though…

  • PaxSF

    In other words, the property owner is trying to do the same thing that Calvin Welch did when he lead the effort to outlaw multifamily dwellings in the Haight.

  • chris12bb

    What sort of miserable neighbor complains that the kitchen from one of the units had been removed. Also not sure this comes close to meeting the definition of a saga

    • Don Sebastopol

      How would the neighbor know?

      • chris12bb

        No idea if it was a neighbor but what sort of miserable person neighbor or not grasses some one up for removing a kitchen

  • playland

    Hey, anyone who illegally converts a multi unit building into a single unit must be held accountable, no matter who they are!

    #aaronpeskin

    • Don Sebastopol

      It is not all that unusual to combine two units into one. That makes sense if a family needs more space. If this Lyon building was originally built as a single family home I don't see anything wrong with resorting it to its original condition. There is a shortage of single family homes making if more difficult for families with children to remain in the City. I would like to see more illegal secondary units reincorporated into the main house.

      • Jake McTavish

        Those are some very special families that can afford a single family home in the city. Your math is off by about 5x to 10x…

        • Don Sebastopol

          My neighborhood is 99% single-family and 85% owner occupied. I am not special nor are my neighbors. But over the years more highly educated higher-skilled workers have replaced less educated less skilled. And there are census tracts in neighborhoods with a large percent of single family homes that are more affordable in the Outer Mission and Bayview. The point was that an increase in the supply could help make single-family homes more affordable for families with children who would like to remain in the City. What math?

      • Watson Ladd

        You don’t see anything wrong with reducing the number of units in SF? The fact is families can live in apartment buildings, if people like you hadn’t made them illegal.

        • Don Sebastopol

          Made what illegal? Combining units or restoring single family homes with secondary units will increase the supply for families with school-age children. Families can live in apartment buildings where there are larger units that have been combined. It should not effect the total population because there are more people per unit in large compared to small units. Keeping families with children in the City is a good thing.

          • Watson Ladd

            It’s illegal to erect multifamily buildings in 80% of San Francisco.

    • Rosh HoshHosh

      I'd be interested in seeing the details on that one. Can you provide any links to substantiate?

      • playland

        Sure thing, @Rosh HoshHosh . Although, I realize that it is easiest for you to continue thinking of Peskin as an honest hero of the people. But here it is anyway:<blockquote>The building, originally built in 1863 and thoroughly remodeled in 1977, is on a lot zoned for up to three residences. Now, it's officially a duplex— hence the 50/50 TIC designation. According to the Planning Commission, exterior appurtenances were renovated starting in 1998. Numerous DBI complaints were filed about the building's apparent conversion to single-family living, and the Planning Commission in 2002 issued a preliminary recommendation to force the owners to return it to a duplex. (Search the DBI database by selecting "address lookup" and then entering lot 0085 046— no URLs will resolve for sub-pages). But all DPI complaints were eventually abated after Peskin moved in. The property and improvements are currently listed as a 2 family dwelling again, And after the latest information from the Assessor-Recorder's office yet more reconveyancing, substitute trusteeing and deeding since 2006, is still assessed at $875,000.</blockquote>https://sf.curbed.com/2008/5/2/10571622/the-peoples-guide-jacksons-day-5-doozie

        Now THAT's a strange saga.

        • Rosh HoshHosh

          Wow, it's one of the oldest houses in town. Thank you for the link.

          • playland

            Yes. And the Peskins apparently got quite the bargain. It sold for less than half of what it had 2 years earlier and for much less than nearby condos.

            I'm sure that the seller took one look at Peskin and gave him a huge discount for being an honest hero of the people.

          • Rosh HoshHosh

            Got it.

          • curiousKulak

            Yeah, I doubt that. I know some of the bldgs on the hill survived the Fire, but …

          • Rosh HoshHosh

            Yeah, good luck citing tour doubt.

          • curiousKulak

            Ok, my bad. Some houses on Tele Hill did survive. Filbert from Mont. to Sansom was unharmed. That would include Napier Lane and Peskins house. I mean, his duplex.

            Yeah, San Francisco has all sorts of amazing curios. Jackson Square. The top of Taylor St.//////////

          • Rosh HoshHosh

            I pretty much feel the same way about 114 Lyon St as I do the Peskin house. I believe Lyon St to be pre-1890 from the looks of it (although I haven’t checked). Pre-1890 homes deserve historical distinction, and should be restored with preservation in mind.

            Peskin is not squeaky clean, I know this. But he has the city’s best interest in mind. Sometimes you have to look past things.

            As for an example: Presidio Terrace. That road should not have been sold (and 114 Lyon St. should not have been made a quad plex). The BOS is going to hear the Presidio Terrace case, and Peskin should vote to do the right thing – rescind the sale.

          • playland

            Peskin is not squeaky clean, I know this. But he has the city’s best interest in mind.

            Yup. It is important that you continue to tell yourself that. Try to do it every morning as soon as you wake up.

          • Rosh HoshHosh

            Will do … starting tomorrow (or the next day).

  • Watson Ladd

    So now Tim Redmond admits that banning multiunit buildings causes displacement and gentrification.

    • Cynthia

      Please don't be so obtuse. It's not a good look.

  • curiousKulak

    When was it legally converted from a SFH to a multi-unit bldg?

    • Casual_Economy

      I think the article is saying it was built as a 4-unit, and illegally converted to a single family home with an inlaw apartment or something.

      • curiousKulak

        Yeah, no, they didn't build Queen Annes as 4U in that neighborhood in that style at that time (late 90s', early 1900's). Most likely converted to units either during WW2 or the 50s, when that area was largely AA. (thought it coulda been as late as the 70s)

        • Rosh HoshHosh

          Right, and that one could be 1880’s — it looks just like the group of Queen Annes on Broderick, which were mid 1880’s.

    • Don Sebastopol

      See above. Apparently in 1977.

  • pdquick

    A friend who worked for the San Jose planning department once told me that a rule of thumb in city planning is, "You're not entitled to our mistakes."

    It's supposed to be 4 units. If she can't afford to convert it back, she should sell it to someone who can and will.

    • Sanchez Resident

      Maybe Community Land Trust could handle the conversion and renovations.

      • curiousKulak

        Yes – the only problem is the $2,400,000 price.

        While that would make the units – 3 rms, btw – only $600,000 each (a bargain in that hood), it would not make them 'housing for the poor'. Since the monthly costs would be $2800 + $300 + $600 + ? (mort+HOA+REtax+extras), thats probably more than a similar rental would be (sure there are savings on taxes – but that may be on the way out with the proposed new Tax Plan).

        Whats needed is a way to steal that property and give it back to The People – or at least people that I approve of.