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.