Rich homeowners win one — but why is this even an issue?

Presido Terrace Association gets to keep its private, gated street. Why doesn't the city take what should be a public right-of-way?

It’s fair to ask whether a group of people who don’t live in Presidio Terrace, who aren’t wealthy neighbors of Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi, would get the kind of attention over a tax sale that the loss of control of their private street has attracted.

The Board of Supes held a full hearing yesterday, and the Presidio Terrace Homeowner’s Association has hired a high-end law firm and a public-relations company to try to undo the sale of the streets and sidewalks in the posh neighborhood.

Google image of Presidio Terrace and its private road

The Chronicle, CBS, ABC, NBC, CurbedSF, Time, Fortune, and a bunch of other national and local publications have covered the story. It’s so journalistically juicy: One of the richest neighborhoods lost control of the private streets and open space surrounding their homes because of a failure to pay $14 a year in property taxes.

Two out-of-town real-estate investors bought the property at auction for $90,000, and have tried to sell it back to the Association (at a substantial profit). They were considering charging rent for the 120 parking spaces on the site.

The lawyer for the association said at the hearing today that it’s all a matter of fairness, that the law says the homeowners should have been notified. The tax bill was 15 years overdue, and the notices were sent to the office of a former accountant who had retired. The notices were returned as undeliverable.

Legal precedents cited by the association show that a city or county is supposed to take extra steps before seizing a piece of property for unpaid taxes and selling it at auction. Tax Collector Jose Cisneros said that applies only to places where someone was living; when a property is occupied, he said, his office goes out of its way to make sure that the residents are aware of the situation. In many cases, he said, those issues are resolved long before a sale.

But this property was listed as “vacant” – and Cisneros said that most vacant lots in San Francisco are tiny little pieces of land that have been essentially abandoned, or lots that are now underwater. So the Treasurer’s Office doesn’t make much of an effort to find those owners. That would take a lot of time and effort, he said.

Actually, as Sup. Katy Tang points out, it would take about five seconds to run the block and lot numbers through the city’s own Planning Department Property Information Map and figure out where the land was. Once someone figured out that this was a private street in a neighborhood, it would have been easy to contact the homeowners and solve the problem. So this sale never needed to happen.

In fact, Cisneros said that he’s changing the procedures in his office to be more aware of property that might be going on the auction block simply because of a delivery and notice problem.

It gets weirder: This happened once before, when the state seized the street for nonpayment of taxes. The homeowner’s association managed to get it back. But seven of the existing homeowners were around then, and presumably knew that this had once been an issue.

Oh, and there are apparently 264 private streets in the city, and this could happen anywhere.

In this case, Sup. Mark Farrell said that the “out of town speculators” should not be allowed to buy city streets and “hold our residents  hostage.” He said that the new owners offered to sell the streets back to the association for $950,000. “They want to make almost a million dollars off this,” he said. Which is true, and alarming.

Interesting, though: I haven’t heard Farrell make as much of a big deal about the out-of-town speculators who are buying houses and apartments in San Francisco, evicting people, and flipping them for huge profits.

Sup Hillary Ronen then talked about “the elephant in the room. There are so many laws in this city where poor people never get discretion, never get a second bite of the apple, never get a hearing.” She talked about seniors getting evicted, about foreclosures, about the stuff that people who don’t live in Presidio Terrace have to deal with.

“This case viscerally impacts san Franciscans because there is no discretion in the law when it applies to poor people.”

Most people, she said, don’t have the option of free parking on their streets. They have to either pay for an expensive garage, or pay lots of parking tickets. They don’t get gated private roads for their kids to play in.

No matter: The supes, by 7-4, voted with the Presidio Terrace Association to rescind the sale and let the association keep the street. Opposed were Sups. Ronen, Jane Kim, Aaron Peskin and Norman Yee.

But there’s another elephant in the room here: Why does San Francisco have 264 private roads? Why is Presidio Terrace a gated community within a major city, with a guard keeping the rest of us out?

Why didn’t the city seize the property for umpaid taxes, or take it by eminent domain, and make it a public right of way? Why don’t we start looking at all of these private streets and bring them back into the public domain?

This is an anachronism, and instead of worrying about the tax bills and speculators buying the land, wouldn’t it be simpler to make all city streets public streets?