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News + PoliticsDevelopmentThe price of corruption: Families face eviction from illegal units in Portola

The price of corruption: Families face eviction from illegal units in Portola

Developer cheated. City officials allowed it. Now the tenants have to pay.

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 You could see the human impacts of decades of City Hall corruption unwind last Thursday at the SF Planning Commission.

The technical issue was a permit to legalize ten housing units on San Bruno Avenue in the Portola. The reality is that at least six families, most of them monolingual Chinese or Latino, who collectively have been paying hundreds of thousand dollars a month to a shadowy landlord, are facing eviction for no fault of their own.

Planning Department schematic of the building

This is what happens when the Planning Department and the Building Inspection Department under a series of mayors have either looked the other way or actively participated in activities that could land at least two participants in prison.

The building, at 2861-2899 San Bruno, has been in the news quite a bit lately. The back story: A development group turned five buildings that had permits for ten housing units, along with ground-floor retail and second-floor offices, into 30 housing units.

City records list the owners as the Tam Yin Kwan Family Trust, Lee Yun Ling & Cindy Zhou, and Tong Yin Kai Tong & Dufin Tsang.

The property lacked, among other things, proper fire escapes, and some of the illegal units were nowhere near up to code.

And yet, this situation continued for years, after a former city official who has pleaded guilty to a series of crimes approved the engineering work and former building inspector, Bernie Curran, signed off on the construction.

Curran has been fired and is facing criminal charges. Rodrigo Santos, who was also involved in the project, is awaiting sentencing on 17 felony counts of fraud. The state is moving to revoke his engineering licenses.

Now the city is forcing the developer to remove the illegal units and restore the building to its allowable uses. In the meantime, at least six families are living in apartments that will have to be demolished, and some ten others will have to relocate temporarily (perhaps for a long time) while construction work is underway.

The developer hasn’t responded to the Planning Department, and nobody from the group has shown up at planning hearings. For the first time this week, they sent a lawyer, Ryan Patterson. The group hasn’t even given the city a timeline for when that’s going to happen.

So the tenants are in limbo, some say they could wind up homeless, and planners say the developer hasn’t responded to them.

“It’s not fair to pay for an apartment that’s not supposed to be an apartment,” a tenant living on the second floor, which is not approved for housing, testified. “I pay $3,000 a month. I’ve been living here for seven years, and I have a child with a syndrome; I can’t move to the third floor. This is unfair.”

Alicia Bustos Sandoval, an organizer with the Housing Rights Committee, told the commissioners that “The tenants are scared they are going to be evicted and displaced. Don’t punish the tenants,” she said.

“Why didn’t we see this?” former Planning Commission member Dennis Richards told the panel. “Because you are facilitating these bad actors and corruption.”

Everyone on the Planning Commission agreed the situation was a disaster. President Rachel Tanner noted, “we are descending into a deeper level of hell with this project.” Commissioner Joel Koppel said the situation was “disgusting. Let’s make sure this never happens again.”

But Tanner later said that “I don’t think we have a lot of good options here.”

Planning staff made it clear that the building is unsafe in its current condition, and that there’s no way to legalize all of the existing units.

Meanwhile, several speakers noted, even after paying a $1.2 million settlement to the city, the landlord is still collecting rent and has collected a lot of rent from people living in unsuitable conditions.

This is a particularly glaring example, but it’s by no means the only time that bad actors have gotten away with violating city planning codes. Santos not only got away with criminal activity for years; the late mayor Ed Lee decided Santos was such an upstanding member of society that he appointed him to the Community College Board.

Here’s what Santos was doing, according to a legal complaint filed by the state attorney general seeking the revocation of his licenses:

Beginning no later than May of 2017 and continuing until at least April of 2020, Respondent admitted that he devised and executed a scheme to defraud the public of the honest services of a Senior Building Inspector at San Francisco Department of Building Inspection (DBI). Respondent knew that the inspector supported and participated in activities at the San Francisco Golden Gate Rugby Association (SFGGR). As part of the scheme, Respondent asked his clients to make charitable contributions to SFGGR, intending that those donations would influence the inspector in the performance of his official duties. After soliciting SFGGR donations from his clients, Respondent ensured that the inspector knew about the donations by either personally delivering his clients’ checks to the inspector or otherwise informing the inspector of the donation.

• In exchange for the stream of donations flowing to SFGGR from Respondent’s clients, the inspector gave Respondent’s clients favorable official treatment in his capacity as a senior DBI inspector.

• As part of the scheme, Respondent caused 13 clients to write checks to SFGGR, with one client writing two checks. SFGGR donations from Respondent’s clients totaled $9,600 from May 2017 through April 2019. • The inspector took at least one official action, including performing inspections and/or issuing a Certificate of Final Completion, for all 13 of Respondent’s donor-clients.

• Respondent admitted that neither he nor the inspector ever disclosed the donations to DBI management, and that their concealment of the scheme allowed it to continue because, if DBI had known about the SFGGR donations from Respondent’s clients, the inspector would not have been permitted to inspect properties associated with Respondent or his firm.

One of those buildings may be the one at 2861 San Bruno Avenue.

None of the planning commissioners, none of the planning staff, and as far as I can tell, nobody in the City Attorney’s Office is proposing what seems to me to be the only fair solution:

The landlord should pay for relocation expenses for the tenants who will be displaced during construction, and guarantee them the right to return at the same rent when the work is done.

And the landlord should either refund all the rent collected from the people in illegal units who won’t be able to return, or pay the difference between their current rent and the rent they will have to pay for a similar unit for at least five years.

In other words, don’t make the tenants suffer because the city allowed its own bad actors to approve of another bad actor.

The item was continued until March 16.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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