A warren of 20 illegally constructed rental units were discovered in the basement of the Clean Wash Center building at 4680-4690 Mission Street, on the border of Mission Terrace and the Excelsior, earlier this year.

Built in the building’s former garage and constructed of wood-framed partitions – with two communal kitchens, three shared bathrooms, exposed wiring, and no windows, heat nor hot water throughout – the units were being rented for between $300 and $900 per month in cash.

The only access to – or exit from – the subterranean units was by way of a single gated door at “5 Persia” Avenue, with the laundromat’s former loading door having been removed long ago.

And while the warren appears to have been operational for over a decade, an anonymous tip directed the San Francisco Fire Department to the door at 5 Persia Avenue shortly after the deadly Ghost Ship fire late last year.

The building’s owner (who lives in a five-bedroom home with hot water and heat in Hillsborough) and the warren’s apparent operator (who is technically the master tenant for the basement space and collected all the rents) were cited for numerous violations and ordered to quickly bring the building’s unsafe conditions up to code. Instead, all power to the basement was cut off and the tenants and violations were simply ignored.

The Fire Department subsequently ordered the basement to be evacuated within 48 hours and around two dozen tenants, ranging in age from 12 to 72, were displaced in February.

San Francisco’s City Attorney has now filed suit against the building’s owner, operator and related entities, seeking restitution for the displaced tenants; civil penalties in nine different categories (including penalties of up to $500 per day for both past or present violation of San Francisco’s Building Code and up to $1,000 per day for fire code violations); a court order to prevent the basement from being re-occupied until it is brought up to code; and attorneys fees and costs (with a lien to be placed upon the property in order to collect).

And as noted in the suit: “The victims of such practices are not only [the former] tenants and neighbors, but also other owners of residential property and businesses who operate their buildings in compliance with local and state law.”

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by Pero

    I was always wondering how the laundromat makes enough money to justify such a large and prominent location.

    IMO, the operator and owner should face criminal charges. Does another Ghostship type accident have to happen first?

  2. Posted by that_dude

    Hillsborough. lol

  3. Posted by aerel

    I hope the city attorney takes them to the cleaners on this one (haha).

  4. Posted by Just My Opinion

    These things are all over the City, including dozens of so-called “assisted care” facilities which are being operated out of private homes.

    SS: Can you publish the location where citizens can anonymously report these locations to the building department?

  5. Posted by justin

    Would be nice to get a 10+ story tower onto this patch of triangle (graciously financed by the fines). Then, people could have real housing.

    • Posted by joh

      I agree but then working class people wouldn’t be able to afford to live there (not that this justifies this type of slumlording).

    • Posted by anon

      The existing neighbors would complain about shadows and parking, “organize the community”, and be able to block the project.

  6. Posted by Some Guy

    If it’s an actual “basement” below grade I don’t see how they’ll be able to bring it “up to code” to be habitable. Bedrooms require windows receiving natural air and light. I’d gamble that the ceiling height down there is probably below the legal limit also. Would be interesting to see some photos of the inside, in a car-crash rubberneck way.

  7. Posted by Stop Driving

    I’m sure MEDA was just fine with this place. I mean, it’s not like it has aristocratic windows or anything.

    • Posted by jimbo

      and the owners were latino

    • Posted by Cynthia

      Why do you believe they’d be okay with it, exactly?

      • Posted by Torger Cobus

        read the snark

        • Posted by Cynthia

          I’m asking someone to explain their thinking and be direct about it. It’s good to have the courage of your convictions.

          • Posted by Notcom

            They were being sarcastic: as per the link, MEDA had objected to a building ostensibly b/c it didn’t like the windows; since this building (basement) doesn’t have any, they wouldn’t object to it…but in doing so would ignore the obvious problems.

  8. Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

    Interesting complaint. My reading of this (IANAL), is that the person who would have been the main defendant is now deceased, and so The City is going after a family member of some sort who as a survivor legally owns the limited liability company. I expect the named defendant to claim ignorance and that they “really didn’t know what was going on”, boo hoo, “I didn’t collect the rent in cash”, etc. Isn’t going to fly, but that’s what I expect to happen.

    When you’re a sanctuary city, you’re going to attract ruthless people who will try to take advantage of the newly-arrived. That’s the capitalist system in action.

    • Posted by Pero

      The link between sanctuary city and these type of slumlord operators is non existent. It only serves to confirm and reveal to us your priors.

      In fact, in non sanctuary cities, undocumented immigrants have less options to obtain legal housing. Thereby, they get pushed more towards these types of slumlords.

      • Posted by Realist

        If some people get to ignore immigration laws, why do other people have to follow building codes? Is the legal system a buffet where you get to pick and choose which laws you will and will not obey?

        • Posted by Pero

          The sanctuary city legislation is passed by local governments.

        • Posted by Chris

          You seem to misunderstand what a “sanctuary” city ordinance does or who is in charge of enforcing immigration law. Sanctuary city ordinances simply say that a local municipality will not do the job of the federal government by enforcing laws that are statutorily and constitutionally solely within the authority of the federal government. Our system of government is purposefully set up as a federal republic. Sanctuary ordinances do not allow anyone to “ignore” immigration laws, they simply say that a local government is not going to spend its scarce resources doing the federal government’s job.

          Immigration laws are federal laws and they are enforced by federal authorities. Immigration agents can always go into any city, even a “sanctuary” city, and arrest anyone suspected of violating immigration laws. It is up to Congress to adequately fund immigration services and enforcement and it is the responsibility of the executive branch to use the resources appropriated by Congress to enforce the law.

          Building codes are local and state safety laws, and they protect residential and commercial tenants of a building and their guests and residents of neighboring buildings from being harmed by unsafe building conditions. It is the job of state and local authorities to enforce local health and safety laws, and this is what San Francisco is doing through this enforcement action.

          • Posted by Dave

            I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know if the takings clause applies. Prop M withstood legal challenge. Have another M-like initiative reducing the yearly allocation to 250K – that should past muster based on Prop M having so done.

            My proposal would put a moratorium on large office projects only – 50K or more. Ideas are being debated among activists and neighborhood groups – an initiative is likely to emerge in the next few years. What form it takes is anyone’s guess.

            Short of a medium term moratorium, other ideas are tying housing production to new office construction and/or to infrastructure improvement. Real funded infrastructure improvements and not pie in the sky promises. HSR is one such pipe dream. It may eventually reach the Bay Area but it will terminate in Oakland which should have been the plan from the get-go.

    • Posted by Notcom

      That appears to be correct – or partly so – as the main defendants would be the decedent (as owner) and the master tenant (who is, apparently, alive). But of course the owner could have offered up the same claim as you speculate the family member will…though it might – or might not – have been less plausible.

  9. Posted by Notcom

    And said home [in Hillsborough] has an estimated market of $3.5-4M (depending on which site you consult) for ~4000sf…which appears to be several times the size of the SF building’s entire basement (if not in fact the entire building).

    • Posted by Notcom

      Actually the building (is SF) is listed as 10,584 gsf. so ~3500gsf/level if the basement is full coverage, or ~ 150sf/unit (assuming roomy 20 inch hallways and such as common areas)…sigh.

  10. Posted by SFRealist

    I was confused about why the payouts weren’t larger. If anyone deserves compensation, it’s these tenants.

    • Posted by SocketSite

      Total restitution due to the tenants has yet to be determined.

      While relocation compensation of $4,262 per unit has already been ordered, as determined by State law, the defendants could be on the hook for repaying all unlawfully collected rents.

      • Posted by SFRealist

        Got it.

        It just seems that if buyouts in the tens of thousands are common if a landlord wants to Ellis Act evict someone, this seems low. (Yes, I know they’re different, but if anything this is worse than Ellis Act evicting someone)

  11. Posted by Dave

    A perfect example of the negative impact the recent growth in SF jobs has had on the city. The housing crisis worsened and some have taken advantage of it at is the case in this situation – one of the more egregious examples. The BMR fraud story posted above is another example – one wonders how much fraud is going on with SF’s BMR program.

    Another downside to the growth has been the growing number of homes in RH1 neighborhoods whose owners rent out bedrooms. It’s typical in my area for a 3/2 to have 4 adult and unrelated individuals living in it. With 5 or 6 cars among them. One owner on my street has subdivided the garage with partitions and is renting out space. One can call the City about this and report the abuses anonymously. Only problem is the City inspectors make one visit. If the owner is away there is no follow-up. Folks doing this probably realize the almost non-existent enforcement of codes in RH1 areas and so they persist. Hopefully these two stories indicate a long overdue crackdown is coming.

    • Posted by Notcom

      Perhaps, but what would you do about it other than not do something like give a tax-break to Twitter?

      The city already (in effect) discourages employment there w/ a payroll tax …would you have them erect “keep out” signs too, and if so who would pay for them?

      • Posted by Dave

        I’d place a 10 or 15 year moratorium on major new office developments (50K feet or more) in SF. Or, I’d condition any new major office approval on a concurrent approval for new housing – a 1/1 jobs/housing ratio or, at most, a 2/1 ratio. I’d put in infrastructure improvement requirements with teeth – as in major new office development can’t be approved until appropriate infrastructure upgrades are approved and funded. No more fiascos like the TBTC where massive amounts of office space is being built and will be completed/is completed years before HSR ever gets to the TBTC.

        • Posted by Notcom

          “A man, a plan, a moratorium….” too bad we can’t somehow turn that into a palindrome.

        • Posted by SFRealist

          This is a great idea if you want to jack up office rents.

        • Posted by Chris

          Unless you change the law, there is no authority to pass a total moratorium on new office development for 10-15 years. It would also likely be challenged as a taking by property owners.

          Also, San Francisco currently has some of the most rigid office restrictions in the country. Prop. M. has worked quite well in limiting new office development since it was passed in 1986. Stopping new office construction in San Francisco does very little to control job growth in Silicon Valley and the Peninsula where many residents of San Francisco work.

          Also, the article notes this particular illegal development was in operation for over a decade, which would have preceded the recent “tech boom” in the city. I think it is well-know that there has been illegal “slum” housing in the city for many decades, and little of it has any connection to office development.

        • Posted by Chris

          You replied to my comment about sanctuary cities, but I just do not see an appetite either at the voter level or at the Board of Supervisor level for any sort of office moratorium. Again, if office space is not built in San Francisco, it will be built in Silicon Valley or the East Bay, and people will continue to live in San Francisco–that was the pattern for many years as housing costs soared. Unless, you there is some regional approach to control growth, a city approach will fail.

          Housing costs are high in SF because there for decades there has consistently been a lack of housing constructed, mainly because of an unholy alliance between property owners interested in keeping their property values as high as possible and neighborhood activists (NIMBYs) fighting any new development as “too dense,” etc. Of course, many of these phonies talk about how they wish San Francisco were more like Paris, neglecting to mention the fact that Paris is TWICE as dense as New York (the city that historically has been held out as the bogeyman by anti-development activists in San Francisco).

          You forget that voters just recently voted to WEAKEN Prop M. by passing Proposition O to exempt millions of square feet of new office development in the Bayview from Prop. M limitations. Though, it hardly matters as office prices are beginning to peak, the economy is showing signs of a bubble, and office construction will naturally slow down without any new restrictions.

          There is no new limitation on office development needed. There seems to be some real confusion on your part about how zoning does not equal permitting. Most of these areas zone for office would not be allowed to fully build out under the Prop. M allocation for anywhere from 15-30 years. Prop. M is a very effective circuit breaker on new office development, but has it has proven it is not office development that drives up housing costs–at least not office development in the city. Ban all new office development, watch it continue unabated in the Bay Area outside of the city, see housing costs continue to soar, and then come back and tell me that I was right. I promise to only say “I told you so,” once or twice.

      • Posted by charles temmel

        how is anyone being discouraged to start a business? tech jobs are expanding like crazy…

  12. Posted by charles temmel

    by the standards of the commenters on this board the landlord should be given taxpayer cash and the key to the city. people here sure like making other people miserable! keep up the anger and the hatred you’ll be rewarded in Hell by your master, Satanists

    • Posted by Chris

      No one is posting anything of the sort. Most of the comments have been very critical of this slumlord. I think you need to get off whatever drugs you are taking and start reading with a clear head…

  13. Posted by Some Guy

    Thanks, interesting, and my suspicions confirmed. I don’t see how they can bring that up to code without some very major renovations. Lifting the building perhaps? Not going to happen. At least SF is on the ball here, in Oakland these people might’ve gotten Ghost Shipp’d.

    • Posted by Notcom

      Or perhaps they’re both learning from Oakland’s bad experience. But I’m not sure how much of a pat on the pat is earned: according to the article the city spent much of the year – after having been unaware of it for a decade…end even then only aware b/c of a tip – issuing ineffective directives before doing something definitive. All roads don’t lead to Oakland, whatever some people may claim.

  14. Posted by Mark F.

    I’m sure all of these people were legal residents, amiright? (No objection to shutting down this death trap, btw)

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