Planning Commission, supervisors condemn landlord for unpermitted student housing

The Planning Commission on Thursday unanimously rejected an attempt by a Merced Heights landlord accused of operating an illegal student dormitory near San Francisco State University to legalize the unpermitted construction of seven bedrooms.

Andy De Chen, the landlord of a now vacant three-story building at 278 Monticello St. near San Francisco State University that illegally morphed from a single family home into group housing for over a dozen students, petitioned to legalize alterations he’s made to the building over the past six years — including adding seven extra bedrooms — without The City’s sanction.

However De Chen’s request to legalize the addition of four bedrooms and remove the unpermitted addition of three other bedrooms, for a total of ten bedrooms, drew the ire of Board of Supervisors President Malia Cohen and Supervisor Ahsha Safai. They attended the Planning Commission hearing to press commissioners to deny the application.

Cohen said that in this case and others like it in which city agencies were intentionally misled, “[acting] first and [apologing] later…is not OK.”

Cohen likened the project to the Ghost Ship fire in an unpermitted residential warehouse in Oakland that killed 36 people, and to the case of landlord Judy Wu, who was sued by The City in 2016 for operating unauthorized housing for dozens of formerly homeless veterans in the Bayview District.

The commissioners agreed and sent De Chen back to the drawing board, requiring a scaled down version that would allow for just six bedrooms and four bathrooms before approval is granted.

“Everything is under the radar. Nothing is approved. We need to learn from instances [like] Ghost Ship to make sure this type of egregious behavior does not continue,” said Cohen, who also faulted The City’s Department of Building Inspection for issuing an incorrect permit and allowing the illegal construction to continue.

Cohen promised that she would focus the last six months of her term as supervisor “on DBI and cleaning up the corruption that’s been going on there and swept under the rug.”

“There is a connection between people trying to fly under the radar and skirt the rules and inspectors who sign off on these types of projects,” said Cohen. “There are egregious abuses that I am aware of. I will bring this to attention of Mayor Elect [London] Breed. This is a new administration, this should be fresh start. Actors like this project sponsor further exacerbate the housing crisis we are dealing with.”

According to planning documents, De Chen in 2012 applied for and in 2013 was granted a permit to add a third story to the building, which greenlit the construction of a total of six bedrooms and four full bathrooms at the property.

But in 2014, the Department of Building Inspection found De Chen to be in violation of the permit, making alterations which ultimately resulted in a total of 12 bedrooms and six full bathrooms and a third-floor study.

As De Chen filed for the proper building permits to comply with a notice of violation issued by DBI, he was issued a separate building permit “to legalize the entirety of the unpermitted work, without requiring Planning Department review,” according to Planning documents.

That permit was issued incorrectly, as the scope of work did require review by the Planning Department, and erroneously legalized the work.

A later inspection by the Planning Department revealed that De Chen was renting out the building as group housing — which is against neighborhood zoning — to 13 “mostly college-age students” who all had separate leases with De Chen.

Neighbors who testified against the legalization of the construction at the property the group housing has had negative impacts on the neighborhood.

“Besides the sudden loss of parking, we dealt with frequent loud parties, empty and partially empty alcohol bottles and frequent urination,” said neighbor Shannon Boxer. “One night in particular [there were] several cars, and many officers having to go deal with hundreds of students swarming in the streets, partying.”

De Chen declined to comment at the public hearing, but according to planning documents “has shown good faith in working with” the department by paying some $30,000 in fees related the group housing violation and “keeping the property vacant while working to correct the issues.”

Commissioner Kathrin Moore said that the hearing presented the commission with two unprecedented occurrences — “We never had two supervisors come to speak clearly and succinctly about what’s wrong here, [and] we never had an applicant decline to speak.”

Moore suggested additional restriction that included limiting the project to only four bathrooms and six bedrooms to “disincentive” future fraud, and to send a message to other landlords evading city processes.

“We are very intent on seeing our permitting process obeyed,” said Moore. “We won’t let this slip by.”

City officials say a Merced Heights property owner illegally subdivided a single-family home into group housing for up to 12 college students. (Courtesy SF Planning Department)

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

Laura Waxmann
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Laura Waxmann

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