Should S.F.’s property records be free?

Current price tag hampers public’s ability to track how huge companies gobble up local real estate

In a city just a BART, skip and a jump from the technology innovation capital of the world, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin wonders why it can be so hard to access property records online.

In San Francisco, you have to get out your credit card and be prepared to pay for a copy of a deed or lien, and you might have to make a trip to City Hall in person to obtain it.

The City has long charged for access to such property records, though they are a public record, and not all of them are digitally available.

Peskin warns the price tag on records hampers the public’s ability to track the consolidation of property ownership in San Francisco in recent years as huge companies gobble up real estate. It could also make it challenging to track the assets of a Russian oligarch and friend of Vladimir Putin amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the longtime supervisor argues.

“Here we are in the heart of tech on the northern edge of Silicon Valley and San Francisco’s records are opaque, and that’s just got to change,” Peskin told The Examiner.

A resolution adopted by the Board of Supervisors on April 5 acknowledged the Office of the Assessor-Recorder’s recent work to upgrade and digitize its database, but urged the office to waive fees for record access.

In response, Assessor-Recorder Joaquín Torres signaled his support for increasing access to property records and detailed the office’s extensive work since 2017 to do just that.

“We are proud of the new search tools, better maps and 3 million images added to a new document management system that these upgrades have provided,” Torres said in a statement to The Examiner. “As we continue this work, we look forward to partnering with the Board of Supervisors to make the public’s engagement with us even better.”

The office said it would work to determine which fees may pose a barrier to access and review which might be reduced or waived.

It’s the Board of Supervisors who set the fees in 1998, the assessor-recorder’s office noted, and would have to sign off on any decision to change them. The fees for property record access are less than that of other places in California, the office added, and state laws may limit what fees it can feasibly eliminate.

The office charges $3 per page for a copy of the first three pages. For every page after it’s 50 cents, or 10 cents if reading the document in-person at one of the office’s computer terminals.

A similar search for property in New York City, however, turns up a deed that is readily available, for free, online.

Peskin’s passion for property records actually begins primarily in Nevada, where he has led a nonprofit’s efforts to secure water rights for Native Americans.

“(We) work in a lot of different counties in Nevada wherein all of this information is easily accessible for free online,” Peskin said.

The San Francisco Office of the Assessor-Recorder’s digital records go back to 2000. They include some basic property information — such as the name on a deed — but still require payment for a full copy of a document.

If looking for anything documented before 2000, expect to take a trip to City Hall, although the assessor-recorder’s office is working to get older documents online.

The legwork and cash needed to deep dive into San Francisco real estate is a problem for Peskin, who pointed to ProPublica’s reporting in February about the rise of private equity-backed investment in properties in the Bay Area and across the country.

But to Peskin, you shouldn’t have to be a journalism institution to track such a trend.

“Information is power,” Peskin said.

Peskin is one of several city leaders wary of outside investment in local real estate.

The fastest segment of vacant housing in San Francisco between 2015 and 2019 were units that had been sold, but remained unoccupied, according to a report issued earlier this year by the Board of Supervisors’ budget and legislative analyst.

The number of housing units sold but not occupied grew to 20% of The City’s roughly 40,000 vacant units over those five years.

Some of these units might be sitting empty while the new owner carries out a renovation. But the analysis also posited that one of the reasons a unit might be purchased, but not occupied, is buyers see them as “investments or cash havens” in which they never intended to actually live.

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