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In crackdown, SF abandoned building fee hiked ninefold

SF Public Press
 — Feb 12 2010 - 5:38pm

In a shift that suggests a new zero-tolerance stance on blight, San Francisco officials said Friday they would raise the annual fee to “register” more than 200 abandoned buildings to $6,885 each, the maximum allowable under a recent city ordinance.

“We’re going for the full amount,” said William Strawn, a spokesman for the Department of Building Inspection. “We have to make people aware that this is a new law and we’re going to enforce it.”

The new basic fee is a ninefold increase over the original fee of $765, which was designed to increase stepwise according to how many letters a property owner ignores. On Friday, the city began sending out a third round of letters to 154 owners. But inspectors said the total number of dilapidated or abandoned properties may rise to 500. So far, 60 owners have paid. If all 440 remaining delinquent owners paid this fee, the city could earn more than $3 million.

Last summer, the Board of Supervisors passed an anti-blight law intended to reduce crime, clean up neighborhoods and stimulate economic and social activity. The board approved it unanimously, and the mayor signed it Aug. 27.

Beyond the fines, property owners who don’t comply could face “legal enforcement penalties” in the form of a lien or eminent domain.

“In almost every neighborhood in San Francisco, vacant buildings contribute to blight, pose a threat to public safety and invite crime,” said David Chiu, president of the Board of Supervisors, who wrote the legislation.

The ordinance levies the fee on all San Francisco landlords whose buildings have succumbed to “vagrants,” “blight” or are just plain “empty.” It also requires them to fix up their property if it’s boarded up, littered, overgrown with weeds or covered in graffiti.

“Frankly, the high rate of noncompliance is surprising, but I think it highlights the problems certain neighborhoods face,” Chiu said.

City officials say the crackdown has exposed deeply rooted economic trends throughout the city, and laws like this one clarify the lines in the city between the haves and the have-nots.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” said Ed Sweeney, the Department of Building Inspection’s deputy director.

In the north side of town, he said, owners have “the means to do fix-up on their property — in Pacific Heights, in the Marina.”

“But we’re dealing with people who don’t have money, in the concentrations of abandoned and vacant buildings in the mid-Market area, the Mission, South of Market and Hunter’s Point,” Sweeney said. “There you have people who don’t have the economic means to repair these buildings and upkeep them.”

“So,” he added, “this ordinance is like a big hammer, it hits everything, but affects people in different ways.”

Seizing property
The crackdown has spurred discussion of whether the city has the power, or the will, to take buildings identified as blighted. Chiu and building inspectors say this was not the motivation for the legislation, and they were reluctant to say what might happen if landlords don’t ever comply.

Who would end up with the buildings if the city were to seize them?

The city has the power to put a lien on property if landlords don’t comply. After five years, the property can go up for auction. In certain predefined zones, the Redevelopment Agency can use the power of eminent domain to take it — but it’s an expensive legal process that could take years.

Perhaps the most famous abandoned building in San Francisco is the Hugo Hotel on Sixth and Harrison streets. It may be an art piece, but it’s still not exempt from paying the annual fee.

Famously adorned with vividly colored furniture jutting out from windows, falling from the rooftops and seemingly stapled to the exterior, the old hotel has been empty since a fire burned its insides in 1988.

After a heated 2009 eminent domain lawsuit, and numerous talks with the owners of the building, the Redevelopment Agency acquired the building for $4.6 million. 

As for the art, it was meant to be temporary. The artist has agreed to take down the furniture. Photographs of the famous installation will line the lobby walls of the apartment building that will replace it. The city is currently looking for a developer.

“Eminent domain cases are usually pretty controversial,” said Mike Grisso, a project manager for the Redevelopment Agency. “No one likes the government taking private property. But with this case, every single person we spoke to was in favor of this.”

“We are very, very careful about the use of eminent domain, but we do have the power,” said Fred Blackwell, executive director of the Redevelopment Agency. “We would only use it as a last resort, and after significant consultation with the community.”

But, Blackwell added, there are cases where there are blight issues that rise to the level of endangering health and safety, and there are cases of extreme economic blight.

Keeping tabs

Driving through the SoMa, winding through the streets in the mid-Market area and the Mission, building inspectors on a recent inspection tour were adding addresses to their list.

“I know who lives there — cross that one out,” Sweeney told Strawn while driving in SoMa.

“Oh, you better write that one down, that one should definitely be on the list.”

St. Joseph’s Church on 10th and Harrison streets immediately grabbed Sweeney’s attention. He called it a magnet for crime and drug dealing.

Back toward Market Street, Sweeney noticed a building on the corner of Dolores and 15th streets, where a fire had occurred. He recalled a long list of activities that had been observed at that abandoned building, mostly dealing with drugs and homelessness.

“The positive side is this legislation could add to housing stock of city, and could be the extra push property owners need to sell and redevelop their buildings,” Sweeney said. “The negative side is it is an added financial burden for people who already can’t afford the upkeep.”