Landlords’ ADU Conversions Create ‘A Living Hell’ For SF Tenants
The above image of a tiny, combined kitchen-bathroom — with the toilet inside the shower and the toilet paper roll just an arm’s grab away in the kitchen — is the future that San Francisco landlords want. This image is from an honest to god, actual listing for 698 Bush Street, and it’s the the new reality after an Ed Lee-era directive allowing housing stock to be broken down into smaller Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to create more apartments.
ADUs, also known as “in-law units” or “granny flats,” can create useful new housing when employed responsibly to convert basements, attics, or backyard cottages into apartments. But some large commercial landlords are destroying their tenants’ quality of life with ADU conversions that, in this case, robbed a granny of her in-house laundry and made her walk several blocks of hills that are anything but flat.
BrokeAssStuart.com spoke to several tenants at the above building 530 Stockton Street, where ADU conversions have been wreaking havoc on the tenants who say they’ve lost water, laundry, elevator service for extended periods. Those tenants will be appealing the ADU conversion permits at tonight’s SF Board of Appeals meeting (5 p.m. on SFGovTV and on Zoom, with instructions here if you want to submit public comment). But a leading tenant advocate nonprofit tells us this is happening all over town, with most losses of service coming at the hands of two of SF’s biggest commercial landlords.
“We have heard from tenants in 14 different buildings over the last 12-15 months,” says Brad Hirn, a lead organizer with the Housing Right Committee of San Francisco. “Except for one of those buildings, all of the other buildings are either Ballast or Veritas.” (Veritas is SF’s biggest landlord, Ballast Investments “manages $97 million in assets” according to KQED.)
“Tenants have brought forward concerns ranging from the unlawful severance or reduction of housing services such as garage space, parking space, storage, common area, to very legitimate concerns about the infrastructure of the buildings,” Hirn tells us.
The tenants speak a little more bluntly. “It’s been a living hell,” one tenant says in a batch of complaint letters to the Board of Appeals. The building’s residents say that years of “destructive construction” has particularly affected senior tenants, tenants with disabilities, and long-term rent-controlled tenants.
The half-ass patch above was intended to stem the tide of “brown, filthy water” that shoddy conversion work brought flowing into 530 Stockton St. tenant Shane Tepper’s apartment. “It was disgusting, and it happened on two occasions,” Tepper tells BrokeAssStuart.com. “Brown, filthy water dripping down from the bathroom ceiling, streaking down the window, and pooling on the windowsill and floor. The maintenance people cut a hole in the ceiling, told us the problem was fixed (it wasn’t), then water came down again several weeks later, they opened it up yet again, then put a plastic sheet over it for weeks.”
But there are more heartbreaking cases, like a woman who’s more than 60 years old, and has lived at 530 Stockton since 1980. Ballast removed the in-house laundry machines to convert the laundromat area into an ADU, and she’s now forced to hike hills to the nearest laundromat.
“Having to leave the building to do laundry will be a major inconvenience,” she complained to the Board of Appeals. “My building is on a street at a 45-degree incline. The closest laundromats are 3-4 blocks away.”
Construction crews have been using the elevator as a freight elevator for large renovation equipment, and that wear and tear has frequently busted the elevators on the six-floor building.
“The elevator in the building was out of service from mid-March 2019 until late May 2019 (we lived on the 6th floor so this was quite a problem having been sold on the apartment with a functioning elevator),” says another tenant. “The elevator would proceed to be broken for several days and sometimes weeks, every month or so, likely due to the constant construction materials being hauled up and down every day.”
And that’s a huge problem for a resident in a wheelchair.
“I have upcoming surgery in May 2021, and I will be required to use a wheelchair and then walker for many weeks,” another tenant wrote to the Board of Appeals. “If the elevator doesn’t work, I will be trapped either upstairs or on the ground floor. Even temporary loss of the basement entrance will prevent me from entering the building in my wheelchair.”
530 Stockton resident Amy Yvonne Yu has more scary busted elevator stories. “Someone was stuck in it for a few hours late one night, another tenant had it drop an entire floor on her,” she tells BrokeAssStuart.com. “None of us who live here were even notified of these dangerous issues for our safety.”
HRCSF’s Hirn notes that the buildings often lack the electrical and plumbing infrastructure for the number of new units being added. “Tenants report laundry detergent coming up through their toilets,” he says. “There’s very little structural analysis done by the city, by DBI on these projects. I’m not an engineer, a lot of the tenants are not engineers, but they see the symptoms. When they see laundry detergent coming up in your toilet, when you see the cracks forming in your walls, that deserves greater scrutiny.”
Ballast Investment’s permit consultant declined to comment on record for this article, but did send comments to the Board of Appeals.
“No one likes changes where they live,” the consultant writes. “When your neighbor builds a room addition, or new construction gets underway across the street, it can be a nightmare. We’ve all been there. We’d like to think that the projects are going to go off without a hitch, but they never do. Creating new housing, and improving the housing we have creates inconvenience to the people who currently live where the work is going on. It’s unfortunate but it’s a fact. It’s urban life.”
But tenants say they’re being robbed of services that were included in their lease, leases they would not have signed if they know they were losing in-house laundry, courtyard access, and bicycle storage. And they’re losing these services in ways that seem to flout notification laws.
“Our housing services in the basement were immediately terminated on Monday March 8, 2021 by 8 a.m., after being notified via email about them being removed that prior Friday, March 5, 2021 at 4:31 p.m.,” Yu tells us. “The two washers and dryers were unhooked and moved to the backyard, leaving tenants without laundry. The six tandem parking spaces were locked out of the garage as they changed the keypad with code. Bike storage was removed and all bikes were moved to the backyard.”
Moreover, some of the construction workers have allegedly become tenants at 530 Stockton, and in pretty squalid conditions at that. “Some of the workers were living in the building, including it seemed in informal units in the basement,” one tenant complained. “From the backyard I saw at least a half dozen air mattresses being occupied by construction workers in this unit,” said another.
Developers will argue that ADU conversions like these at 530 Stockton add necessary housing stock. “For 96 years the large basement and garage areas of this building have contributed little benefit to the housing stock and quality of life in San Francisco,” the permit consultant wrote to the Board of Appeals. “The San Francisco Accessory Dwelling Units legislation created an opportunity to increase housing density here — exactly where it’s needed.”
But is it really needed in the post-COVID housing market, when some buildings are half-vacant? “There are currently 48 units in my building, including 22 vacancies,” a 530 Stockton tenant says.
530 Stockton St. is just one of many cases across town where tenants entered in a contractual agreement, and then saw the services in that contract taken away. Sometimes the aging buildings just can’t handle the increased water and electricity use, or the landlord does not add extra capacity for garbage or refuse collection. “There is an overarching issue with these large real estate firms looking to build as many of these ADUs as possible, to maximize rental income,” Hirn says.
Amy Yvonne Yu is one of the tenants who chose to give her name for this article. “By staying silent, we are continually enabling this bad landlord behavior for the entire city and it hurts all tenants,” she tells us. And the added supply of ADUs doesn’t necessarily help renters, because these smaller, new units can still be expensive as hell.
“The point that these landlords are making is that these ADUs add to the housing supply, so therefore they are good, they’re reducing the housing shortage,” Hird says. “The shortage is of affordable housing in this city.”