Blight Lingers in Bayview
When Bayview resident Robert Davis attends Building Inspection Commission meetings, held monthly on the third Wednesday, he makes sure to tell the commissioners about blight in the Bayview during the public comment period. “The stairs are falling off the front. The residents are forced to enter either through the rear or ‘at their own peril,” Davis told commissioners at a meeting last fall. Davis’ concern about the building — 1881 Oakdale — was sadly prophetic. On March 3 of this year, a fire ravaged it, displacing more than 30 residents.
Now Davis’ main focus is on nine lots at the corner of Third and Thornton streets. “There are, in no order of importance, squatters, open sewage, weeds, trash, 12 non-running vehicles, and substandard living conditions,” said Davis. A long vacant Victorian, which neighbors call the “haunted house,” sits on top of a hill on one of the lots. Recently, a passerby rattled the gate leading up to its steps; although locked, it fell over.
Officer Sue Lavin in the Bayview Police Department says the public nuisance problem is primarily limited to three of the nine lots. She explained at one time as many as twenty squatters lived on the property without running water or power. While now she rarely finds more than three people living there, despite outreach attempts over the years she has seen little change. “I have been here for 10 years and it has been the same way for 10 years. It has not been improved,” she said.
Blight in Bayview isn’t uncommon. “There are more vacant buildings, more blighted buildings in the southeast portion of San Francisco…and that is strictly economic,” said Edward Sweeney, San Francisco Department of Building Inspection’s (DBI) deputy director of inspection services. While DBI is responsible for enforcing code requirements on existing structures, dealing with the Third Street lots is complicated because there are violations that span numerous City agencies. Weeds, litter, and graffiti are the Department of Public Works’ (DPW) responsibility; abandoned cars fall to the Department of Public Health (DPH). “Already, there is a lot of finger pointing,” said Davis.
A 2009 anti-blight law requires property owners to register and maintain abandoned buildings or face a hefty fine. Blighted buildings may come to the City’s attention through routine inspections, or as a result of concerned neighbors calling to report problems. However, within DBI different complaints are channeled to different, uncoordinated, divisions. As DBI chief housing inspector Rosemary Bosque explained to the Building Inspection Commission, the callers themselves are responsible for directing their complaint to the correct department.
Complaints to DBI are funneled through an administrative process. The property owner is issued a notice of violation, which is what happened in 2004 at 1881 Oakdale, when the property owner was notified that his house was uninhabitable due to a leaky roof, boarded windows, and cockroaches, but was being lived in all the same. If the issue isn’t fixed, the case eventually ends up at the City Attorney’s office. The process can take a long time. The 2004 violation on 1881 Oakdale is still open; complaints about the lots on Third and Thornton streets have been continually lodged since 2000.
With mounting pressures from neighbors, and the administrative process exhausted, DBI is now determining how to proceed with the Third Street lots. Tom Hui, DBI’s acting director, visited the lots in July, escorted by the San Francisco Police Department. Hui’s inspection followed a May visit by a City taskforce that included representatives from DPW, DPH, and DBI.
“We are considering asking for an emergency order for blight,” explained Dan Lowrey, chief building inspector. The department has never issued an emergency order for blight, which would require the demolition of all structures on the property, with the associated costs assigned to the owner, potentially through a tax lien. “Normally with an emergency order for demolition, it is for a building that is going to collapse any minute. The difference here is that it is so blighted; the police department has deemed it so. This will be a test case. It is expensive.”
While the City administrative process trudges on, Sweeney noted that real estate development has been quicker and perhaps more effective at correcting blight. “Things are improving in Bayview-Hunters point and a lot of it is market driven…That wasn’t the case three or four years ago, the shining light here is the market is correcting itself, [the DBI is] certainly helping it and doing our job,” he said.
A few blocks away, at 5800 Third Street, a new development features 137 condominiums, a grocery store, and the restaurants Limon rotisserie and Brown Sugar Kitchen. The building replaced abandoned warehouses and a vacant Coca-Cola factory. “I don’t want to think flipping houses and gentrification is a policy to deal with blighted buildings. I don’t think that is consistent with our values as a city,” said Myrna Melgar, a Building Inspection Commission member.
According to Ed Sweeny, blight tends to follow a set pattern. A notice of violation is sent to property owner for a leaky roof, or other problem. But the owners are elderly, on a fixed income, and cannot afford $10,000 to fix it. They move out; the abandoned building falls to disrepair. Sweeny explained that contractors and developers buy properties that have been sitting vacant and blighted for years. “Gentrification is not our policy, but it’s a reality and we’re part of it,” he said.
This Month's Stories