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San Francisco Blight Law Shows Few Results So Far

Rachel Gordon, Chronicle Staff Writer

San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, February 1, 2010

From the eclectic Mission District to tony Pacific Heights to the hardscrabble streets of San Francisco's Mid-Market, the city's ambitious program to crack down on blighted properties has netted few results.

Last summer, the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom enacted a law requiring property owners to pay a $765 annual fee to register their abandoned or vacant buildings. The fees are supposed to be used to increase building inspections and prod people to fix up or sell their blemished properties.

So far, only a third of the property owners have registered their buildings.

The high rate of noncompliance highlights the difficulties in reining in recalcitrant property owners whose neglect often leaves neighbors to deal with squalor, squatters and crime.

"It has been a little frustrating," said Vivian Day, director of the Department of Building Inspection.

The goal, she said, is to use government regulation to return the buildings to their intended uses as housing, shops and offices. "We want them to benefit neighborhoods, not bring them down."

The city put together a list last year of more than 200 buildings known to vacant and abandoned, but officials estimate that up to 500 properties ultimately will be subject to the anti-nuisance law. Mid-Market, an area targeted by Newsom for cleanup, has the highest concentration.

"We found that these properties are contributing to neighborhood blight, potentially contributing to public-safety issues related to unsafe buildings, crime if they're taken over by squatters and drug users, and decreased property values," said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who wrote the ordinance. "This really is about improving neighborhoods."

Mailing Notices To Owners

In November, the city sent notices to the owners of the properties on its list - in some cases twice, when the first notice was ignored.

Fifty-three owners registered their properties as of last week. Forty-six buildings were taken off the list because they were either occupied or the owners had pulled permits to make improvements, or the buildings were of being sold.

Failure to register can result in a $6,885 fine. The city also could place a lien on the property.

Still hoping for voluntary compliance, city officials have yet to levy a fine or lien. Stronger enforcement action will begin this week, said Department of Building Inspection spokesman William Strawn.

Some properties are in foreclosure, wreckage of the prolonged recession. Others are left to rot by absentee owners awaiting lucrative opportunities to sell or develop, city officials say. Some were inherited by offspring who may not have the interest or the means to make changes.

"There's a different story with each and every one of these properties," said Ed Sweeney, the building department's deputy director of inspection services, who oversees the program.

On a recent morning, Sweeney pointed out the problems with a Julian Avenue property in a shabby stretch of the Mission District.

The three-story apartment building - last used as a residential hotel - is covered with spray-painted graffiti. Trespassers have attempted to pry off the plywood boards covering the windows. Shattered glass bottles litter the sidewalk and street gutter in front.

Losing Control To Squatters

"Copper divers," people who steal valuable pipes and wires from construction projects and vacant buildings, already have scoured the building.

The former owner, Sweeney said, lost control of the property to unsavory squatters.

The property was sold to Friendship House Association of American Indians Inc., a nonprofit that runs residential treatment programs nearby, Sweeney said.

The new owner is trying to get the property off the list of troubled vacant or abandoned buildings, he said, but has yet to apply for the required building permits to accomplish that. Representatives of Friendship House would not comment.

Across town in Pacific Heights, one of San Francisco's most posh neighborhoods lined with multimillion-dollar homes, a historic mansion designed by Willis Polk landed on the list.

The grand home near Webster Street and Broadway has some bricks missing from the chimneys, and a window, up high, is broken. But that was enough for neighbors with little tolerance for unkempt properties to file a complaint.

Recently sold, the new owner will have to let the city know whether the property will be occupied, which would get it removed from the list.

Chiu and other city officials offered no false promises that the anti-blight law would result in overnight changes. Instead, they see it as one more tool to get property owners to take care of their buildings and add to a neighborhood's desirability - not detract from it.

Neighbors Band Together

That's David Delp's hope.

He lives near two neighboring residential buildings at Treat and 23rd streets in the Mission District that, he said, have been "a handy stop for taggers and sleeping quarters for drunks and the homeless." Then there were the shootings that occurred out front in 2007 and 2008.

Concerned neighbors banded together with Planning Department officials and brought the family that owns the buildings into mediation, securing promises of improvements.

There have been some, such as the installation of exterior motion detector lights and more frequent cleaning of graffiti. But the buildings are still derelict, covered with bird droppings and worn paint. Torn curtains hang in some windows, while plywood covers others.

The owner did not return calls seeking comment.

"I love this neighborhood, and the neighbors are working together trying to make it better," said Delp, a teacher who moved to the area five years ago with his wife and daughter. "But as long as we have these neglected properties, we're going to have problems. We're still waiting for results."

Passing The Test

Under S.F. law, property owners are required to:

  • Register their vacant and abandoned buildings with the city and pay a $765 annual fee.
  • Comply with building-safety codes.
  • Secure the properties against trespassers.
  • Carry adequate fire and liability insurance.
  • Keep the exterior free of graffiti and trash.
  • Keep the interior free of rodents, insects, leaks and garbage.

Source: Department of Building Inspection

E-mail Rachel Gordon at rgordon@sfchronicle.com.

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This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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