However, the hearing illustrated that the city’s ability to act on blighted properties was somewhat constrained by the different processes required to handle commercial properties versus residential properties.
Victoria Weatherford, an assistant city attorney assigned to Ingleside Police Station, described the processes and parties in place to deal with both types of blighted buildings. She sees the City Attorney’s Office as a funnel to capture and direct all complaints to their appropriate departments.
Aside from going on corridor walks, holding community meetings and police officer debriefings, Weatherford said, a monthly Code Enforcement Task Force meeting has been helpful.
“I think it’s important to educate the public about how the city works," she said. "And I understand, as everybody has heard from the different agencies, that it’s not often transparent what the city is doing to solve some of these problems.”
This year, Weatherford filed a lawsuit against a gambling den called the “Kingston Shack” that had been the source of dozens of reports to police invoking the state's Red Light Abatement Act, which targets gambling and prostitution. Such lawsuits are the only means for closing operations like this permanently.
Weatherford said that she has set up her own task force to work on code enforcement within Ingleside Police District, which is the second-largest district in the city. She said she has investigations underway, but did not divulge any details.
Among the factors that complicate any effort by the city attorney to file lawsuits against problem properties is waiting for other city departments to complete their administrative processes, which can take months.
A Complex Process
Blighted property owners are first warned and then have 30 days to act. If they don’t, they are cited. If the fine is paid, they then can continue to act as usual, as long as they have tended to any requirement imposed upon them by the city. Bill Strawn, a communications and policy director with the Department of Building Inspection (DBI), said it can take months just to establish who owns a property to send that owner letters and citations.
As far as what constitutes a vacant building, Strawn said, the building must be vacant for more than 30 days and then it must be registered as vacant. If it is not registered, a notice of violation is issued. That leads to a hearing and then a lien being placed on the property. Today, he said, there are 236 vacant buildings in the city.
Ingleside Police Station Capt. Joseph McFadden spoke about police efforts to monitor and build cases against the illegal nightclubs and gambling dens.
Over the past two years, after working on the Kingston Shack case and contending with a dozen others, Ingleside Station officers and the city attorney have developed a formula to take legal action against the gambling operations.
“It's like what we do at my community meetings,” McFadden said. “I say, here's how we attack it: Call me first, make a police report, then I file it and send it to the city attorney, talk to the district attorney, and that's how it gets the ball going. And they help bring these other agencies on board like DBI, Planning, etc.”
Archie Wong, an assistant district attorney assigned to Ingleside and Tenderloin police stations, told the committee that the District Attorney’s Office and SFPD have met about the gambling dens with several federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Internal Revenue Service and a joint state-federal task force in the South Bay.
Over a half-dozen neighborhood group leaders and residents appeared at the hearing to speak about their concerns.
Joelle Kenealey, president of the Outer Mission Merchants and Residents Association, requested that the city enforce the laws already on the books. For instance, many of the blighted storefronts have covered-up windows, which is against the city’s planning code.
Robert Muehlbauer, a resident of the Ingleside neighborhood, said that one property on his block has been vacant since he moved there in 1988.
“It's a dilapidated home,” Muehlbauer said. “It has curtains drawn that look like they're falling off. There's newspapers and junk mail thrown on the steps. The side yard is full of junk and debris. Neighbors have come out and actually cleaned out the side yard from time to time to make it more palatable for those of us who walk in our neighborhood.”
A neighbor recently told him that while cleaning garbage off the property, she found a black bag with a 35-pound dead pit bull inside.