Tales of Public Hypocrisy

by Dean Preston on September 28, 2004

Housing Authority Commission President Julie Lee is evicting a low-income, blind tenant under the Ellis Act. Deputy City Attorney Niall Vignoles, who is in the code enforcement division, refuses to keep his own building up to code, and is evicting all his tenants under the Ellis Act. Why do these people keep their jobs?

Deputy City Attorney Niall Vignoles works in the city’s code enforcement division. When San Francisco landlords refuse to make repairs after being ordered to do so, it is Vignoles’ job to sue them on behalf of the city.

But Vignoles refuses to follow the laws he enforces. Earlier this year, he purchased a four-unit building on Oak Street. At the time, tenants had reported numerous substandard conditions in the building, including a defective front door that posed a serious security concern, dry rotted stairs that posed a life hazard and a bathroom wall so damaged it was about to cave in. For months, Vignoles took no action.

On August 2, 2004, a city housing inspector issued a notice of violation, citing Vignoles for substandard conditions and ordering repairs within 30 days. Vignoles failed to comply with the order. A reinspection on September 15 revealed that the work still had not been done.

Instead of making basic repairs that would benefit his tenants, Vignoles has been remodeling the vacant unit in the building. The building has become a construction zone in recent months with piles of debris interfering with the tenants’ use of the building.

Vignoles’ goal is clear: drive the tenants out of the building. He invoked the Ellis Act to evict all tenants shortly after buying the building. He apparently hopes to drive the tenants out sooner by refusing to make repairs and creating an uninhabitable construction zone. Once the tenants are out, he can convert the remodeled units to tenancies-in-common (TICs) and sell them for a huge profit.

Vignoles’ use of the Ellis Act is particularly troubling; it conflicts with his employer’s efforts to preserve rent-controlled housing. His fellow deputy City Attorneys have spent countless hours defending city laws, like the McGoldrick TIC legislation, from the seemingly endless stream of lawsuits brought by property rights zealots. McTIC was an important piece of legislation (recently struck down by the courts) that would have limited the conversion of rent controlled housing to tenancies-in-common. Vignoles is exploiting the very loophole that his colleagues are trying to plug up.

No tenant in San Francisco could have faith in Vignoles’ commitment to protecting tenants. City Attorney Dennis Herrera should transfer Vignoles immediately to a division that does not deal with housing issues.

Julie Lee

In addition to being at the center of a serious campaign finance investigation, Julie Lee is evicting a low-income, disabled woman from her long-term home in the Sunset district. Lee is using the Ellis Act to accomplish this eviction.

Former Mayor Willie Brown appointed Julie Lee to the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) Commission, where she currently serves as president. According to the SFHA’s website, “The primary mission of the SFHA is to provide safe, sanitary, affordable, and decent housing to very low-income families, senior citizens and persons with disabilities.”

Lee’s Ellis eviction of a blind, low-income tenant is just the latest chapter in her longstanding opposition to tenants. Allowing Lee to preside over the SFHA commission is an insult to all tenants in San Francisco, and undermines the credibility of the Housing Authority. Lee should immediately resign from the Housing Authority commission.

These are just two of the many tales of public hypocrisy in San Francisco. Remember Nancy Ho Belli who sat on San Francisco’s Landmarks Advisory Board while she neglected the landmark Belli building in North Beach, and while she orchestrated a fraudulent condominium conversion in the Sunset district? Or how about Neveo Mosser, who sat as a Rent Board commissioner while being sued by the city for illegally shuffling tenants around his residential hotels to prevent them from gaining tenants’ rights?

These hypocrites hold positions of power in this city. San Francisco can do better.

Dean Preston is an attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. He can be reached at Dean@thclinic.

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