City Attorney Sues Castro Landlord

 

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit on Thursday, June 4 against Castro area landlord Anne Kihagi, who owns more than 50 rent-controlled residential units in the city. The lawsuit claims that in defiance of numerous state and local laws protecting tenants and capping rents, Kihagi and her legal team have “waged a war of harassment, intimidation, and retaliation using unlawful, unfair and fraudulent practices designed to force them out to make room for new tenants who pay market rent.” Kihagi was the focus of an investigation in May’s edition of the Castro Courier.

 

Local Tenants Unite Against Landlord

 

City investigates, landlord sues city

 

 

Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and in the case of one landlord in the Castro, clouds of controversy now point to legal heat being brought against the City of San Francisco in the form of a federal lawsuit.

 

More than 30 tenants across several apartment complexes in District 8 have created a working group to compare stories and organize legal defenses against their landlord. Anne Kihagi, the principal of several limited liability corporations that control six buildings in the neighborhood, has become a lightning rod for complaints by her rent-control tenants. They feel they have been unfairly singled out and harassed by her over the past year in an effort to push them out and capitalize on the city’s skyrocketing rental market.

 

Tenants have cited instances of Kihagi installing indoor surveillance cameras, not cashing rent checks, illegally entering units without proper notification, restricting mail access, performing unpermitted construction, serving excessive 3-day notices, removing laundry facilities, illegal towing, face-to-face harassment, sending harassing text messages, and failing to set up water and electricity accounts for buildings in a timely fashion. One particular eviction case by Kihagi alleges that a 70-year-old woman, Sylvia Smith, who has lived in her Guerrero Street unit for four decades, uses and sells drugs to other people in her building.

 

“She did so much to me, you have no idea,” she said. “I pay $1,000 and she wants $5,000 for this unit. She offered me money and I said no. Then she got so mean.”

 

Following multiple complaints at different properties filed with the SF Department of Building Inspection, a City Task Force Investigation Unit was deployed on March 4. Thus far building Inspector Anthony Lepe has only confirmed minor violations and a investigation is ongoing through the City Attorney’s office, which could not comment further on the matter.

 

In response to the investigation, Kihagi, an African-American who was raised in London according to her lawyer, filed a federal lawsuit against the City for discrimination. According to the suit, “The City and its employees have a visceral opposition to an African American, immigrant and homeowner and as a result have targeted Kihagi.”

 

The lawsuit claims a vendetta against Kihagi motivated by discrimination based on race and bureaucratic hostility towards landlords’ right to evict tenants who are breaking their leasing contracts. The suit seeks legal fees and damages based on loss of income from not fairly receiving city permits to renovate her buildings, which could have rented for market rates.

 

Critics of Kihagi allege that her business model consists of buying rent-controlled buildings, singling out longtime tenants as lease violators until they leave and profiting from the rent differential. In the last two years, Kihagi has initiated a series of evictions based on lease violations as well as owner move-ins involving her and her two sisters.

 

“They want to make it seem like she is this renegade landlord, but she hasn’t done anything wrong,” said Karen Uchiyama, Kihagi’s lawyer. “It all comes down to the fact that if you (as a tenant) are not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to be afraid of.”

 

Uchiyama insists that a small group of her client’s tenants have singled her out because they dislike Kihagi’s enforcement of “House Rules,” a several-page document that among other restrictions calls on tenants to notify Kihagi if they leave the apartment on vacation.

 

“She has many low-rent tenants whom she has never evicted or wanted to evict. She also has high paying tenants whom she has never evicted or wanted or had reason to evict,” she said. “Yes we have a housing shortage. But it doesn’t mean she is an evil person. She has a right to do this as a landlord.”

 

District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener disagrees. He recently met with a large group of the tenants who told him one-by-one what their interactions with the landlord have been.

 

“I was absolutely horrified. It’s completely sociopathic behavior and it needs to stop,” he said. “This is the absolute worst kind of speculation—someone who comes into a city, buys up a bunch of apartment buildings and then tries to terrorize the tenants out of the building. It’s just beyond unacceptable.”

 

Wiener said he intends to help tenants find legal counsel so they can assert any claims that they may have. He said that she owns buildings in West Hollywood, another LGBT-friendly community, and also sued the city there.

 

“That fact that West Hollywood and the Castro are two of the areas is troubling to me as well,” Wiener said.

 

On January 31, about 200 people held a protest outside of her Castro residence, which included support from the SF Teachers Union. Paul Revere Elementary School teacher Allison Leshefsky, a resident of Kihagi’s 195 Eureka St. building, has become the point person for the group. Leshefsy said market rate rents are too high for teachers to live in the communities they serve.

 

“I’m the working poor. Rent control is the only thing that keeps me in San Francisco,” she said. “My home is no longer a place where I feel secure. I’ve started seeing a therapist for anxiety.”

 

Non-profit marketing manager Ryan Andersen, another founding member of the tenant group, pays $1625 for an apartment at Kihagi’s 19th Street building and said he couldn’t stay in the city without it. He said that since Kihagi bought the building in 2013, all the previous rent-controlled tenants are gone.

 

“She is single-handedly gentrifying the Castro,” he said.

 

Recently, there has been a huge spike in breach and nuisance evictions and an uptake in owner-move-in evictions even though Ellis Act evictions had gone down until last month when they started rising again, according to Sarah “Fred” Sherburn-Zimmer, lead housing organizer for the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee.

 

“I’m really glad the city attorney got involved with this one,” she said. “We are really excited the city is actually stepping up and investigating this.”

 

Late last year, Kelly Kimball was ousted from his unit at 3947 18th St. where he had lived for 11 years through an owner move-in eviction of Kihagi herself, which requires her to live in the unit for three years.

 

“I go by every weekend and I always glance up and never see anyone in there,” Kimball said.

 

Sixty-seven-year-old Rob Dominguez, who has lived in that building for almost three decades also attests to this.

 

“There are no lights up there. There’s no traffic up there,” he said. “I’ve seen her workers but not her.”

 

 

 

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