Disclosure: Mission Local was a tenant of the landlord described in this story for a year and a half.

Sara Powell, Hawk Lou’s former tenant at 3109 24th, was clear when it came to her former landlord—the man who owned the building that caught fire three weeks ago, among 19 other Bay Area properties.

“He is such a piece of work,” said Powell. “He never fixed anything.”

Unlike many of Lou’s other tenants who were monolingual Spanish speakers, Powell is a native of Virginia and her first language is English. While she too was attracted by the low rent and Lou’s willingness to let her do “anything” in the space, she eventually came into conflict with the reportedly lax landlord about the condition of the building.  Lou declined to talk to Mission Local about any of his buildings.

Powell opened Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone, an art gallery and performance venue, in February 2009 on the ground floor commercial space of a five-unit building owned by Lou. When she signed the five year-lease, Powell says Lou told her she could do anything with the 1,400 square foot commercial space, including live in it, but said to her “just don’t get any permits.”

“That should have been a red flag, but I was on the same page, looking to start my business and live somewhere affordable,” said Powell. “Things kind of revealed themselves as they went along.”

Powell says she knew moving into the storefront that there were some issues with the building, which had previously been a butcher shop operated by the Lou family. However, as she lived and worked there, the issues kept piling up—leaks in the ceiling, a sliding glass door out to 24th Street that didn’t work, a mess of electrical wires in the corridor that was her main exit route. There were also no smoke detectors.

“I was afraid of fire, if a fire starts, it’s going to start on this corridor,” said Powell and explained that the store front’s metal roll down door couldn’t be opened from inside. “When I asked him, what am I supposed to do in case of fire, Hawk just said, ‘take an ax and hack through the wall.’”

After several months in which Powell says Lou promised to make repairs, she says nothing changed. She says she had been somewhat late on the $1,600 a month rent, so she didn’t push it. However, one night in July 2010 the apparent direness of the building’s issues pushed the matter.

During a performance at Kaleidoscope, where Powell had laid down a temporary dance floor, one guest put their foot all the way through what Powell had thought was the concrete floor of her unit. Upon examining “this huge hole in floor, that clearly went down a ways,” Powell says she realized that the floor actually consisted of old wooden boards with concrete poured on top of them. She also discovered that her unit was built over a basement she didn’t even know existed.

When all the guests had left for the night, Powell and a friend sent a ladder into the floor’s roughly two-foot wide hole. What they found, she says, was a horrifying scene.

“There was mold two or three feet thick, this fungus growing on the wood,” said Powell. “It was like there was no pipes. When he had poured concrete on the wood floor, the drains had gotten covered and there was no ventilation.”

Powell thinks that the residue from the former butcher shop had collected over the years in the basement.

“He had been spraying blood and tissues down these drains, but he never spent the money to put a pipe down them to collect it all,” she said. “All that water and tissue and blood was rotting the entire building.”

A photo Sara Powell took of the floorboards inside the secret basement.

A photo Sara Powell took of the floorboards inside the secret basement.

Powell says when she told Lou about the hole in the floor, he patched it up, but didn’t address the structural problems in the basement. Afraid to have too much weight on her unit’s floors, Powell says she slowed down operations at Kaleidoscope. Around this point she also got a lawyer. Some months later she stopped paying rent. An ugly legal battle came next.

A few months later, the Department of Building Inspection received an anonymous tip that the first floor unit in which Powell was living was being illegally inhabited. Powell says Lou knew about her living in the unit from the very beginning.

She says at this point Lou and some of his employees, as well as other tenants, began threatening and harassing her in various ways. In February 2011, Powell filed for a restraining order against Lou.

In August 2011, Lou sent Powell an eviction notice, on the grounds that she had failed to pay rent and was illegally living in the commercial space. Several months later in January 2012, Lou withdrew the for-fault eviction and filed a no-fault eviction, seeking to take the unit Powell had been living in off the rental market. In October 2012, Powell also sued Lou for negligence and violation of their contract.

In response to a complaint about the building’s poor condition filed in 2012, the Department of Building Inspection found only one violation: a bathtub Powell had installed without a permit in her illegal residential unit.

Powell does not deny the tub—“if I was going to live there for ten years, I wanted a tub”—but believes thedepartment missed the building’s larger issues.

While initially receptive to questions from Mission Local following the fire at our building, Lou declined to answer additional follow up questions. In a legal statement provided by Lou in March 2012, he denied all of Powell’s claims about harassment and said he never knew Powell was living in the building until he received a notice of violation from the building department.

“We signed a commercial lease specifying that the unit was for commercial uses only and was to be operated in accordance with all zoning laws and in an orderly and respectable manner,” Lou stated in the document.

He went on to say that several tenants complained to him of Kaleidoscope’s loud music and intoxicated patrons. Lou accused the business on the ground floor of “pervasive smell of marijuana” and “suspected drug dealing.” A tenant who still lives in the building, and also works for Lou, wouldn’t comment on the details of the situation but remembered smelling the marijuana.

A judge ultimately dropped the restraining order. Eventually, Powell and Lou settled the lawsuit and eviction out of court, but Powell wouldn’t disclose for how much. After the incident, she relocated to Austin, Texas in November 2014.

Victor Mancada, a tenant who lives above the troubled space where Powell lived and worked, had less inflammatory things to say about the building. He’s been in one of the small upstairs apartments for fifteen years with his wife, child, and brother as well as his brother’s family of four.

“Everything is in order,” Mancada said about his apartment, adding that Lou was a good landlord. Lou is also Mancada’s employer at the Low Cost Carniceria, which Lou owns.

“I’m still working,” he said. “We’re all still working.”

That’s exactly the problem, according to Powell. Lou’s tenants won’t speak out about the building’s issues because so many of them rely on him for their income, which creates a potentially hazardous situation in his aging buildings.

“If he’s got property, he has to take responsibility for it,” said Powell. “It’s dangerous, he’s dangerous.”

A map of properties owned by Hawk Lou and his family. Map by Beza Beneberu.