The Department of Building Inspection announced Wednesday that it has plans to bring the landlords of three Mission District buildings to court for ongoing, severe habitability and safety issues in their properties. The buildings include one on Valencia Street where the longtime restaurant La Rondalla reopened last May.
Violations run the gamut, but most relate to the housing code’s fire safety requirements. According to the building department, the properties in question have had locked exits, fire escapes blocked by awnings, faulty alarm systems, and rotting construction, among other issues. They’re issues not dissimilar from the ones believed to be present at the building at 22nd and Mission that caught fire in January, killing one man.
“They’re real problem properties for us,” said longtime building inspector Jamie Sanbonmatsu, who also runs the department’s Code Enforcement Outreach Program. He explained that each of the three buildings had a history of “multiple notices of violation, severe tenant inhabitability, life safety hazards, and the same owner of multiple properties.”
In a moment when several catastrophic fires have ripped through the Mission—most recently on Treat and 24th Street which took the life of one man and sent the rest of his family to the hospital—Sanbonmatsu hopes owners of aging buildings take note.
“This means trouble for other building owners. I want other landlord’s to see that we’re suing these guys,” said Sanbonmatsu. “Get your fire escapes cleared of awnings… this is to send a message.”
The building department has asked the City Attorney’s Office to bring Simon Kong and his family, the owners of 2420 Folsom Street and 2114 Mission Street, as well as the Barrios family, who owns 901 Valencia. In all three buildings, complaints have piled up for years and despite multiple visits from building inspectors, the issues have not been resolved.
At 901 Valencia, a 28-unit building at 20th and Valencia, one typical complaint from March 2014 informs the building department of crumbling walls and ceilings. Records show visits from inspectors over the next several months, a notice of violation issued, and then this telling note from an inspector from June 2014: “Upon a visit to premises, plaster situation in living room seems to have gotten worse.”
Public records indicate that Carlos Barrios and Esperanza Barrios originally purchased the building in the 1990s, in addition to a handful of other Mission District buildings. Their son Carlos Cruz Barrios inherited the building as well as the family restaurant La Rondalla, which is on the ground floor. The family business passed on to a new generation when Carlos’ daughters Betty and Luna Barrios. This followed Rondalla’s closure due to health code violations in 2007.
But tenants say the family is struggling to keep up with their obligations as landlords.
“The daughters never even show their face around here,” said longtime tenant Dolores Romero, who was once a waitress at La Rondalla.
“They’re in a position they didn’t expect to be and can’t handle it,” said another tenant who has lived in the building for ten years. He said he was sympathetic to the Barrios family, saying that they are nice people, but wishes they would fix things. In one unit, there’s a gaping hole in the ceiling from leaky plumbing.
“Roaches, roaches, roaches!” said another tenant. “It’s one thing after another with this place.”
Of all the issues listed on the most recent citations—which include faulty smoke alarms and blocked exits— Sanbonmatsu says he’s most troubled by the building owners’ failure to fix a particularly dangerous feature: a wobbly, wooden exterior staircase.
“The wood is soft enough you can stick a pen through it,” said Sanbonmatsu of the rotting back stairway. “It’s 40 feet high and goes four stories up… it’s unsafe in an emergency, it’s unsafe even if it’s not emergency.”
When reached for comment, Betty Barrios declined to speak about the building.
On Mission and Clarion, the three-story mixed-use building owned by Simon Kong and his family has also fallen into the sights of the building department. The most recent violations at 2114 Mission cite the building for having locked doors to fire escapes and outdated alarm certification. An illegal unit at the end of the hallway blocks a critical means of egress for several tenants.
“There’s a pattern of problems here,” said Sanbonmatsu. “Even things that were abated come back.”
Since 2008, the building department has issued four notices of violation related to faulty smoke detectors, failure to provide tenants with heat, and rodent infestations. Inspector notes indicate that the building’s owner fixed issues, only to have them reemerge in future inspections.
Tenants who spoke with Mission Local in this 15 unit building, which operates much like an SRO with several single room dwellings, had few comments about any issues.
At 2420 Folsom Street, another property owned by the Kong family, the most recent violation first issued in 2012 cites the building for locked escape routes, damaged walls and ceilings, and expired fire extinguishers. According to building department records, two years later the issues persist.
A tenant at the seven unit building near the corner of 20th and Folsom says he hasn’t had many problems with the landlords. When there was an infestation of roaches, the landlord came by with spray. Another spoke of cramped conditions, with five adults sharing a small apartment.
The Kong family, which records indicate also owns several properties in Oakland, could not be reached for comment.
The City Attorney’s office will have to determine whether to file lawsuits with these referrals from the building department. Yvonne Mere, an attorney at the resident protection unit of the city attorney’s office, told the Chronicle Wednesday, three referrals in one day for safety code violations “is not an insignificant number.”
Sanbonmatsu says that the building department’s cases are “very good.”