SF goes after city’s cruelest landlord, snatching away her rent payments

A 2015 protest against Anne Kihagi. Photo by Allen Timon via Onpublica

Anne Kihagi’s tenants are now writing their rent checks directly to the city — to the tune of perhaps $120,000 a month


Dale Duncan is trying to be a nice guy. He’s trying real, real hard. But, sometimes, it’s just too much. Anne Kihagi is just too much. And not just sometimes.

“I’m not a big schadenfreude guy,” says the former Kihagi tenant who, last year, won a $3.5 million ruling against his erstwhile landlord after a fraudulent eviction from his family’s longtime Mission District flat — purportedly the largest such judgment in state history. “But,” he continues after a thoughtful pause, “It’s hard not to feel some schadenfreude right now.”

That’s because the city, which has already secured a $5.5 million judgment against Kihagi regarding her mountain of tenant harassment and unpermitted construction violations, this month has commenced collecting on that debt. It is doing so by collecting Kihagi’s rents.

“I just got the letter from the City Attorney,” affirms Sheila Hembury, a decades-long resident at 1135-1139 Guerrero, whom Kihagi has attempted — and failed — to evict on multiple occasions. “It said that now we should send our rent checks to the City and County of San Francisco.”

She has: Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith confirms that, even by late January, the rent checks were trickling in. Now those funds — which he estimates as upwards of $100,000 a month and perhaps more than $123,000 a month — will no longer go toward Kihagi hiring a small army of attorneys to fight every last legal move from the city or funding various illegal construction projects. They’ll go toward paying off her heaping fine. Or, more accurately, they’ll begin to pay off the interest on that fine, which has been accruing at 10 percent yearly since mid-2017. That’s more than half a million dollars a year. That’s about $1,500 a day.

“I don’t trust her as far as I could throw a piano,” notes Hembury. “I am sure she has something else up her sleeve.”

That’s understandable. For years, Kihagi and her family members, employing a tangled web of LLCs, bought up building after building in this city and, particularly, the Mission. Harassment of tenants, especially long-standing rent-controlled tenants, many of whom are elderly and disabled, followed thereafter, as did evictions and new, market-rate rentals. “The paper value of the building skyrockets, so there’s more to borrow against to make the next down payments on the next buildings,” Keith told me last year. It’s a lucrative business model — in the short-term. More to the point, it sounds an awful lot like a Ponzi scheme.

With the city now elbowing in and taking the rental income from the seven buildings covered by its litigation — five of which are in the Mission — Kihagi may have reached the capacity on tricks one can store in one’s sleeve. No Ponzi scheme lasts forever. The question always is: who’ll be left holding the bag? It looks like it may well be Kihagi.

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Anne Kihagi has turned out to be the Sandy Koufax of bad San Francisco landlords. There are many who worked at it longer. There are many who owned more properties and ruined more tenants’ lives. But Kihagi put together an explosive, electric run, defined by manic energy and overall brevity; it was barely five years ago when she bought her first San Francisco property, followed in short order by at least 10 more — a $30 million whirlwind of acquisitions.

These days, billionaire venture capitalist Ron Conway is being portrayed as the living embodiment of all the destruction tech and money have wrought on San Francisco. In much the same way, one could install Kihagi as the poster child for the rapaciousness that has expelled long-standing tenants from this city (and, particularly, the Mission, her base of operations). But say what you will about Ron Conway, he’s no Anne Kihagi.

The cartoonish excess of her behavior at times feels too on-the-nose for even a parody. But this is no parody. It wasn’t enough for Kihagi to attempt to hound elderly people out of her buildings or cut off their electric or water or leave the front door busted so vagrants could amble in and befoul the foyer. It wasn’t enough to point “security” cameras at residents’ doors and windows reducing life in a Kihagi building to time served in the panopticon; it wasn’t enough to wander, uninvited, into tenants’ dwellings; it wasn’t enough to disable the mailbox so that elderly renters had to travel miles to the post office on the off-chance they were given a three-day eviction notice.

Kihagi did all that, but she also had to be theatrical. She accused the city of West Hollywood of discriminating against her because she is a heterosexual. She made protection-racket-like threats regarding a tenant’s pet and how “it would be a shame” if anything happened to it. She posted a notice — in writing, mind you — on the door of Guerrero Street tenant Sylvia Smith accusing the septuagenarian of operating a “900-SEX-TALK”  line out of her house (a judge later noted that there was “not a scintilla” of evidence of this, but it did leave Smith mortified, with neighbors shouting, “Sylvia! Give me your number!”).

That theatricality spilled into the courtroom, with onlookers describing Kihagi as blatantly micromanaging her attorneys. She sued three of them after failing to evict Hambury and her husband, Leonard Johnson, pinning the outcome on their “professional negligence” — and not her own unnerving behavior and testimony (or the facts of the case).  

This continued in 2018, when Kihagi made a somewhat surreal Jan. 18 appearance in bankruptcy court. To stave off the city’s plan to collect her rents starting on Jan. 1, she had declared four of her LLCs to be bankrupt simultaneously. She failed, however, to hire an attorney — or complete the necessary paperwork disclosing her holdings. Judge Hannah Blumenstiel was not amused.

“This is federal court, not a parking garage,” the judge lectured Kihagi. “When you seek relief in bankruptcy court, you get significant protections. The price for that protection is transparency.”

Blumenstiel dismissed Kihagi’s case in a mere 20-minute hearing. The city then moved to collect her February rent and has employed a debt-collection attorney to pry away January’s.

A mere five days later, Kihagi skipped a court appearance for, her attorney claimed, medical reasons. And yet, Keith alleges, there she was “looking fit as a fiddle” when he walked out of the courtroom. Her attorney spirited her away and Keith hasn’t seen her since.   

Kihagi’s creditors are smelling blood. Umpqua Bank wants its pound of flesh, and litigation with the city over the diverted Kihagi rents seems imminent. Kihagi claims she’s paid her mortgages, but the bank — which ought to know such things — claims she has not. Meanwhile, Duncan and his family are owed $3.5 million, and other wronged tenants also have their pending days in court (Kihagi is also due back in court: The city, on Feb. 1, filed contempt charges, claiming she not only failed to fork over January’s rents but is actively instructing her tenants to not pay the city).

“There is a special place in the abusive landlord hall of shame reserved for Anne Kihagi,” says City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “She has tried every trick in the book to subvert tenant protections and the rule of law. Predatory landlords should take note: She is not getting away with it, and they won’t, either.”

It required a tremendous amount of time and effort and legal costs, but Anne Kihagi’s reign of terror has been checked. But remunerations have not yet materialized; Duncan, for one, hasn’t seen one cent. And plenty of landlords slightly less cavalier and demonstrative — and theatrical — slip beneath the city’s radar altogether.

“I just keep saying that we have to trust the process,” affirms Duncan. “Three years ago, Kihagi was driving around town with that big smile, buying up buildings and sending out eviction notices. Now she’s driving around town from trial to trial and losing. That’s the process.”

Still, it’d be nice if the process paid him some money for his troubles. “We have justice, and that does feel good. But if we could get not even 10 cents on the dollar, man, that’s a down payment.”

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39 Comments

  1. Why reference Sandy Koufax in this context? I understand that you’re trying to say that she’s the “greatest” at what she’s doing, but you didn’t exactly knock it out of the park. Instead it reads as if he had a reputation as a bad landlord.

    • Joe Eskenazi Post author

      With all due respect, I think you’re reading things a bit too literally. The Koufax reference is due to her brief and prolific career. In much the same way we only recall Koufax due to his output from 1963 to ’66, Anne Kihagi has only been in the landlording game in San Francisco since 2013. She’s no Sangiacomo or Lembi, who spent decades, even generations, here.

      That’s the allusion. I think it was quite clear, but evidently not clear enough.

      Thanks for reading,

      JE

      • Jim

        I agree, poor analogy. I had to google Koufax, assuming he was a cheating baseball player.

        • Joe Eskenazi Post author

          You just admitted you don’t know who Sandy Koufax is. Sorry, man. I simply can’t relate to that.

          And I think you, too, are taking things too literally. If I’d called her “The Babe Ruth of bad landlords,” would you have assumed Ruth was dirty?

          • Not Sandy

            I agree real bad analogy. I do know who Sandy Koufax is. This article seems to indicate that he was the king of ripping people off and cheating in baseball.

        • Joe,
          Sorry Joe, but Danner & Jim are correct. While your article does a good job shining light on a terrible greed-head, your Koufax reference obfuscates. Just tuck in that ol’ ego—and as a competent journalist doing good research, simply admit that you muddied the waters with the Koulfax reference. While it surely wasn’t your intention, that was the result. I too immediately referenced Koulfax, and I’m a 66 year old who closely followed Sandy’s career. My first impression upon reading him referenced? Sandy Koulfax a slum lord? Really?

          • Barb

            And I was left (ha0 trying to figure out how being left-handed had anything to do with the story.

          • Laura Ryan

            I’m a 57YO baseball fan, and a particular fan of Sandy, and I was confused by the reference too. Suck it up Joe.

      • Matt

        For what it’s worth, I’m not familiar with Koufax but I thought the context made it clear.

      • Nancy Lemmon

        I agree with Danner; I also inferred that Mr. Koufax had a reputation for being a bad landlord. Not many would even be aware that Koufax had a “brief and prolific career” in baseball, much less draw any analogy between the two.

      • Shannon

        I am not familiar with Mr. Koufax. I did not understand the reference, but I did perceive that he (I assumed it was a she) was a notoriously wicked landlord.

      • David J Flores

        It seems to me that the article is not about Sandy Koufax but about this landlord who has taken advantage of elderly people, families, her attorneys, and the City of San Francisco. As a Dodgers baseball fan the analogy of Sandy Koufax was understood in the sense that he was the best pitcher on the planet for a short period of time. If you prefer Joe could have used Barry Bonds as an example, he is a real cheater. Anyway this is a tragic story about a terrible person who will receive her due justice. By the way this is a well-written well-thought-out article.

  2. Miles

    Great article, but that’s not how a Ponzi scheme works.

    • Joe Eskenazi Post author

      Thanks!

      I’m curious where you see the deviation. Kihagi brings in swollen — and now provably illegal — income from buildings to inflate her income stream and then borrow against it to buy new buildings and repeat the process.

      In this case, her lenders would be the “victims” of the scheme (though, unlike, say, Madoff victims, they can take much more recourse by foreclosing on buildings or suing the city to collect rents).

      Where do you see a discrepancy?

      • Jon

        I had the same thought: I don’t know the structure of the LLCs, but it doesn’t sound like she’s secretly paying off early investors with capital from newer investors, which is the basic form of a Ponzi scheme. It actually sounds like she’s paying off new buildings by borrowing against the value of the old ones. Maybe it’s mortgage fraud, but it’s not a Ponzi scheme.

        The Sandy Koufax reference was spot on though. I had to look up “panopticon,” but–unlike most readers–don’t mind learning new things.

        • Joe Eskenazi Post author

          Thank you for the measured and thoughtful note. I will have to concede that I must have stretched the definition of a Ponzi scheme, though Kihagi is illegally inflating the values of the buildings she borrows against by unlawfully evicting rent-controlled tenants.

          I appreciate the vote of confidence on the Koufax reference. I can’t think of anyone who better epitomizes achieving a lot in a very short period of time and ending it off very suddenly (maybe James Dean?). It seems to have confused some people. Glad you were not among that group.

  3. CB Bruce

    The business model (as abhorrent as it might be) is not a Ponzi scheme. The buildings ARE worth more with market rate rents.

    • Joe Eskenazi Post author

      That’s a fair point. But it’s within the city’s legal arsenal to set the rents back at their prior levels if/when the evictions are found to be illegal, which would put a crimp in the plan.

      If that doesn’t happen, there’s also a chance that the buildings’ enhanced value will help pay off creditors or legally aggrieved ex-tenants.

      Thanks for reading,

      JE

  4. Hopefully the tenant can get 3.5Million for getting to stay and then buy something and evict someone.

  5. If she can’t pay her fines and mortgages, I hope the City works to acquire these properties and community land trust them, forever removing them and their tenants from the speculative market that would evict and displace them in favor of profits.

  6. Robert SF

    Great article! I’m glad the city has the guts to do this.

  7. She has purchased all those buildings in a short period. The math doesn’t work; expenses will greatly exceed rental income. She’s probably adding rentable, but illegal, bedrooms to increase income. My guess (as a south bay Realtor since 1976): she has no money of her own into the deals and she’s defrauding lenders, appraisers, sellers and anyone else doing business with her.

  8. Catherine Ratliff

    Great piece. Lively, fluid, colorful, informative.

  9. Claude E DeMoss

    Reference to Sandy Kofax was unnecessary
    Ponzi scheme…NO!
    Smart Investor…Bad landlord…YES
    OPM (using borrow money from other people)
    and
    Refinancing taking equity to buy more properties
    is what
    SUCCESSFUL investor do!
    Claude E DeMoss
    Consultant
    Licensed Real Estate Broker CalDRE#00326508
    General Real Estate & Financing since 1962
    San Jose CA
    email: CalHawaiiHomes@aol.com

    • Eric Fain

      Will they still be successful when SF median home prices and median rents fall by 10-15%? I went to law school in the 70s with people who studied Real Estate Finance,as I did, and invested per your successful investor. They were wiped out when prices fell in the 80s.

    • WillnSVY

      I hope someone is doxing this guy.

      Breaking the law is not being a “smart Investor”.

      Because, you know, the city and comes and takes your income stream.

  10. Matthew Talbot

    Thanks Joe! Greedy carpetbagging real estate rip off artists, like this lawless nut case, are ruining San Francisco. She should be tarred and feathered on Market St.. Yeah, I know, better google tarred and feathered too!

  11. Reese Dorrycott

    Billie Sol Estes comes to mind.

  12. Arthur Friend

    Strangely written post. As others have pointed out, the Sandy Koufax comparison doesn’t really make any sense. Being a bad landlord isn’t a Ponzi scheme in any way, shape, or form. Ron Conway also has nothing to do with this. I would suggest sticking to the facts next time and leaving out the editorialism, it’s not your strong suit.

    P.S. The overuse, and misuse, of the semi-colon also doesn’t help your writing style.

    • Joe Eskenazi Post author

      Dear sir:

      Thanks for the critique. But this is my column and I get to editorialize as I see fit. If you get a column somewhere, you can too.

      Best,

      JE

      • Arthur Friend

        No one said you couldn’t editorialize, but it brought this post down. Especially since your editorializing didn’t fit and was factually incorrect in multiple places.

        You also seem strangely combative about the feedback you’re getting from multiple readers. You may want to actually think about the criticism you’re receiving instead of being argumentative, it would probably help your career in the long run, since I’m guessing you’re a millennial from your lack of ability to deal with negative feedback.

        • Joe Eskenazi Post author

          Sir —

          I’m not a millennial. But I do pity them, because they’re the first generation that had to regularly deal with condescending anonymous pedants on the Internet.

          Best,

          JE

    • Catherine Ratliff

      I write for a living and find colons and semi-colons useful. The author of that piece is a superb writer. My opinion.

  13. John

    What is wrong with you people? Semi-colons? Sandy Koufax? This is a great article about the take-down of a nasty, nasty person, and your bringing up semi-colons? A city more interested in crimes of punctuation and not actual crimes will never solve its own problems. I think that was Plato…

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