Anne Kihagi, the city’s most infamous landlord, recently launched a charm offensive, hiring a publicist to seed positive stories in local media. That required quite a bit of cheek, considering Kihagi has been found guilty by a succession of San Francisco judges of harassing and/or illegally evicting indigent, rent-controlled tenants — including terminal cancer patients and disabled senior citizens. Her numerous victims were caught up in a calculated scheme to buy up rent-controlled buildings (several of them in the Mission) at relatively low prices, give everyone the heave-ho, and find wealthier new tenants.
So, it was a jolt to see an e-mail in my inbox several months ago written by a PR maven offering an “exclusive” interview with Kihagi, who has been — his words — “misunderstood.” This came as a surprise, because your humble narrator wrote this lengthy, fact-checked piece on Kihagi, which was informed by the incredibly detailed judgments against her as well as many hundreds of pages of documents and hours upon hours of interviews with harried tenants. That’s a lot of misunderstanding.
I followed up with this article and this one, all of which involved judges making very thorough decisions against Kihagi based upon vast heaps of evidence. When I approached Kihagi in a courthouse hallway after a San Francisco judge found her in contempt, her attorney intervened and spirited her away.
You’re not going to believe this, but I wasn’t given the “exclusive” interview with Kihagi.
But an interview was given — thanks, it would seem, to the publicist’s diligent representation of his client — and it resulted in not one but two stories in which she got to tell “her side.” Now, this is a fairly bizarre M.O.: Kihagi has told “her side” to judge after judge — and they keep ruling in favor of the city and her former tenants, to the tune of millions of dollars. In essence, these recent stories made a he-said she said out of cases that have been adjudicated, and in which Kihagi lost, heavily and repeatedly, due to mountains of bad facts.
So, that was odd. What came next was not. This month, that publicist called again. And, guess what? He says Kihagi appropriated many of the suggestions he made — after criticizing them — and then stiffed him some $2,000.
Now, this was predictable. One need only peruse Kihagi’s legal dealings to find a trail of workmen whom, Trump-style, she didn’t pay until legal papers were filed, if ever. Here’s a flooring guy. Here’s a surveyor. Here’s a contractor. Here are some attorneys. Here are more attorneys, whom she sued rather than pay.
The publicist requested we not use his name — this is embarrassing and he’d rather not get into a shooting war with someone able to spend nearly $30 million in a few short years to amass a San Francisco real estate portfolio over. That sounds reasonable, even if answering an ad from Kihagi on Craigslist — and not Googling her thoroughly — was not.
The publicist forwarded us several e-mail exchanges with Kihagi in which he laid out a number of strategies, including recommending she get herself some flattering photos instead of the unflattering ones proliferating on the Internet, and suggesting she say her race — she is black, from Kenya — plays a role in the city’s pursuit of her and negative media coverage. These ideas were received with more than a bit of hostility; “I don’t like using my race as why they are treating me this way,” she responded, instead asking to focus on the “cheating tenants.” (Kihagi accused a group of her renters of “colluding” against her whom she was, not coincidentally, attempting to evict en masse via the Ellis Act).
And yet, in the Meet Anne Kihagi stories that ran this month, she does indeed blame her plight on racism and bigotry. These stories were illustrated with excellent, professional photos. This, the publicist says, turned out to be free advice. On March 26, he wrote Kihagi a brief e-mail: “Are you going to pay me or not? If so, when?” No answer, he claims. On March 27: “I began working for you because, despite what many people in the media have been saying about you, I believed that you really weren’t the person that people were saying you are. But now that you haven’t paid my invoice, and are not responding to my emails, it seems that perhaps what people in the media are saying about you may be true.”
Well, you never know. He said, she said, after all.