On the second floor of the Department of Building Inspection is a nondescript, stone-floored room with a dry-erase board and a handful of plastic chairs facing a desk. It’s the sort of place that would work well as the setting for a team-building exercise on The Office. Or, on this day, for a “director’s hearing,” the opportunity for property owners dinged by the DBI to plead their cases.
Ken Burke, the department’s chief electrical inspector, adjudicated Thursday’s hearing, and he did so with the polite but slightly irritated curtness one would expect of a TV judge. He quickly grew irritated with Georgina Rodriguez Ramirez, the professed owner of 1312 Utah Street — a 17-unit Mission District residential hotel known unaffectionately as “The Pit” among city workers forced to minister to this place.
“There are egregious violations on this property,” Burke said after hearing one too many non-explanation explanations. This came on the heels of something of a metaphysical back-and forth about unpermitted construction with Ramirez’s contractor (who, inexplicably, showed up for this proceeding dressed like Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I.): “You had no permit.” “I had the permit.” “Well, let me see it.” “I don’t have it.” “You either have a permit or you don’t. If you have it, you can show it to me, or you don’t and you can’t, right? It’s not both — right?”
There are only seven occupied units left in this hotel, and the dwindling number of people residing here “are living in a building with no heat, with holes in the walls, and with roofs falling on top of them,” Burke continued. Looking over his glasses at Ramirez, he noted, “You’ve owned the building for two years, and you haven’t done anything.”
Ramirez said she’s working on securing a loan to underwrite the necessary work. “Could I get some more time?” she asked. Burke was not sympathetic. “No,” he said abruptly. “We are here today because you had time.”
The matter was referred to the City Attorney’s office “for litigation,” in the parlance of the Department of Building Inspection. That’s pretty loaded terminology but, sometimes, all that’s required is a sternly worded letter from the City Attorney. “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” as Teddy Roosevelt might have put it.
And if the problems get solved here at 1312 Utah, well, it’s been a long time coming. Miguel Basea is 73 years old, and he’s spent the last 46 of them residing at this single-room occupancy hotel (SRO). “I’ve gone through five different owners,” Basea says. “The only way I’m still here is that I know my tenants’ rights.” But, like Kenny Rogers’ gambler, Basea knows when to hold ’em and knows when to fold ’em: “I also know when to keep my mouth shut.”
That’s often a good idea here, for practical reasons. Keeping your mouth shut is probably for the best in a place brimming with rodent excrement where the windows won’t easily open. And, even if you could pry them open, you wouldn’t — because, as Burke noted, there’s no heat.
The big furnace downstairs used to rumble on shortly before 10 p.m. and shut off shortly before sunrise, recalls Basea, who’s certainly had time to pick up the rhythms of this place. But that hasn’t happened for a year or so, he says. Now the residents of the few occupied units in this tumbledown 108-year-old structure are forced to plug in space heaters to the wall. But that’s a problem when the rain pours through the roof and the walls, making puddles around the socket.
That was the case for the family of four residing in Room No. 13. Earlier this year, a building inspector paid a visit and documented it all. One day later, the family’s ceiling collapsed.
All of these issues and more may yet come up in a future letter from the City Attorney. The question is: Where do you send that letter? Because if you thought this hotel was a mess, you should see its ownership situation.
Through the years, city officials dealt with a lot of odd things emanating from 1312 Utah. Drug use. Violence. Filth. A foot massage joint that doubled as a “holistic healing center” where, in 2011, undercover federal agents would buy pills–marketed as a cold remedy–spiked with arsenic and hallucinogenic chemicals derived from toad poison.
So, it takes a lot to turn heads when 1312 Utah is involved. But, last year around the Department of Building Inspection, heads were indeed turned when Paul Pelosi, Jr., the son of the Speaker of the House — and recognizable from his New Year’s photos hobnobbing with the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago — began dropping by DBI headquarters, establishing himself as a point person for the ever-troubled hotel. “Oh shit,” one DBI official told me last year, “it’s really him.”
Pelosi told your humble narrator that he befriended the owner of the hotel, Karina “Apple” Feng, and was helping her clean up this building’s many messes with the city. Perhaps, but now there are new messes of a different sort.
In 2016, an outfit called West Edge Halo, Inc., of which Georgina Rodriguez Ramirez is the CEO, sued Feng, claiming she backed out of a deal to sell 1312 Utah. Pelosi is the listing agent in a contract included as an exhibit. The selling agent was Bill Garlock, a real estate investor with an eye-opening background of his own. More on him in a moment.
The suit against Feng was settled. In 2017, the ownership of the building shifted from Feng RE, Inc. — of which she was the sole shareholder — to Feng 24th, LLC. And, while Feng’s name is still affixed to the LLC, it’s not clear she is. The manager of Feng 24th, LLC is Gina Rodriguez, aka Georgina Rodriguez Ramirez.
Ramirez told me on Thursday that she and Feng own this building 50-50. And yet, last year, Feng told the City Attorney, in writing, “I was robbed of my property with title transfers and fake liens. Due to settlement, the new owners agreed to have my name on title without authority.”
The assessor-recorder’s office, incidentally, lists the last sale of this property as occurring in 1999. The city may well be forced to wade into this morass. “The ownership situation there,” sums up one DBI official, “is a boondoggle.”
[dropcap]“J[/dropcap]ust thinking about that place,” says former 1312 Utah manager Katherine Fuentes with a sigh, “gives me a headache.”
She lived here for several years until walking off the job in recent weeks. She did not enjoy the greatest relationship with the tenants, or the tenant organizers and building inspectors who drop by. But she saved her most caustic words for building ownership.
She claims that Garlock, whom she described as “Georgina’s boss,” told her in no uncertain terms that the remaining occupants in this deteriorating and mostly empty hotel need to be driven out so the place can be revamped into the sorts of dwellings that doctors and nurses at nearby San Francisco General Hospital would live in.
When I called the phone number tenants were given for Ramirez, the receptionist told me that Ramirez had gone home for the day and that Garlock didn’t work there anymore. And yet, when I stepped off the No. 49 bus and walked into their Mission-Bernal office, there they both were, working relatively late, as announcers called the Blazers-Warriors game from a TV on a high shelf in the corner.
Garlock denied that he’s Ramirez’s boss. “Me? I’m nobody. I’m just a 70-year-old guy. I consult.” He denied any deliberate attempt to push out the extant tenants. “All we want to do is get the place cleaned up and working again.”
And yet, actions speak louder than words. Perhaps literally, at this hotel.
Fuentes, tenant organizers, tenants, and city officials accuse the hotel’s owners of engaging in noisy, disruptive, nonsensical construction — such as placing sheet rock over hallway walls and punching holes through walls so taking a shower becomes a public spectacle — while neglecting actual necessary construction in a deliberate attempt to hassle the tenants into leaving.
On multiple occasions, the city has foiled attempts here to install kitchenettes and/or bathrooms in hotel rooms — an upgrade that would violate the Hotel Conversion Ordinance, which is intended to preserve SRO stock for the needy instead of allowing it to be upgraded into market-rate apartments.
“That’s a pattern here in the Mission,” says one DBI official. “This is a small building,” says another, “but it’s important to us.”
Questions about the ownership of this building abound. But, at least for now, the city appears to be taking ownership of this situation. Time will tell.