This four-unit structure on 22nd Street, co-owned by ex-planning commissioner Dennis Richards, has come under scrutiny from the Department of Building Inspection. Richards and his attorney say that's no coincidence. Photo by Joe Eskenazi

Prior to Wednesday night’s lengthy hearing before the city’s Board of Appeals, Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards offered an unambiguous answer to whether he planned to sue the Department of Building Inspection: “Fuck yeah.” 

Afterward, he was only slightly more circumspect, noting that his First Amendment rights as a city commissioner had been violated, and he intended to take legal action “as soon as I can.” 

In between — and following a hearing that stretched some two-and-a-half hours, until nearly 11 p.m. — the Board of Appeals, somewhat improbably, posited a solution that both the building department and Richards and his partner and legal representatives said they were amenable to: The warring parties will be made to hammer out their differences on the ornate, 18-room Italiante-style building at 3426-32 22nd St., near Guerrero, that Richards and business partner Rachel Swann obtained for $2.7 million in 2018 and are now hoping to sell for $7.5 million. Once that is done, they will re-appear before the Board of Appeals on March 18. 

The Board of Appeals’ insertion of itself into the situation was heartening for Richards and Swann, who charged building department officials of, in essence, running a shakedown racket and plotting against them: “I am more optimistic now because of the oversight of” the Board of Appeals, said their attorney, Scott Emblidge. 

At issue was the building department’s abrupt revocation of nine permits on the site on Sept. 30. Building department officials claimed this was due to shoddy work (the term “flawed engineering” was read off a PowerPoint, repeatedly), intransigence by Richards and his engineer Pat Buscovich, and much building beyond the scope of the permits. Richards’ side, however, claimed an out-and-out conspiracy against the planning commissioner, centering on his vocal criticisms of the building department and his opposition during Planning Commission meetings to a scofflaw and — allegedly — politically juiced project at 3847-3849 18th Street. 

That’s the charge Emblidge made in his opening statement in a small, fourth-floor City Hall hearing room — and one that Richards, loudly, revisited some hours later. “It’s me! That’s why they’re doing this. They’re trying to get back at me and holding it over my head so I let that project [on 18th Street] go and stop pursuing it,” he told the commissioners. “This is out-of-control criminal activity. It will be investigated. I look to you to help my plight, my financial safety and to protect me from this Trumpism that has been a cancer on this city going on for decades and nothing has been done about it.”  

Dennis Richards accused the Department of Building Inspection of ‘Trumpism’ and labeled it a ‘cancer on this city.’ Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Bombshell allegations like these, which were also made in an explosive brief underpinning Richards’ case, did not occupy most or even much of the Board of Appeals’ time Wednesday night — with some commissioners complaining that, allegations of corruption in the building department or not, there were inarguable violations on the 22nd Street site. 

Instead, the commissioners waded into the weeds of building and building inspection arcana and urged some manner of reconciliation. 

“I am having trouble understanding why we’re here,” admitted commissioner Eduardo Santacana, midway through the hearing. “Most of the people in this room agree something needs to be fixed. Why hasn’t this been worked out? Why are we here? I don’t understand this case.” 

Emblidge had earlier alleged selective enforcement against his clients, presenting a litany of wayward projects in which, unlike the 22nd Street site, the serious step of permit revocation was never broached. 

When commissioner Rachel Tanner subsequently asked building department officials what violations on the 22nd Street site were so dire and constituted such a life-safety issue that they warranted the hasty revocation of nine permits, senior building inspector Joe Duffy didn’t offer specifics. Instead, he matter-of-factly stated that “all building code issues are safety issues.” 

This answer drew laughter from some audience members in the late-night crowd, and did not seem to dazzle the commissioners. 

Santacana later followed up by noting that, rather than give Richards and his partners the usual 30 days to fix on-site issues following the Sept. 30 issuances of “notices of violation,” the permits were revoked only hours later.

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“There are some significant allegations in this case and I would like to understand … how you jumped from suspension to revocation in just one day.” 

Santacana went on to note that this level of punishment is “rather rare.” Commission president Rick Swig chimed in, “and rather punitive.” 

Swig said he considered the violations on-site to be “minutia-like … some serious breaches, maybe, but not as abusive as some of the stuff you’ve seen in the newspaper. … I am truly trying to find a way through this without getting to the point of revocation. I show my cards.” 

As the hour neared 11 p.m., the commission president instructed Richards and his partners to “clean up the plans as best as you can, wrap it in ribbons, and bring it to the Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection. Come back here and hopefully everything is marvelous and we can say it’s over.” 

Richards gave a literal thumbs-up to that, but such harmonious behavior would appear to be wishful thinking. He does not appear willing to let go of his allegations of corruption within the department of building inspection, regardless of the outcome of this single project. 

“This hearing,” he said in the corridors of City Hall, “is not the end. It’s just the beginning.” 

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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35 Comments

    1. Joe this comment was a decent joke, but I thought you were running a tight no-speculative-comment regime around here! We have no way to know how much therapy Richards gets or needs.

  1. Pot, kettle, black (Mr. Richards). He’s held up planning apps for much less. This, of course, does not even deal with the issue of unreported tenant buyouts (or, as this atty later stated were an ‘oversight’).

  2. I sure wish this sequence of episodes had more capacity to scrutinize the type of “oversight” of tenant buyout behavior that may have lost Sup. Brown the election. In particular, Richards claims that he wouldn’t have bought the building if the tenants weren’t interested in buyouts, but any half-brained tenant in the city knows that when their building goes on sale for less than $500k a unit, they should get a buyout or else be Ellised.

    Similarly, what’s the strategy of selling the building without the inevitable TIC conversion? Nobody will buy this as a rental property for $7m, as you’d need to collect $9k / mo from each unit to even begin to justify the cost. Why is Richards so hesitant to attach himself to a title conversion? Conflict of interest with the suspended lottery? Requirements to bring the units up to code? Politics?

    1. Jake — 

      I think this is a legit area of inquiry, as is the relationship between Richards and Buscovich. But I think comparing these buyouts — which purportedly totaled some $350,000 — to a situation in which impoverished people were evicted into near-homelessness is something of an imperfect analogy.

      Best,

      JE

      1. Certainly the buyouts were substantial in this case and should offer at least a few years of stability to every tenant. I agree a strong buyout offer is not comparable to mass Ellis eviction, and I should not have been so casual with that comparison.

    2. Jake, the units are available for individual sale. And I would say the tenants got a pretty good deal, considering one owned two houses already, one owned a four unit building already and the other put all her kids through private school. Things are not always as they seem.

      1. What would you say about Richards, Swann, and whoever else’s deal?

        I’d guess they’ll have around $4.5M into it, and they are now asking $7.88M. That’d be a 57% return on investment in 1.5 years. It rarely goes much better than that in a home renovate/flip.

        What’s up with Richards’ puppy dog look?

        1. Flipping a 4 unit Italiente with lots of below market tenants is the most lucrative SF flip. Selling price will be low because apartment operators don’t want it and owner occupiers can’t handle it. The only real risk is holding costs accruing if there’s an extended duration of renovation, which you can always cut down by overlooking notification laws or otherwise being an expert in planning codes.

        2. For comparison, the 308 Bartlett TICs sold for about $1250/sqft. They’re the most recent comparables though this has garage space, better finishes, and a better location. At that price, this building is about $5.25m total. Maybe you can understand why Dennis is sweating bullets since every month of delay costs him basis points on what is not a particularly lucrative flip.

          1. Considering their areas of expertise, I’d imagine it’s Swann’s job to sweat that one. We shall see.

            The more interesting aspect is how this will work out for Richards. He’s bitten off quite a bit here.

      2. Hi TheRealDealSF, this is also the twitter handle of Rachel Swann. Is this you commenting Rachel or just a coincidence?

      3. I’m a huge proponent of means testing rent control, FWIW. Tenants in this town are only slightly more sympathetic to me than long term landowners. All of them are borrowing from the future and the poor super commuters from Tracy to fund their aesthetic or ideological preferences.

  3. Commissioner Richards is taking away 4 rent controlled apartments, not creating a single new dwelling unit and looking to make a killing off the housing shortage — a crisis situation that he is exacerbating by engaging in such non-productive and predatory behavior.

    Furthermore, from his Commission dais, he has been increasingly espousing anti-housing-creation political positions and consorting with NIMBY groups up and down the Peninsula.

    This is wrong on some many fronts — it’s truly unconscionable and disheartening.

    1. Those units will remain rent controlled as there is no condo conversion happening.

      This goes back to a fatal flaw in the current rent control regime, today anyone renting a unit at market rate is rich to well off, so the benefit transfers from landlords to the well, not the poor.

      1. Granted, they’ll be owner-occupied TIC “technically-rent-controlled” units at a proposed purchase price of nearly $2 Million each.

        And you can bet your bottom dollar that the new TIC owners will enter their property into the City’s Condo Conversion Lottery, so perhaps it’ll take them a decade to officially convert them to condominiums.

        The point being is that, for all intensive purposes, these 4 units are no longer rent-controlled units on the normal rental market.

        They’ve been thoroughly gentrified by Commission Richards to his enormous financial benefit.

        Geez, he could have at least created 4 additional units by converting the garage spaces to ADUs!

        1. Karl —

          It was a long and complex meeting so I didn’t put in every detail. But Scott Sanchez from the Planning Department did indeed suggest putting ADUs in the garage space. We’ll see if that suggestion takes root.

          JE

      2. The underlying issue here is that San Francisco deferred all its affordable housing policy to below-inflation rent control, which without vacancy control means that borrowing from present landlords and future tenants to keep past tenants will eventually not be feasible. City politics is only beginning to feel the impact of the non-policy. Things will get worse before they get better.

  4. A Shady Character.
    Despite her assertions that she would be a ‘good neighbor’, supportive of the community, Ms Swann has taken a series of positions illustrating that she is little more than a profiteering carpet0-bagger who will use any trick in the book to serve her bottom line. Just my 2c.

  5. After watching the long hearing, there are still some important facts that need addressing…
    1. The engineer obtained a permit for “soft story/seismic retrofit” when the building does not fall under the city’s soft story ordinance. This is misleading and revocation should be the only remedy for this permit
    2. So much work took place that was not on the original permits – foundation pours were completed and there is still no indication about how much excavation work was actually performed. Other serious aspects include the lack of sheer walls present when the plans called for sheer walls and the removing of the exit corridors both of which raise safety issues
    3.Scott Sanchez advised that the project should have had a variance which indicates some serious planning violations
    4. The real estate marketing for the property is contradictory e.g. multi million pound renovation vs representing the cost of renovation for permit fee purposes to be in the $300k range. The property was marketed as having 12 parking spaces when Scott Sanchez confirmed that there were only 6
    5. Something to note that wasn’t brought up at the hearing is the non registering of the tenant buyouts with the rent board. This issue should be addressed. Scott Sanchez suggested adding an ADU but the buyouts would preclude this
    6. Finally, Mr Richards use of profanity and behavior at the hearing was completely inappropriate!

    1. How did they get their permit signed off without a sheer wall? If DBI is bringing this up, then it will reflect poorly on them. Where did you see that?

  6. SF Chronicle have finally picked up the story. How long can Richards cling to power with all these facts being brought to light.
    I agree with Sarah statement above regarding Dennis Richards outburst last night at the appeal hearing. Mr Richards has a history of violent out bursts whilst intimidating other commissioners to go along with his draconian punishments of homeowners who have committed the same offenses that Richards has been caught committing. The corruption is astounding !!

    I’m an Architect here in SF and have attended my fare share of commission hearings. Patrick Buscovich is a paid consultant who attends most commission hearings trying to push through projects for his clients who have paid him large sums of cash to get their projects approved. This guy is super shady.
    Low and behold it has recently come to light that Mr Buscovich is on Dennis Richards payroll for luxury development projects.
    Pat Buscovich can be seen at the appeal hearing defending Mr Richards project as the engineer of record. This guy gives a new name to the word sleazy.
    Until these facts broke Dennis Richards never recused himself from voting on Pat Buscovich’s projects in front of the planning commission.
    You have a leading commissioner Mr Richards voting on approvals for Pat Buscovich’s projects whilst contracting with him on luxuary development deals on the side. Does this make any sense other than complete corruption.
    The commission president Myrna Melgar needs to take a note from Pelosi book and have Dennis Richards removed from the commission.
    How can we have faith in the planning commission moving forward !

    The commission has been seriously compromised with these astounding recent developments.

  7. Look on the bright side…no way in hell they will get close to $7.5 mil sell out for those 4 TIC’s. Plan to drop that at least by $1mil. Nice sideshow though. Richards pic above, aka convict-in-a-suit, only matches his brazenness in calling out DBI corruption once he actually feels it himself. Nevermind the power trips he went on stalling other people’s projects as a planning commissioner.

    This is your planning and building departments folks!

  8. What struck me after watching the entire hearing was how thoroughly Planning and DBI debunked the claims made by Dennis Richard and Rachel Swann. Richards is misusing his position on the Planning Commission to try and intimidate and bully those he opposes, in this case for tremendous personal financial gain. This behavior is consistent with his partner Rachel Swann, who tries to do the same from her perch as the President of the Noe Valley Merchants. If anyone is a cancer on the city, in Richard’s unprofessional words, it’s them.

  9. Being a builder in SF for 30 years I can tell you after looking at the project photos there is no way Dennis Richards luxury development cost $300k to build.

    New foundation, windows, electrical and plumbing systems throughout. High end kitchens bathrooms, all new flooring ,Sheetrock
    Tile, paint and new roof for 4 custom units !!!! This remodel was definitely a multi million dollar build out as stated in the real estate listing wrote by his partner in crime Rachel Swann..
    This is clear fraud on Dennis Richards part if he estimated the cost on the building permit to be $300k for all that work….
    The difference between a $300k remodel and
    a $2m remodel for permit fees would be tens of thousands of dollars that Richards would avoid paying to the building dept!!!! The very people he’s screaming ? corruption on..
    Who’s the corrupt mafia Boss of the commission here.

    The hypocrisy is mind blowing. Someone should look into this very serious new fact.

    1. No way is this a multi-million dollar reno. They could’ve built this place from the ground up three or four times over with $2m. You should see the property — it’s lipstick on a pig.

  10. Opportunism is the soup du jour in San Francisco, although it is far from new to the menu. Shouldn’t come as any surprise that players on every side of this deal are suspect for reasons which no doubt will prove their own validity over the course of time.

  11. Joe how come you don’t look into The Henry Hotel and The Hillsdale Hotel for corruption or ECS. I would like to see you stand up against them.

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