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 said that's no coincidence. Photo by Joe Eskenazi

Embattled commissioner Dennis Richards remains on leave of absence following rancor over tenant buyouts

Prior to a contentious December hearing before the Board of Appeals, planning commissioner Dennis Richards offered a succinct answer when asked if he planned to sue the city of San Francisco: “Fuck, yeah.”

So, today, that happened.

Richards and business partner Rachel Swann this morning filed suit vs. San Francisco, its Department of Building Inspection, and DBI higher-ups Edward Sweeney and Mauricio Hernandez. The suit alleges that DBI retaliated against Richards by revoking nine permits on a project he and Swann were undertaking on 22nd Street; the suit purports this was undertaken after Richards publicly criticized DBI’s enabling of a development at 3847-3849 18th St. in which two extra stories were constructed and 880 yards of soil were hauled off without necessary permitting.

Richards “pointed out what appeared to be ‘pay-to-play’ practices at DBI whereby DBI repeatedly turned a blind eye towards egregious permit violations by contractors who had close ties to DBI personnel,” reads the suit.

Rather than do what a good governmental agency should do when such claims are made – investigate and take steps to reform – DBI acted instead like a crook worried about being exposed.  It brazenly retaliated against Commissioner Richards, a business in which he was an investor, and his business partner in a transparent attempt to silence his criticism and calls for investigation into perceived corruption.”

Commissioners at that Dec. 5 Board of Appeals meeting expressed surprise that the extreme step of revoking Richards’ permits had been taken by the Department of Building Inspection — and questioned why, rather than give him the usual 30 days to remedy on-site issues, his permits were nixed on the very same day that he was hit with DBI Notices of Violation. At the same time, the Board of Appeals found that there were, inarguably, violations on the site — with Board President Rick Swig referring to the plans submitted to DBI as “a sloppy mess.”

The Board of Appeals asked Richards and DBI to work toward a solution and check back in March 2020. But Richards did not see this as interfering with his aforementioned vow to file suit vs. the city.

And the suit filed today alleges that, both before and after the Dec. 5 hearing, a DBI inspector crashed open houses for the 22nd Street property being held by Swann, a realtor, and loudly bemoaned supposed violations, allegedly scaring off would-be buyers. The suit also alleges that a city inspector was dispatched to another property owned by Swann, lied to a tenant that she had a scheduled on-site meeting with Swann in order to gain entry, and once within posted a Notice of Violation.

“The actions of senior leadership at DBI are an insult to the honest workers at the department, individuals who work day in and day out seeking to ensure our safety and fairly enforce our building codes,” said Richards via a statement. “Their reputations are unfairly tarnished by those who do favors and play favorites to the detriment of City residents who play by the rules.”

Mission Local in November was the first to report that, separate and apart from the permit revocations and Richards’ allegations, four rent-controlled tenants were in 2018 bought out on the site — and Richards and Swann failed to properly record this in a timely fashion. Richards justified the buyouts by noting that three of the tenants requested in writing that any potential buyer of the property buy them out, and the fourth proactively approached the new buyers. Both written records obtained by Mission Local and interviews with a former tenant back this up. The tenants of the four units received, respectively, $25,000; $75,000; $75,000; and $175,000.

Richards’ failure to record the buyouts — which he characterized as a mixup and oversight — rankled even his would-be progressive allies. He has, as a commissioner, chided developers for failing to record buyouts, and for gentrifying communities. Richards and Swann bought the 22nd Street property for $2.7 million in June 2018 and it is currently listed for $7.89 million. These gaudy numbers also irritated progressive city supervisors and led to demands for the commissioner’s ouster.

Supervisor Dean Preston in December called for Richards’ resignation. Supervisors Matt Haney, Hillary Ronen, and Aaron Peskin followed suit. Richards in late December entered into a leave of absence that continues to this day. His attorney, Scott Emblidge, said that Richards’ status as a planning commissioner is yet to be determined — but added that this suit does not preclude Richards continuing to serve: “He is evaluating what he is going to do moving forward.”

Emblidge said that his clients have suffered damages as a result of “their project essentially being placed on hold — carrying costs and other calculable damages.” He would also be asking for “intangible damages of emotional distress and having their civil rights violated.”

The suit alleges “violation of civil rights, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, commercial disparagement/trade libel, and intentional misrepresentation.”

Department of Building Inspection spokesman John Murray declined to comment on pending litigation. City Attorney spokesman John Coté said, “We’ll review the lawsuit once we’ve been served with it, and we’ll address the matter in court.”

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Managing Editor/Columnist. 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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  1. mauricio hernandez thinks he,s a cop. but the dept of building is a joke. their motto is “theres nothing i can do”. Patrick O,Riordan is responsible for much of the incompitence. the s.f. dbi has held up my home on naples for 3 years now….does anyone know of an attorney that can help me?

  2. March 05, 2020 update:

    My sources tell me that Dennis Richards, will once again, grace the dais of the Planning Commission, today.


    SF Board of Supervisors President and faux-progressive, Norman Yee, should have removed Mr. Richards from the Commission on account of the latter’s hypocritical participation in real estate speculation, illegal/unreported tenant buyouts, the breaking of numerous SF laws, and downright Trumpian temper tantrums and general lashing out when confronted with the damning evidence.


      1. Joe,

        Thanks; that’s welcome news!

        My sources related to me yesterday afternoon (evidently prior to submitting his resignation letter to Yee), that Richards was going to appear at the Commission today.

        I guess I should’ve stayed on it, but I’m an amateur and have a day job. to make ends meet.



        1. Karl — 

          You’re welcome. You’re clearly a very smart and plugged-in guy. But things can change in a moment and you’ve always gotta nail stuff down before you print it. That’s the hope at least.

          Thanks for reading,


  3. Your articles always seem to be favorable towards Richards. Why would you not include Scott Sanchez’s comments that Richards had serious violations of the planning code.
    The hypocricy of decrying tenant buyouts on the podium whilst he was not only engaging in the practice himself, but not following required disclosures is egregious.

  4. A land use officer of the City and County of San Francisco suing the City and County of San Francisco for land use malfeasance?

    Flipper The Talking Dolphin needs to be given the hook.

  5. The hit on Richards by DBI was just. He called out the most connected contractor in SF too many times for the project on 3847 18th St.
    Their solution: blunt force- NOV and suspension of permit in the same day. The Deputy Director named in this suit is the “The Nuru “ of the Building Department. Aka the “ knee capper” to employees whom say anything and the man to call if you are in the know ($$) or an upper City Hall officials who needs something done.
    And Richards messed with his closest contractor buddy. Now 18th st has moved along and Richards job is stopped and he’s no longer is a position to call out the criminal activity…. guess who won

  6. if the city takes no action against Richards then it shows the city is just as immorally conflicted, unethical, and hypocritical as Richards is, pretending to be pro-tenant and against ‘evil speculators’ but actually just doing and profiting off the same thing that they are doing.

    I pray they will show us that our SF gov are not fake progressives cashing in on the politics like fake conservative Trump is nationally…

  7. There is no question that Yee should impeach/remove Dennis Richards from his Planning Commissioner because he has demonstrated an unethical conflict of interests, is hypocritical, has no credibility and can no longer be trusted to be fair and impartial in his decisions.

    Even the left-wing SF supervisor socialists say he release his powerful position:
    “I believe he should step down,” Haney told me Monday. ”I’ve worked with Commissioner Richards in the past and have respect for the work he’s done, but it’s clear to me he should no longer serve on the Planning Commission. I think engaging in tenant buyouts and flipping houses are not activities compatible with being a Planning Commissioner.”

    Richards made millions of dollars by pushing out tenants w/ buy outs at 3426-32 22nd property and flipping it for over million dollars in profits. He is as bad as that ‘evil speculators’ that he consistently denies permits to as Planning Commissioner. This is completely hypocritical and unethical. He has no credibility and cannot be trusted to be fair and impartial when his own self-dealings contradict his actions taken against those same kinds of permits he rules upon and almost always against.

    Moreover, Richards has an intolerable conflict of interest due the fact that he is doing this house-flipping business speculation and wields power/connections at the planning commission and w/ city supervisors and indeed may be suing the city Department of Building Inspection (DBI) agency about their denying permits for his house flipping project.

    Again, Richards must be impeached/removed from his Planning Commissioner because he has demonstrated an unethical conflict of interests, is hypocritical, has no credibility and can no longer be trusted to be fair and impartial in his decisions.

    everyone who believes in moral leaders that act with integrity on quasi-judicial hearings should email Yee and demand he does his job to his part in upholding the integrity and fairness of SF government. Otherwise, no-one in SF has any right to complain about Trump’s corruption and self-dealings.

  8. Well the silver lining here is that it hopefully will expose the cancer of corruption that is so ingrained at DBI and Planning.

  9. Don’t understand why people here are throwing shade on Richards. Yeah, he may personally be a jerk and he’s clearly well connected politically. But from the facts Joe presents, it looks to me that he’s in the right here and exposing corruption(his tenants were bought out fair and square and he did a rehab not just cosmetics to improve the building). I’ve heard plenty of first hand stories of DBI corruption so his lawsuit seems like righteous muckraking to me.

  10. Instead of the usual comment exaggerated cynicism, i will just remark it seems to me that both sides are both partially right and partially in the wrong.

  11. Another dirtball “anti-gentrification Progressive” who thinks he is above the law. So sick of these people.

  12. Dennis Richards is a “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” hypocrite.

    He needs to be removed from the Planning Commission — his long drawn out self-declared “leave of absence” must to end, pronto.

    (Board President Yee should stop pussy-footing around; do his job and relieve Richards of his Seat.
    As thing stand now, we have a truncated Commission and it is hampering its effectiveness during a particularly challenging time of transition within the Planning Dept.).

    Richards need to be tried in the Court of Public Opinion, big time.

  13. Maybe the new DBI spokesman, hired by corrupt DBI mgmt/City Hall to cover up all the dirt at DBI, will give us a solid “no comment” again.
    Richards’ complaint of harrassment and retaliation, specifically by Hernandez and Sweeney, is certainly not the first, nor the last such complaint to be filed against them.
    Sweeney pulled political strings to hire the unqualified and inept Hernandez, to do exactly this type of bidding for him.
    Sweeney himself got Hernandez promoted, all the way from field inspector to Senior Inspector, to Chief Building Inspector (the highest paid in CA), in about 5 years (unheard of!)
    Hernandez does all that is asked of him by Sweeney, irregardless of the damage to others.
    The house of cards Sweeney and the rest of DBI mgmt has assembled, is about to collapse.