The unit in question. Photo by Don House

“We see people in there now,” says Don House, regarding the neighbors’ former “storage” unit just on the other side of his back fence. “We could see the unmistakable blue light of a TV. Two TVs! I think they have two TVs in there!” 

But that’s not all: Last week, House could not only hear people talking and moving around in this backyard unit, but smell the food they were cooking. 

House lives deep in the Outer Sunset, a hop, skip and a jump from Ocean Beach. It’s easier to spot an Accessory Dwelling Unit in this neighborhood than it is to spot the Farallones on most days, and many, if not most, of these “ADUs” are unwarranted. Discovering an illegal ADU next door or over the fence is no trick; it’s a bit like pulling a rabbit from a rabbit hutch. 

But there’s more here. Eight years ago, the Planning Commission decreed that a kitchen would have to be removed from this very unit and, in the future, it could not have “any appliances for cooking,” such as a stove or even a hot plate. What’s more, it could only be inhabited by the family that resided on the premises. 

Whether that kitchen was removed is unknown. There are no plumbing or electrical permits recorded on-site of the sort one would need to properly remove one. While we’re at it, there are no permits on-site here to add a kitchen to the unit in question. But House smelled what he smelled. 

In recent years, House’s neighbor has obtained a separate address for the backyard unit. And he has undertaken significant construction on the site that doesn’t easily match up with the permits on file. 

Finally, in November, 2019, the owner of the site was issued a permit to install a “new accessory dwelling unit” here. And that’s odd — in August, 2019, he applied to legalize an existing, “unauthorized” dwelling unit here.  

Well, that’s confusing: The permit to add a new dwelling was issued three months after the owner filed for a permit to legalize an extant “unauthorized dwelling.”   

San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection is, indeed, an amazing place. How, after all, do you proceed with the “legalization of an unauthorized dwelling” that, based upon concurrent permitting, you haven’t yet added? Conversely, how do you “add” a dwelling unit that already exists? 

Perhaps the best person to ask would be Stephen Kwok, a senior building inspector at DBI, one of the department’s leaders regarding the legalization of ADUs, and an acknowledged authority on the city’s codes. 

Also: This is his ADU. This is happening on his property. 

This unit is listed on a 2019 Planning Department applications as a “one story over basement existing and authorized structure.” Photo by Don House

Kwok did not return multiple calls to his personal and work lines, nor did he return messages to both his personal and work emails. His colleagues in the Plan Review department told us he was in the office on the days we called and emailed. 

So, that’s unfortunate. But Kwok did, in 2013, testify during a Planning Commission Discretionary Review hearing regarding this property. And the man on that video recording matches the man photographed in a Department of Building Inspection publication in 2018 announcing Kwok as its employee of the year. 

Numerous sources — both within the Department of Building Inspection and outside of it — confirmed that the man on the 2013 video is the DBI employee they’ve worked with, closely, for years. 

So, that’s quite a predicament. The man who heads the Department of Building Inspection team created to manage ADUs is the subject of multiple complaints that he built an illegal ADU on his property. In fact, the permit Kwok himself filed in 2019 admits to the presence of an illegal ADU on-site. 

There’s plenty that’s complicated about this situation, but this isn’t: When you apply to “legalize” an ADU, it means you have an illegal ADU. Kwok has lived here for well more than a decade, and this ADU did not drop from the sky.

For whatever reason, between Wednesday, when we first contacted Kwok, and Sunday night, the San Francisco Property Information Map (SFPIM) listing for his address went from showing more than a dozen permits on-site to zero. Well, that’s disturbing.

But, upon further inspection, it turns out that every address is now listing zero permits on SFPIM — they’re all gone. That may be even more disturbing.*

But there are other ways of tracking site permits down. And taking screenshots of all of them.

A unit described as “storage” in 2016 had become an “unauthorized dwelling unit” by 2019, even though no permits to undertake the work needed to bring about this change were issued in the interregnum — and despite the permit to “add” a unit being issued months after a permit for “legalization” of an extant unit was sought.

The strange and terrible saga of Stephen Kwok’s ADU began roughly a decade ago. 

The city has since passed multiple ordinances streamlining the creation of ADUs and legalizing unauthorized units, and pressure from Mayor London Breed to pick up the pace led to the creation of the very task force Kwok helps lead. Property owners caught with illegal units used to be given the option of doing away with them. But that’s no longer the case: Any unit that can be legalized, must be legalized. 

On the statewide level, the California Legislature may have dealt single-family zoning its coup de grâce last week with a bill that conditionally allows the creation of multiple ADUs on formerly single-family lots. 

So, if Kwok made his 2013 application in the present day, it would likely be received differently. 

And that’s not a bad thing. Because this isn’t a story bemoaning the addition of multiple units onto a lot; let us all happily toss fistfuls of dirt onto the grave of single-family zoning. Rather, this is a story about rules and process. This is a story about a DBI insider who apparently made his own rules and followed his own process, and appears to have been abetted in this by his department. 

Disgraced ex-senior building inspector Bernie Curran wrote many emails and made many calls to neighbors of Kwok’s property regarding construction on-site. But he never bothered to document any site inspections.

A little necessary history regarding the 2013 “Discretionary Review” hearing: Kwok, who had long resided with his growing family in the small unit on the rear of his lot, proposed erecting a large three-story structure on the front of the lot, while retaining the unit in the rear. Oddly, though, he planned to build and reside in the new, three-story structure with no kitchen, and keep the kitchen in the rear building abutting House’s property. (Kwok told the Planning Commission that his parents would live in the rear unit, and the family would cook and eat there). 

Multiple neighbors challenged this proposal, which they felt was a clandestine attempt to build a second, illegal unit. This led to the “DR” hearing before the Planning Commission. The commissioners were befuddled by the notion of building a new, three-story home minus a kitchen. So, Kwok was allowed to proceed, but he was required to remove the kitchen from the small, rear structure and install one in the new, three-story structure. 

He was not allowed to re-install a stove or hot plate in the rear unit, and was not permitted to rent it out or otherwise use it as a “separate dwelling unit.” 

The laws that the Planning Commission leaned on to formulate its judgment have since changed. But, planning sources say, you can’t simply ignore the results of a Discretionary Review. Rather, if future work conflicts with the ruling, even in the event of local and state laws being altered, the discrepancies would have to be formally addressed.

If this happened, there’s no easily accessible record of it.

The upshot of the 2013 “DR.”

Instead, a good deal of construction has been undertaken on the site, along with multiple planning and DBI applications to convert the rear unit into an ADU — in direct contravention to the terms stipulated by the Discretionary Review. 

But, you know what? Forget the Discretionary Review.  DRs are often tedious and persnickety — especially when the underlying laws have changed. What’s more important here is that the wording in the permit applications Kwok filed appears to be a mea culpa for creating an illegal ADU — which would entail unpermitted construction. 

In 2013, Kwok filed to convert the rear unit into an “office.” In a 2016 application to convert it into an ADU, he referred to it as “storage.” That permit, for reasons unknown, wasn’t issued until November, 2019, and you cannot do work on-site or even schedule inspections until a permit has been issued. 

And yet, in August, 2019 — again, before the prior permit to add a unit was issued — Kwok applied for the “legalization of unauthorized dwelling unit.” Plainly, this means that, in 2019, there was not an “office” or “storage,” but a “dwelling unit” on-site (Kwok even cited a 2014 city ordinance that enabled “granting legal status to existing dwelling units.”). 

You don’t get from “office” to “storage” to “dwelling unit” without work being done. But there’s no permitting on-record for such work. And there are no recorded inspections of any work for the permit to add a unit that Kwok was granted in 2019 — it ought to have auto-expired in 2020. 

This also isn’t a matter of mere semantics. Per the building code, a “dwelling unit” must contain “living facilities including provisions for sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation as required by code … ” 

Somehow, the provisions for cooking had to find their way in there. Or, perhaps, they were never taken out. 

“I think they have two TVs in there!”

There are, in fact, a number of odd patterns revealed by the on-record permits and inspections (which, yes, you can still find — and screen-capture). 

Those include a dearth of inspections on the three-story house erected on the front of the lot  — just two: a “rough frame, partial” and a final inspection. In 2015, one field inspector wrote a fistful of Certificates of Final Completion on this site in one single day, while also clearing six “special inspections” on that same day — a highly irregular and unusual feat. There are no recorded DBI field inspections here for the three-story structure’s foundation.  

The year 2015 also saw disgraced ex-senior inspector Bernie Curran gallivanting out of his district and placating the neighbors (who were never informed that Kwok was his DBI colleague; Curran certainly never mentioned it in the many emails he wrote to those neighbors). 

Curran was suspended earlier this year and abruptly resigned after the City Attorney nabbed him for failing to disclose a “loan” from a developer and approving work on that developer’s projects. This month, he was hit with federal charges alleging he ventured out of his district to grant permits on substandard work in exchange for donations to his preferred nonprofits.  

It is not clear what Curran was doing in venturing out of his district to ostensibly inspect this site and then failing to record these transactions. 

And, while Curran’s presence is a red flag, at least he was a senior inspector. According to DBI policy, a senior inspector should have been doing inspections on the property of a subordinate DBI employee. This did not occur throughout the years here. 

Curran’s name, however, never appears on the official record for any actual inspections. If not for his written communications with the neighbors, his involvement would’ve been undetectable. 

Even if we can acknowledge that ADUs are a good thing — and, regardless of how you feel about them, new laws will enable more and more of them — the process here has not inspired good feelings nor trust in our city’s building department and its personnel. 

Quite the opposite. 

“He gamed the system,” grumbles House. “He gamed the system because he works at the frickin’ building department.” 

Adds House’s wife, Paulette Stracuzzi, “Everything we did on our house, even the smallest thing, we got the permits first. It’s always the people who follow the rules who lose out.” 

Maybe. Or maybe that’s the system. 

*As of 9:45 a.m. on Monday, permits appear to have returned to SFPIM

Joe Eskenazi

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...

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32 Comments

  1. Unfortunately corruption is so pervasive within the building departments that you can’t trust anyone at City Hall. They have to know about this. If they don’t they are really incompetent.

  2. Good morning I’m a san Francisco resident and my daughter has been trying to find a place in san francisco she has a section 8 voucher and 3 kids almost every unit we looked at had some type of illegal things going like Shared water our utility’s how do u share water in a 2 unit apartment our a 3bedroom house

    1. Just an observation: If your daughter has three kids and is on Section 8, they really can’t afford to live in San Francisco.

      1. You got to let ’em know. London Breed makes sure that Willie Brown’s eradication of the poor, people of color included, is complete

    2. Shared water is actually fairly common. Yes there are rents in San Francisco that are within section 8 guidelines you don’t sound like you are familiar with the program

  3. It’s more than just a job at DBI; it’s an investment into your real estate future in San Francisco….

  4. Thank you for the reporting. Punishment for Kwok and all DBI scofflaws should be calculated based on the amount of time and money SF residents have wasted in attempting to comply with DBI and Planning’s mind-f@*k requirements. So, basically strip them of all assets and leave them to rot on the Farrallones. Oh, to ‘catch’ an inspector ‘in person’ to discuss questions on their inspections, I’ve always been advised to ‘wait in the lobby from 3:30-4:00 when they’re back in the office’ by DBI’s admins. See earlier point re wasted time, but in this case it might be worth the answers.

  5. This is impressive investigative journalism at the local level. Glad to know there are still watchdog journalists keeping an eye on things in city governance.

    1. Local journalism is corrupt for allowing Breed to swindle the black and poor she claims to represent r nt

  6. fines won’t help. people need to go to prison for deterrent effect. this is not hard.
    the voters are entitled to honest service, and milking your government job for private benefit is third world crap. we need a city attorney and grand jury with sharp teeth.

    1. I couldn’t agree more.

      DBI needs to be dismantled. Hard pause on any work in process while the house is cleaned and the corrupt are charged, prosecuted, and suitably dealt with. Some sort of independent, thorough review of DBI’s work of, say, the past five years needs to be conducted to identify all the dodgy construction that’s been approved or deliberately overlooked by corrupt city officials, then that work needs to be properly redone and approved by honest experts.

      As Joe has reported in past investigative articles, there is very real danger to public health and safety. It’s completely irresponsible to allow this to continue. The corruption isn’t even sort of subtle. It’s brazen, and, disturbingly, it seems to be baked into the system.

    2. I am not an attorney but first glance looks like criminal tax evasion, honest services fraud, and quite a few other local and federal crimes. Has this been reported to the FBI?

  7. The best goes on
    If you work in Real Estate/construction in SF and aren’t “connected” you are at the mercy of every planner and building inspector who crosses your project. If you object or attempt to question them it only gets worse for you.

    Even when they catch a “connected” person the fines are laughable.

    In the Portola District the guy builds 20 extra units. he is fine $1.5 million and has to bring all thirty up to code.
    Where do I write the check.
    I built an ADU during a seismic retrofit
    Planning tool 18 months and ruined my building to allow the ADU

  8. I’d hate to live next to this nosy neighborhood in the sunset: “We could see the unmistakable blue light of a TV. Two TVs! I think they have two TVs in there!”

    But that’s not all: Last week, House could not only hear people talking and moving around in this backyard unit, but smell the food they were cooking. (Correction : but can smell food being cooked).

  9. A bldg at 1421 10 th ave , SF 94122 ousted tenants from parking & made 5 more units it took 1 1/2 year with permits renewed regularly sometimes only 2 men at a time. Tying up street parking. Contacted city numerous times. No respite

  10. As someone who rented an illegal apartment in woodside for several years because my apartment in San Mateo became too expensive I take issue with this article
    No it’s not about rules and process it’s about stopping additional housing
    I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 20 some years and my ability to buy had always been outstripped by the market but I have a business here an essential business and I contribute mightily to the Bay Area
    It frustrates me that the minute I retire I will have to move away because I will no longer be able to afford it here
    So don’t complain about illegal adus someone needed that spot

  11. If he broke the rules he should be punished, but we shouldn’t let that distract us from the more important issue. It is way to hard to get permits in this city to build additional housing. The process for building ADUs should be made faster and more transparent. Sunset is especially egregious in their unwillingness to allow additional housing to be built.

  12. Wath kind of people are those. So, they think that wat they cook doesn’t smell. Whoever lives there is people who need a home. Just put yourself in there situations. The people who make this complain is definitely someone unhappy.

  13. I’ve been dealing with planning and DBI for 8 years now. Whatever optimism I once had to help with the shortage of housing in SF is completely gone. I’ve never used an expediter, but in retrospect that was probably a mistake. The vast majority of the employees are good people trying to do their job. Unfortunately, the performance of planning and DBI is abysmal and it is probably easy for even the most well intentioned to just chalk it up to a broken system.

    The only way I see this getting fixed is if a strong mayor starts to outsource some of the functions at 49 SVN to teams in other locations. Mayor’s office would need to provide independent oversight so the DBI cronies don’t sabotage the project, but you could get 2 permit reviewers for the price of one in a Eugene, OR or Madison, WI vs SF. Some functions could not be remote, but for those that can, sites would compete on quality and efficiency – metrics overseen by a mayor appointed auditor. Motivated DBI veterans could volunteer to relocate and lead the teams. They could actually have a decent quality of life without a shady side hustle. Another benefit is that this would force the processing to become truly digital.

  14. We have a similar property, one of those huge sprawling backyards, and started the ADU process. After 2 years we gave up after over a dozen trips and checks to the DBI
    Apparently we didn’t have the right “expeditor.” Yet San Franciscans are always called NIMBYs who have no idea how corrupt our building department is.

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