'Rampant code violations? It's nothing we can't begin to not enforce! Just give us a few years.'

A phone call would’ve been nice. An email, a postcard, a pamphlet slipped under the door like a take-out menu — all of that would’ve been good. But none of that happened. 

Three years after the city and longtime renegade builder Mel Murphy settled regarding his rampant, unpermitted construction violations, tenants in his properties say nobody has reached out to them. Nobody has informed them that there are unresolved permitting and inspection issues in their buildings — and, as a result, open questions about safety. 

“We pay so fucking much rent in San Francisco,” said one tenant. “It would be nice to know if my building is safe.” 

It would. It would be nice to even know what the city considers to be “safe,” and what tangible steps the city has taken in the past three years to ensure safety is achieved. But my questions to the Planning Department, Fire Department and Department of Building Inspection elicited the following response: “We continue to work closely with the City Attorney’s office to move these two sites forward toward full compliance.”

This is an impressively vague sentence. It harks to a Monty Python sketch in which a police constable tells a judge, “I clearly saw the defendant doing whatever he’s accused of, red-handed. When kicked, he said: ‘It’s a fair cop, I done it all.’”

It’s never good when government veers into the realm of the Pythonesque. It’s certainly less funny in real life. And it’s no fun at all for the tenants at 1025 Hampshire St. and 1346 Alabama St.  

We’ve written a bit about the strange and terrible saga of Mel Murphy and his amazing construction misadventures. In 2013, he was nabbed for erecting a five-story building on 26th Street from the foundation to the roof without the benefit of permits or inspections. The district inspector for the neighborhood claims he repeatedly informed his senior inspector, Patrick O’Riordan, of the illegal construction — and was instructed “Don’t take any action right now.

O’Riordan is now the interim head of the department. He has denied the allegations leveled against him with the semantic legerdemain that no “written report” was made in this issue. But that was never the claim, and DBI sources tell us that putting such a complaint in writing would mark an inspector for retaliation. Says one, “What employee in his right mind would put in writing the illegal activity that his boss told him to ignore?” 

Months after Murphy’s 26th Street building was observed going up in January, 2013, a house he was constructing on Crown Terrace in December, 2013, came down, tumbling off the side of Twin Peaks.  

In an on-the-nose San Francisco detail, Murphy served on the Department of Building Inspection’s oversight commission from 2006 to 2012, and was even its former president. 

After his house took itself for a walk down the hill, the City Attorney filed suit, eventually expanding the charges to include the Mission District projects on Hampshire and Alabama streets. On both sites, Murphy submitted plans to erect a two-unit building. But, on the Hampshire Street building he added one more unpermitted unit, and at Alabama Street he added two. Neither of these properties received the requisite building, plumbing or electrical permitting, and neither had proper inspections. 

You can read the City Attorney’s case here. It is a meticulous and damning document. So it’s little surprise that Murphy, in 2018, agreed to a settlement. What is a bit surprising is the amount of money Murphy was made to fork over in a case in which the City Attorney had him six ways to Sunday: $225,000

Now, that’s a lot of money, especially if placed in a wheelbarrow. But not for a longtime connected developer, and not for a longtime connected developer who’s been collecting rent for years on the illegal units in question. And not for all of the above in a case where the City Attorney had the goods.  

The City Attorney’s suit states that illegal units were added at Alabama Street by 2005. It’s not certain when the Hampshire Street building was converted —  but, via the magic of Google Street View, one can clearly see three gas meters there by 2009

Your humble narrator talked to tenants in both the Hampshire and Alabama buildings. All were paying rent they categorized as “market rate.” If we take the (rather low) guestimate of $2,000 a month, and apply it to the three illegal units, and then calculate, say, 10 years of rent collection, that comes out to $720,000. 

When I asked the City Attorney’s office if $225,000 was enough to dissuade scofflaw builders from simply doing as they pleased and then paying the fine as a cost of doing business, they responded, “The City Attorney’s office works diligently to hold scofflaws and code violators accountable. Mr. Murphy was no exception. We are proud of the work our office did to secure an injunction against Mr. Murphy and ensure his properties are brought up to code. We will continue to work with City departments on the remediation process required by the injunction.

A quicker answer would’ve been “no.”

This July, 2009, Google Street View image reveals three gas meters at the supposedly two-unit 1025 Hampshire St. building. The city wouldn’t discover this and take legal action for another half decade.

As for the 2018 stipulated injunction, you can read it here. And, indeed, it does require Murphy to “diligently” remediate “pled violations.” 

When we reached Murphy, he said his architect has submitted plans to the city to get the properties into compliance. That’s great: But it’s November, 2021, and this case settled in November, 2018. 

Say what you will about Murphy, but he copped to his misdeeds. At this point, it’s on the city to move things along or lean on Murphy to move things along. It’s hard to say that’s happening. It sort of makes one wonder just what the hell the city has been doing since this case dropped out of the headlines. 

No “Notices of Violation” have been issued by the Department of Building Inspection to document the rampant unpermitted construction documented by the City Attorney. With plans still awaiting approval, there have been no permits pulled, let alone permitted work. It remains unclear how much time and thought the city has put into this issue over the past three years. 

That’s unfortunate, because there is much to fix here. Separate and apart from whatever issues there are with individual unpermitted units, there are issues to be addressed with the entire buildings. That’s because, when a building crosses from two units to three or more units, it triggers a far more intense set of safety requirements. Among them is a mandatory second means of exit in the event of an emergency. Neither of these buildings has one, and adding a fire-resistant hallway is not something that’s easy to do after-the-fact. 

“We pay so fucking much rent in San Francisco. It would be nice to know if my building is safe.”

Disturbingly, there is a dearth of recorded inspections on both sites; on neither site are there any recorded inspections regarding the foundation, rebar, or sheet-rock — which is a fire safety element. Finally, at 1025 Hampshire St., there are zero recorded special inspections.*

This is not a trivial matter. Special inspections are the mandatory third-party oversight on structural elements prescribed by an engineer. Hypothetically, an engineer could mandate that 18-inch bolts be placed into a concrete foundation. Contractors describe a situation in which they are watched like a hawk by an engineer performing special inspections who affirms that the bolts going into the concrete are, indeed, 18 inches long.

“An engineer will look at the length of your drill bit. He will watch you drill the holes. He will watch you take a blower and blow the dust out of those holes and watch you squirt the epoxy into the holes and put the 18-inch bolt in and follow you around the entire job while you are doing this,” recalls the contractor. “That is how the special inspection process works.” 

After a bolt is embedded in concrete, nobody can tell if it’s 18 inches or six inches; this is why special inspections exist. And while this bolt example is a hypothetical one, the records, again, do not record any special inspections here. By contrast, the eight special inspections mandated for 1346 Alabama St. were entered into the system in 2001. 

There were five special inspections required at 1025 Hampshire St., including “bolts in concrete,” “rebar,” and “welding.” None is recorded as having taken place.

And that is not reassuring.* 

The record shows a dearth of inspections at 1025 Hampshire St. — and no recorded special inspections.

Far from the city issuing a fatwa on Murphy doing business here, he continues to obtain properties and seek to develop them. And, for what it’s worth, Murphy’s tenants describe him as a satisfactory landlord. But, because this process is dragging on, there are fewer tenants than there might be: At 1346 Alabama, the five mailboxes are marked “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “vacant.” Neighbors of 1025 Hampshire say there’s a vacant unit there, too, but that it’s inhabited periodically by short-term rental tenants. 

Well, this would seem to be the worst of all worlds. The unpermitted units haven’t yet been brought up to code, San Francisco residents aren’t able to live in them, the city doesn’t appear to have done much in three years to address building-wide, ongoing safety concerns and at least one unit appears to be an Airbnb. 

After Mission Local’s inquiries, the Department of Building Inspection stated on Nov. 5 that it would open complaints on both properties and be “reaching out to the owner to conduct site inspections.” 

Well, better late than never. 

Thanks to an aggressive and competent prosecution, when kicked, this rogue builder said: ‘It’s a fair cop, I done it all.” 

But, for three years, the city appears to have done damn little to write the punchline. What a joke. 

Update, 1:20 p.m.: Following publication of this article, the Department of Building Inspection provided records that are not available on the public computer system we relied upon.

They indicate “OK to pour” inspections were performed on both sites, which a DBI spokesman says is indicative that rebar and other structural elements were checked. There are still no sheet rock inspections recorded on-site.

On the form available to the public, no “OK to pour” or special inspections are recorded at 1025 Hampshire. DBI provided a form indicating the inspections were undertaken — but evidently never entered into the system.

The special inspections were signed off by engineer of record Jimmy Jen on Dec. 18, 2000.

Jen was subsequently found guilty of violating a bevy of laws while expanding a residence; he was eventually fined $1.2 million by the city of San Francisco. The city collected $486,000 via a bankruptcy settlement.

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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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17 Comments

    1. His building on 26th street used to be a sweet single family house. Apparently thugs ‘vandalized’ it by cutting out the foundation posts. Really? What thugs would work that hard. It was deemed inhabital, torn down and that horrible building was built. His Twin Peaks building mysteriously ‘slipped down the hill’ during a ‘renovation’. So shady.

  1. Supervisors with the power to move charter amendments seem paralyzed at the thought of advancing structural changes to root out corruption by their real estate bases in the pig sty, Randy Shaw, John Elberling on the proglodyte nonprofiteer side, and the SPUR profiteer crowd on the neoliberal conservative city famiglia Dem side.

    This is why Herrera got promoted, they thought he knew full well how to bury they bodies so they stay buried. And they did for a time.

    Only now, an investigative journalist did some digging, while Heather Knight busied her Nevius-Garcia-Saudners-Matier-Ross self hyping YIMBY propaganda against Preston as a dutiful servant of the famiglia.

      1. Joe is an investigative reporter, Heather is a hatchet person gossip columnist for the corrupt. Everyone who “just wanted housing” was fine to roll with corruption well after the indictments, preferring to shift the focus to the bright shiny objects of progressive foibles.

        Sure, department heads are dropping like flies. But did you see Peskin’s alcohol problem? And how does Preston’s housing votes stand up to YIMBY fantasy ideals? That’s the treacle Heather Knight, currently working the Karen gossip scold beat, is paid to sling.

  2. What NERVE SF has to even UTTER SUCH A HYPOCRITICAL STATEMENT! SF CITY GOV HAS BEEN AND IS CORRUPT AS EVER!

  3. Absolutely love this corruption crusade that you’re on Joe, thank you! Frustratingly pathetic responses from Planning and DBI. I noticed Murphy bought an apartment building at 1756 Broadway in July and just renovated it. Curious if he’s finally doing it by the book or not.

  4. O’Riordan is clearly an inappropriate person to lead DBI, and he has been doing so for quite some time. On top of your reporting, he has done almost nothing to expedite or make transparent the permit process, and seems to have sabotaged at any technological solutions. My question is why has Mayor Breed not done something about this? I love her to death, but someone or some group has a lock on DBI that even the Mayor cannot breach? I am hoping your incredible reporting can get to what I believe is the root cause of DBI corruption or disfunction. Thanks for all that you have done!

    1. “why has Mayor Breed not done something about this?” – it stands to reason that O’R let it shine through how he has dirt on Breed and/or City Family that the feds haven’t come across (yet), so they’re all sitting and quetsching.

  5. Actually, there is a way to know what length foundation bolt is inserted and how far down it is. There is a number stamped on the end of the bolt, which is the length in inches. How deep it is in is found by subtracting the distance from the top of the bolt to the foundation from the number stamped on the bolt.

  6. London Breed voted to appoint Murphy to the Ports Commission.

    I told her that her appointment depressed me, and, before childishly blocking me (probably because she can not stand to have her blatant corruption outed) told me to “get a life.”

  7. The city lets homeless people build on sidewalks. It priced out the middle class, panders to psychotic junkies. But cry more about people who actually pay taxes and provide actual shelter for people.

  8. I absolutely love the 1:20PM update Joe. I can just picture it being done as a stand up joke with a pregnant pause before announcing Jimmy Jen was the engineer of record, followed by a cymbal clash.

    Unfortunately, it’s DBI and, well, the entire City government that’s the joke. The corruption runs incredibly deep here.

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