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.”
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.
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.*
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.