Upon being named Department of Building Inspection employee of the quarter in April 2016, senior inspector Bernie Curran, on the far right, said "It is a pleasure and privilege to serve the people of San Francisco on a daily basis."

Living the dream, my friends! Living the dream! Another day in paradise!

That was Bernie Curran’s boisterous greeting to his colleagues when he walked into the Department of Building Inspection — every day, for years and years. 

And it hardly seems he was being facetious. Curran, who picked up the nickname “Crazy Bernie” as the hard-partying surfer dude king of the beach, transferred that persona into his day job as a building inspector and, subsequently, a senior building inspector. He worked at DBI from 2005 until his abrupt departure in 2021, when he was frog-marched out of the building after the City Attorney discovered Curran had taken a six-figure “loan” from a developer whose work he’d overseen. He has since pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges.   

In his 16 years at DBI, Curran was a larger-than-life character, corrupt as all hell and protected on all sides. He was having fun. He was living the dream, and that’s why San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection is facing down a nightmare.

At long last, Curran’s work is, ostensibly, being double-checked. His former department and colleagues, who abided and even permitted his behavior,  are tasked with looking into the sites where he and corrupt engineer and fellow confessed federal criminal Rodrigo Santos both put in an appearance, as well as all the sites where either of them were attached.

And this is the nightmare — or it would be, if this endeavor was being done diligently and thoroughly. That remains a big “if.” DBI initially took this assignment so lightly that it put an inspector in charge of it who’d actually had work done on his home by Santos, then jettisoned him when Mission Local began asking questions. 

DBI reports that, thus far, 888 properties have been provisionally cleared, and 202 have been “flagged for further review or follow-up,” leaving some 4,000 properties on the to-do list. 

It’s this sheer volume that’s most daunting: Curran was living the dream for a long time. And the sorts of things he did can be difficult to detect. That figures to be especially so for current building inspectors, who may not be inclined to uncover material that puts the people still managing this department — who, again, abided and permitted Curran’s behavior — in a bad light. 

But, at this point, perhaps it’s best to take a quick jaunt to the Outer Richmond. 

In the April, 2011, Google Street View image on the left, there are two front doors at 227 Seventh Ave. By the November, 2013, photo on the right, there was only one door.

In the early part of last week, it was still there if you looked for it: A sales listing for 227 Seventh Ave. Five bedrooms, four baths, 3,242 square feet and an asking price of $3.4 million. If you’re thinking that sounds like the price of two houses, well, welcome to San Francisco. But it appears you’re more right than you’d know. 

By mid-week, the listing had been pulled. When asked why, the agent attached to the property said “it’s just timing.” The seller’s “son is not feeling well, the grandparents are coming, she had to keep the house in immaculate condition because of the showings. It was becoming too much. Let’s just cool it.” 

When your humble narrator asked if it had anything to do with a recent complaint filed against this property that a “duplex was illegally combined into a single family home,” he told us: Certainly not. When we asked if it was a single-family home or a multiple-family home, he answered “I gotta go; I’m kinda in the middle of something,” and hung up. 

Well, fair enough. On the recently pulled listing, the home is indeed classified as “single family.” But on prior listings it’s a multiple-family unit, with separate addresses: 227 and 229. And this is how it’s categorized on building department permits as recent as 2022: “2 family dwelling.” 

There are no conditional use permits of the sort you’d need to legally merge — and eliminate — units to be found in this building’s online file. The folks at the Planning Department couldn’t find any, either. 

But between 2011 and 2012, the permit trail shows a fairly extensive “remodel” in the upstairs unit, which included partitioning, a new bathroom and revamping a bathroom and kitchen. It seems that was a rather extensive job: Through the miracle of Google Street View, you can see that this building went from having two front doors in 2011 to only one in 2013. And you’ll never guess what inspector signed off on four inspections here during that period, including the final approval. 

Living the dream, my friends! Living the dream! Another day in paradise!

The ‘temporary’ scaffolding has been in place here at 2867 San Bruno Ave. for some four years now. This block-long building, with some 19 illegal units within, received almost no inspections , other than final sign-off from, you guessed it, Bernie Curran. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

It’s stuff like this that makes the task of uncovering all the things Curran did so daunting — let alone correcting them.

The present audit is focusing on properties where Curran “conducted a same-day inspection.” That’s understandable: This would be a circumstance when, contravening the rules, someone called up Curran directly to head in and sign off on something. This is every bit as problematic as you’d think it is; it’s a huge red flag for transactional corruption, and could go a long way toward explaining colleagues’ recollections of Curran generously re-gifting gift cards he’d received “on the job” and explaining, these are from so-and-so! 

But inspections like those on Seventh Avenue weren’t same-day. They appear to have been scheduled properly. DBI told us that it hasn’t yet gotten to checking on 227 Seventh Ave. But, absent that complaint from a random member of the public, it’s unclear if anything would’ve stuck out here — especially, again, if the department is disincentivized to dig deep and find evidence of its own employees’ wrongdoing, done under the watch of its present management. 

Veteran inspectors told us they had little confidence in DBI to conduct an investigation of DBI. If you want to truly uncover what Curran did or did not do on the job, you’ll simply have to re-inspect everything — period: “It’s like throwing out the cases from a police officer who sent racist texts,” sums up a frustrated longtime colleague of Curran.

Or, think of it as akin to a product recall: Everything Curran touched is suspect. “They need to reinspect his work. At no charge to these people. That needs to happen.” 

But ay, there’s the rub: What if these property owners don’t want to reveal what Curran did in their buildings, because they already know damn well what he was up to, and were even complicit? That would be a mess: Building inspectors are not cops serving a warrant; they can only enter property with the permission of the property owner. To enter over the protestations of a building owner would require action from judges and police. 

So, that’s a mess. And it would be a mess even if Curran’s colleagues didn’t overhear him through the years boasting about doing 24 inspections in a day — twenty-four — and laughing that he didn’t even have to go out in the field to do them; he could just punch them into the computer. 

Inspectors’ city cars are equipped with GPS devices; it figures the department might want to check where Curran actually was during his ostensible time in the field. 

But no one ever thought to do stuff like that, or even do much in the way of complaining: “He was an MMA fighter guy. A badass. A true enforcer,” recalls a colleague. “You didn’t fuck with Bernie, I’ll tell ya that.” 

And nobody did, for a very long time. His sentencing on federal bribery charges is now slated for next month. But, even after Curran goes away, the legacy of Crazy Bernie will live on, in untold numbers of dubiously built structures, large and small, throughout the city. 

Living the dream, my friends! Living the dream! Another day in paradise!

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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. “He was an MMA fighter guy. A badass. A true enforcer,” recalls a colleague. “You didn’t fuck with Bernie, I’ll tell ya that.”
    Well, I fucked with him, I suffered retaliation – cost me thousands and kept me out of my house 3 additional months BUT schadenfreude has never felt so good.

  2. Living the dream, my friends! Living the dream! Another day in paradise! This phrase predates Bernie Curran by 10 years at DBI!!! Also, little attention is given to the fact that Rodrigo Santos was on the DBI Commission. Was he appointed by the Mayor (Gavin or Willie)? 98% of the DBI folks are hard working individuals. The Unions protect the other 2%!!!

    1. Angelo — 

      If you kindly type “Rodrigo Santos” into our search bar you can find the roughly 372 stories we’ve written about him. If Mr. Curran borrowed someone else’s catchphrase without asking, you can add that to the bevy of charges leveled against him.

      The rest of your comment has a real “Other than *that* Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the night at the theater?” feel to it.

      Best,

      JE

      1. And responses like this is why I just contributed more to Mission Local. Xo

  3. What is the solution for 227 Seventh Ave?
    Do what Ali and Chris Collins did when they were caught; put a tiny, dark (but legal) unit in the basement and, voila, restored to ia two-unit building!

  4. Thanks for this article, Joe. Another day in paradise, indeed.

    I wonder if Bernie Curran also approved former SFUSD BOE member Allison Collins’s home, when her family also made two flats into a single family home.

    Some of us, who truly love San Francisco, who aren’t flaunting privilege and actively contributing to the growing chasm between the wealthy and not, who genuinely participate in civic life, who deign to live and spend time in the southern communities of this city, just want to be able to trust our elected officials and their appointees.

    Keep on keeping on, and thanks again.