San Francisco’s City Attorney is suing a Bernal Heights property owner for illegally subdividing 13 units to make 32 different dwellings. In doing so, he failed to abate a host of “imminent and substantial” fire hazards so severe that, in one case, tenants were immediately removed from their unit because it would have been impossible to rescue them during a fire.
All the while, James Tseng, the manager of four neighboring four buildings on Alemany Boulevard, was charging tenants rent in 26 units, as of November, 2022, to live in his buildings.
“The landlord has made significant profit from the same tenants he put in harm’s way,” City Attorney David Chiu wrote in a statement. “We are taking action to ensure the safety issues are corrected and the landlord is held accountable.”
The city accused Tseng, his company, 320 Alemany LLC, and other unnamed persons involved in the illegal conversions. The city is pushing for the defendants to remediate all outstanding violations and pay tenants’ relocation fees. In addition, the defendants may be charged some $11.1 million for failing to abate 26 outstanding code violations.
In November, 2022, several city agencies investigated Tseng and found that he was collecting rent while illegally mish-mashing the interiors of his buildings, maximizing every inch of space.
Tseng allegedly crammed multiple bedrooms into a unit by partitioning rooms, converted a laundry room into a full kitchen and added laundry hook-ups into closets, according to the lawsuit.
“Unless these nuisance conditions are abated, the occupants … will suffer irreparable injury and damage,” the city’s lawsuit states.
The illegal construction led to units with a litany of fire hazards that could have resulted in disaster, according to the lawsuit.
In one Notice of Violation, issued in December, 2022, the Department of Building Inspection cited Tseng for converting the dens of five units into bedrooms “without fire escape landings.” Tseng never secured proper permits to abate the issue, and the violation remained outstanding, despite the building inspector’s repeated warnings.
Multiple units lacked fire-safety tools, like a building-wide fire alarm system, up-to-date sprinklers, and fire exits. The suit also described evidence of “unlisted fireplaces.”
In another unit, inspectors concluded that tenants “could not be rescued in the event of a fire” and vacated the unit with a 72-hour emergency order, relocating the tenants.
Tseng has a history of malfeasance, with Notices of Violations dating back to January 2009 — his first alleged illegal conversion, where he “divided each floor of the building from one permitted residential unit to two unpermitted residential units.” While Tseng and his LLC filed for permits in 2022 to rectify the situation, the applications remained pending. The violations cited by the city are still unabated.
In one particularly long-standing violation, Tseng was cited in March, 2009, for failing to have an accessible fire hose connection in the unit, alongside other habitability concerns, like a leaky sink and broken cabinets in another unit. The city issued a serious penalty known as an Order of Abatement on the property in 2013 to pressure remediation but, to date, the Notice of Violation remains, some 10 years later.
Tseng also allegedly approved shoddy electrical and plumbing work in his units, which also suffered from pest infestations, including mold and cockroaches; the roach infestation was never completely abated. The City Attorney alleged that conditions in Tseng’s units not only endanger the health and safety of residents, but “are offensive to the senses.”
The properties targeted in the City Attorney’s suit are at 316-18 Alemany Blvd., 320 Alemany Blvd., 322 Alemany Blvd., and 326-28 Alemany Blvd, all a stone’s throw from the Alemany Farmers Market space.
The buildings are not the first in District 9 in which contractors have illegally added numerous units into buildings to the detriment of tenants’ safety: In 2021, the city investigated a series of connected four-story buildings at 2867 San Bruno Ave. with 19 extra units, leading to the resignation of senior inspector, and since-confessed federal criminal Bernie Curran.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen, for her part, called attention to a pattern of developers unlawfully maximizing space — and profits — at the expense of tenants.
“The violations outlined against the owner in this complaint are alarming and serious,” she said. “We must continue to make it clear as a city that knowingly flouting our building and fire codes is not tolerated as the cost of doing business for developers and will be fined to the maximum extent of the law.”