Plumbing

San Francisco’s message to rogue builders: Crime pays

A phone call would have been nice. An email, a postcard, a brochure slipped under the door like a takeaway menu – all of that would have been good. But none of that happened.

Three years after the city and longtime renegade builder settled Mel Murphy for his rampant, unauthorized building violations, tenants in his property say no one turned to them. Nobody has informed them that there are unresolved approval and inspection issues in their buildings – and thus unanswered questions about safety.

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

It would. It would be nice to know what the city considers “safe” and what specific steps the city has taken over the past three years to ensure safety. But my questions to the planning office, the fire brigade and the building inspectorate elicited the following answer: “We are continuing to work closely with the public prosecutor to drive these two locations towards full compliance.”

This is an impressively vague sentence. It is reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch in which a police officer said to a judge, “I saw clearly how the defendant did in the act what he was accused of doing. When he was kicked, he said, ‘It’s a fair cop, I’ve done everything.’ “

It is never good for the government to invade the Pythonese realm. In real life, it’s certainly less fun. And tenants at 1025 Hampshire St. and 1346 Alabama St. are not enjoying it at all.

We wrote a little about the strange and terrible saga of Mel Murphy and its amazing design flaws. He was arrested in 2013 for building a five-story building on 26th Street from foundation to roof without authorization or inspection. The district inspector for the neighborhood claims that he repeatedly informed his chief inspector Patrick O’Riordan about the illegal construction – and had been instructed: “Take no action now”.

O’Riordan is now the interim head of the department. He rejects the allegations made against him with the semantic trick that there was no “written report” in this edition. But that was never the claim, and DBI sources tell us that writing such a complaint would mark a retaliatory inspector. One says, “What sane co-worker would write down the illegal activities that their boss told them to ignore?”

Months after Murphy’s 26th Street building was blown up in January 2013, a house he built on Crown Terrace in December 2013 toppled and tumbled from the Twin Peaks side.

In a nutshell from San Francisco, Murphy served on the Board of Supervisors of the Department of Building Inspection from 2006 to 2012, and was even its former president.

After his house walked down the hill, the city attorney filed a lawsuit and eventually expanded the indictment to include the Mission District projects in the streets of Hampshire and Alabama. At both locations, Murphy submitted plans to build a two-unit building. But in the building on Hampshire Street he added one more unauthorized unit, and on Alabama Street he added two. None of these properties received the required building, plumbing or electrical permits and were not properly inspected.

You can read about the prosecution’s case here. It is a meticulous and damning document. It’s no surprise, then, that Murphy agreed to a deal in 2018. What is a little surprising is the amount of money Murphy had to give up in a case where the city attorney had six options by Sunday: $ 225,000.

Well, that’s a lot of money, especially when put in a wheelbarrow. But not for a long-term networked developer and not for a long-term networked developer who has been collecting rent for the illegal units in question for years. And not for all of the above cases where the prosecutor had the goods.

The City Attorney’s lawsuit states that illegal units were added to Alabama Street by 2005. It’s not certain when the building on Hampshire Street was remodeled – but through the magic of Google Street View, you can clearly see three gas meters there by 2009.

Her humble narrator spoke to tenants in the buildings in Hampshire and Alabama. All of them paid rent, which they categorized as “market price”. If we take the (rather low) guest income of $ 2,000 a month and apply it to the three illegal units and then calculate, say, ten years of rent collection, we get to $ 720,000.

When I asked prosecutors if $ 225,000 was enough to stop rogue builders from just doing what they wanted and then paying the fine as a business expense, they replied, “The prosecution works diligently to keep villains and law breakers accountable to pull. Mr. Murphy was no exception. We are proud of the work our office has done to obtain an injunction against Mr. Murphy and ensure his property is brought up to code. We will continue to work with the city departments on the redevelopment process required by the injunction.

A quicker answer would be “no”.

In July 2009, a Google Street View image showed three gas meters in the allegedly two-part building at 1025 Hampshire St. The city would fail to discover this and would take legal action for another half a decade.

As for the 2018 injunction, you can read it here. Indeed, Murphy requires “diligent” resolution of “committed violations.”

When we got to Murphy, he said his architect had submitted plans to the city to bring the plots into line. This is great: but it’s November 2021 and that case was settled in November 2018.

Say what you want about Murphy, but he’s coped with his misdeeds. At this point, it’s up to the city to move things forward, or rely on Murphy to move things forward. It’s hard to tell that’s happening. You kind of wonder what the hell the city has been doing since that case went off the headlines.

The building inspectorate has not issued any “breach reports” to document the rampant unauthorized construction work documented by the prosecutor. Since the plans are still awaiting approval, no permits have been withdrawn, let alone approved work. It remains unclear how much time and thought the city has put into this topic over the past three years.

That’s a shame because there is a lot to be repaired here. Separately and independently of the problems that exist with individual unauthorized units, there are problems with the entire buildings. Because when a building changes from two units to three or more units, this triggers far stricter security requirements. Underneath is an obligatory second way out in an emergency. Neither of these buildings have one, and adding a fire retardant hallway isn’t easy afterwards.

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

Worryingly, there is a lack of recorded inspections at both sites; At none of the locations are controls with regard to the foundation, the reinforcement or the slab rock, which is a fire protection element, documented. Finally, there are no registered special inspections at 1025 Hampshire St. *

This is not a trivial matter. Special tests are the mandatory external monitoring of components, which is prescribed by an engineer. Hypothetically, an engineer could mandate that 18-inch screws be inserted into a concrete foundation. Contractors describe a situation where they are watched like a hawk by an engineer who performs special inspections to confirm that the bolts going into the concrete are actually 18 inches long.

“An engineer will look at the length of your drill. He will watch you drill the holes. He’ll watch you take a blower and blow the dust out of those holes and watch you inject the epoxy into the holes and insert the 18 ”screw, walking you through the whole job,” recalls the contractor . “This is how the special test procedure works.”

After a bolt is embedded in concrete, no one can tell whether it is 18 inches or 6 inches; For this reason there are special controls. And while this bolt example is hypothetical, the records don’t include any special inspections here either. In contrast, the eight special inspections required for 1346 Alabama St. were added to the system in 2001.

Five special tests were required at 1025 Hampshire St., including “Screwing in Concrete”, “Reinforcing Steel” and “Welding”. None is registered as having taken place.

And that’s not reassuring. *

The records show a lack of inspections at 1025 Hampshire St. – and no special inspections recorded.

Far from the city, which is issuing a fatwa on Murphy doing business here, he continues to acquire land and seek to develop it. And for what it’s worth, Murphy’s tenants describe him as a satisfactory landlord. However, as this process takes a long time, there are fewer tenants than there could be: In 1346 Alabama, the five mailboxes are marked with “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” and “vacant”. Neighbors to 1025 Hampshire say there is an empty apartment there too, but short-term renters regularly move in.

Well that seems like the worst of all worlds. The unapproved units haven’t been coded yet, San Francisco residents can’t live in them, the city doesn’t seem to have done much in three years to address building-wide, ongoing security concerns, and at least one unit appears to be an Airbnb be.

Following inquiries from Mission Local, the Department of Building Inspection stated on November 5 that it would file complaints about both properties and “contact the owner to conduct site inspections.”

Well, better late than never.

Thanks to an aggressive and knowledgeable prosecutor, when this villain was kicked, he said, ‘It’s a fair cop, I’ve done everything.’

But in three years it seems the city hasn’t done a hell of a lot to write the punch line. What a joke.

Update, 1:20 p.m .: As of this writing, the Department of Building Inspection provided records that are not available on the public computer system we have relied on.

They state that “OK to go” inspections were conducted at both sites, which, according to a DBI spokesman, is an indication that rebar and other structural elements have been inspected. No rock slab controls have yet been recorded on site.

There are no “OK for casting” or special inspections listed on the publicly available form in 1025 Hampshire. The DBI has provided a form stating that the inspections were conducted – but apparently never entered into the system.

The special inspections were signed off on December 18, 2000 by engineer Jimmy Jen.

Jen was later found guilty of breaking a variety of laws in extending a residence; He was eventually fined $ 1.2 million by the city of San Francisco. The city raised $ 486,000 through a bankruptcy settlement.

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