Herrera Wins Half-Million Dollar Ruling Against Lawless Landlord for ‘Subterranean Shantytown’

Superior Court’s sternly-worded rebuke “an important win for tenant protections,’ City Attorney says

City Attorney Dennis Herrera today announced a half-million dollar ruling in the City’s lawsuit against Sheila H. Chooey Tsang, a San Francisco landlord whose 41-unit property at 660 Bush Street has been cited repeatedly for violations of Building and Housing Codes. At issue in the San Francisco Superior Court bench trial before Judge Ollie Marie-Victoire were as many as eight illegal apartment units Tsang had constructed in the building’s basement — a cramped, lightless squalor memorably described by deputy city attorneys in the case as a “subterranean shantytown.” In addition to the $500,000 civil penalty awarded by the court, the City is entitled to recover its attorneys’ fees and costs in prosecuting the action. The court has also enjoined Tsang from maintaining the property as a public nuisance in the future.

“In the midst of a housing crisis, rising joblessness and recession, this kind of tenant exploitation is particularly reprehensible,” said Herrera. “As much for the large monetary award it represents to the City, this decision is remarkable for being one of the most sternly-worded rebukes in a code-enforcement case in recent memory. I think this should send a clear message — from the city attorneys fighting these cases as well as from the courts hearing them — that it doesn’t pay to be a slumlord in San Francisco.”

Marie-Victoire’s ruling — which is a tentative judgment insofar as both parties have the opportunity to make recommendations on details of the court’s final decision and decree — castigated Tsang sharply on a variety of fronts.

  • The court labeled Tsang “guilty of numerous state and city code violations,” adding that “by renting the dangerous, hazardous, unsanitary apartments she maintained a public nuisance.”
  • Marie-Victoire’s ruling also found that Tsang “collected substantial profits from the illegal units,” which “may not have even been reported on her income tax returns.”
  • Also cited in Marie-Victoire’s ruling was Tsang’s “persistent disregard of notices, her failure to complete applications, her failure to pick up permits and her other delaying maneuvers.”
  • Describing Tsang’s testimony as “frustrating, vague and evasive” — and ultimately “not credible” — the ruling recounted a cross-examination during which Tsang “said she did not know how the units got there.”

Hinting at an unprompted personal visit Marie-Victoire paid to the 660 Bush Street property prior to issuing her ruling (a judicial practice known by the legal term “sua sponte,” Latin for “of one’s own accord”), the judge’s ruling offered a notable observation on the single legal rental unit located in the building’s basement when she said, “Though it is not necessary for this decision, the court wishes to comment that a rental of $820 a month for the so-called legal apartment is nothing short of outrageous.”

“This is an important win for tenant protections and a promising demonstration of what we hope to continue at the City Attorney’s Office with our renewed focus on code enforcement,” Herrera said. “I’m especially appreciative of the talented deputy city attorneys of our Code Enforcement Unit: Niall Vignoles and Neli Palma in particular, as well as team leaders, Rose-Ellen Heinz and Margarita Gutierrez. Their hard work and dedication are making a real difference in the quality of life of low-income San Franciscans.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in San Francisco County Superior Court, refers to City and County of San Francisco; People of the State of California, by Dennis J. Herrera, City Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco vs. Sheila H. Chooey Tsang, Number CGC-01-401-856. The tentative decision was filed on December 23, 2002 and served by U.S. mail to the parties in the case.