San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has secured a $2.4 million judgment against a woman who his office called a "notorious" landlord who had illegally forced tenants from their rent-controlled homes so that she could charge more money.
Herrera announced May 3 that he had secured a tentative ruling against Anne Kihagi for her egregious patterns of unlawful business practices that include waging "a war of harassment, intimidation, and retaliation" against her tenants, according to a news release from the city attorney's office. Properties included those in the Castro, Noe Valley, Mission, and North Beach.
According to Herrera's news release, the ruling, which would void the illegal evictions obtained by Kihagi and would also include a $2.4 million judgment, is subject to minor clerical corrections before it becomes permanent.
"She bullied longtime tenants, even elderly and disabled tenants, from their rent-controlled homes in the middle of a housing crisis just to line her pockets," Herrera said in a statement. "She forced one tenant out of his longtime home as he battled terminal cancer. That breathtaking cruelty was matched only by her contempt for the law."
One of those tenants who was illegally evicted by Kihagi was Allison Leshefsky, a lesbian who lost her Castro district apartment. She told the Bay Area Reporter that she was pleased to hear about the ruling obtained by Herrera.
"San Francisco is a city that needs to be safe," Leshefsky, 35, said via phone from her current home in Portland, Oregon, noting that during the presidency of Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled House and Senate, there was a particular need for LGBT sanctuary cities.
"In a normal city you could pack up your things and look for another apartment, but not in San Francisco," she said.
Leshefsky was referring to the current San Francisco housing market, where many units are rented for $3,000-5,000 per month.
Leshefsky lived in her rent-controlled apartment at 19th and Eureka streets for 10 years. She worked as a teacher at Paul Revere Elementary School in the Mission district and noted how difficult it is for the San Francisco Unified School District to fill teaching positions because of the cost of housing.
"The children of San Francisco deserve teachers who are secure in their homes so they can dedicate themselves to teaching," she said.
According to the 154-page ruling by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Angela Bradstreet, Kihagi smiled as she told one tenant, "I am going to be happy when your grandmother is dead." The judge also found that Kihagi often interrupted water, gas, electricity, and mail services in her attempts to force rent-controlled tenants out of her buildings.
Karen Uchiyama, an attorney representing Kihagi, denied that exchange took place and said no tenant testified that Kihagi said that.
Uchiyama said that they are planning to appeal, noting the city initially asked for $11 million to settle the case. Kihagi rejected that, and the case went to trial.
The attorney accused the city of going on a witch-hunt.
"She is not a slumlord," Uchiyama said in a phone call Monday.
Lawyers who represent tenants hailed the tentative judgment.
"This is a great victory for tenants in San Francisco," Steve Collier, a tenant's rights attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic who represented Leshefsky, told the B.A.R.
"This landlord flouted all the rent ordinances in order to drive tenants out. This decision enforces tenant provisions the way they were meant to be applied," he said.
Collier also noted the difficulties lawmakers such as gay former state Senator Mark Leno has faced in amending the Ellis Act, the 1985 state law that allows landlords to evict tenants so they can get out of the rental business. Many housing advocates have stated that in the current market real estate developers have abused that law by buying multiple buildings, then evicting every tenant within days. Advocates claim that such building owners were never in the rental business to begin with.
"There has to be a change in state law," Collier said. "There's now a bill pending in the state Assembly to repeal Costa-Hawkins."
Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) has introduced Assembly Bill 1506 that would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which currently puts limits on the application of local rent control laws with regard to certain properties.
A repeal of Costa-Hawkins would allow cities to once again pass their own rent control laws, which could include preventing the decontrol of rent-controlled units after a tenant voluntarily moves out.
For Leshefsky, the judgment against Kihagi is too late.
"I was an active member of the gay community," she said of her former life in the Castro. "It was a nice place to go home to. It was an exciting time in my life – I immersed myself in gay culture."
Leshefsky hopes that the stand she took against Kihagi will help others in the future.
"I hope that other lives aren't disrupted like mine was," she said. "I hope people can take a breath."