Family business

The taxpayers bailed out Frank Lembi's S&L, but he emerged to build a huge real estate empire

Frank Edward Lembi has spent nearly six decades turning San Francisco's hot housing market into his version of the American dream, in the process creating nightmares for many struggling renters.

The aging patriarch still resides at the top of the Lembi family's colossal accumulation of capital, Skyline Realty, also known widely as CitiApartments, the second-largest owner of rental units in San Francisco, as the company describes itself.

Skyline owns somewhere between 130 and 150 apartment buildings, hotels, and commercial properties throughout the city. Over the past few years, the company has spent tens of millions of dollars buying new properties everywhere from the Tenderloin to Russian Hill, quietly making the already controversial Skyline an even more ubiquitous force in San Francisco's housing market.

As the Guardian has reported over the past few weeks, some Skyline tenants claim the company has developed an aggressive business strategy intended to empty newly purchased buildings of unprofitable tenants with rent control by either offering onetime buyout deals or simply frightening and coercing them until they leave.

Records from the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection also show violations of the city's building and housing codes leading to complaints from tenants of roach and bedbug infestations and inoperable heating systems and elevators at some of the company's properties. Such allegations have resulted in two lawsuits filed by the city and several more by tenants. Skyline also filed more eviction attempts in San Francisco Superior Court last year than any other single year during the past decade, according to a review of court records. Those cases have climbed fastest over the past four years and don't reflect the true volume of notices to vacate that appear on tenants' doors and are resolved before the matter appears in court.

From additional interviews and a review of publicly available records, corporate filings, and old press accounts emerges the portrait of a man, Frank Lembi, who has survived some of the darkest periods of the past few decades of American capitalism and retained his position as one of the city's most powerful real estate moguls.

A San Francisco native, Lembi returned from serving in World War II and founded Skyline in 1947. Today he still lists the same Burlingame home address he had at least a decade ago when his longtime wife, Olga, passed away. The stark white and pea-green split-level is modest considering the wealth he's accrued since Skyline began its ascension.

He and Olga had five children, two of whom would join Frank's list of chief business allies. Yvonne Lembi-Detert is the president and CEO of a Skyline-affiliated company that owns a handful of posh boutique hotels. His son Walter joined the real estate business in 1969.

"I learned nepotism from my father," Frank told California Business in 1987. "He came to this country from Italy and started his children off pretty much the way I've started mine. It's a way of life for us."

Frank and Walter eventually founded Continental Savings of America in 1977, a savings and loan association that propelled the family beyond the simple purchase and resale of small apartment buildings. At its peak, Continental maintained a staff of nearly 200 and more than half a billion dollars in assets. The company was making individual real estate loans of up to a million dollars by 1983.

During the '80s and early '90s, federal deregulation of the S&Ls encouraged a push for much more profitable, yet risky, high-interest loans and resulted in a race to the bottom. It was the era of financial scandal, and paying back federally insured depositors who had invested in failed S&Ls eventually cost taxpayers billions.

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