Lembi's legacy

Labor strife at the Hotel Frank follows its namesake's sullied reputation

Hotel workers and their allies recently picketed the Hotel Frank


Two of the most outrageous and intransigent political narratives in progressive San Francisco converge at the Hotel Frank near Union Square.

The first involves the relatively new namesake of a boutique hotel formerly known as the Maxwell Hotel San Francisco, Frank Lembi, the nonagenarian who was once one of the city's largest and most notorious landlords, running CitiApartments, Skyline Realty, Lembi Group, and other related corporations with his recently deceased son, Walter, and others.

Since the Guardian first reported on allegations of illegal and unethical tactics intended to force protected renters from their homes in an award-winning three-part series ("The Scumlords," March 2006), Lembi's empire was sued by the City Attorney's Office and its former tenants ("SF vs. Frank Lembi," 10/6/09), followed by a financial crash that involved banks foreclosing on dozens of the group's properties ("Triumph of tenacity," 6/1/10).

That downfall has now dovetailed into a second prominent San Francisco story: the ongoing contractual impasse and labor unrest between the city's corporate-owned hotels and workers represented by Unite-Here Local 2, whose list of boycotted local hotels grew to 10 with the addition of the Hotel Frank earlier this month.

After the Hotel Frank and Hotel Metropolis were foreclosed on by Wells Fargo Bank earlier this year, longtime union workers at the two hotels say their rights have been violated, their benefits slashed, and their workloads increased unilaterally by the bank's management company, Provenance Hotels, whose representatives refused to comment for this story.

"These are troubling signs of the kind of relations they want to have with Local 2," Anand Singh, a lead organizer with the union, told the Guardian.

Together, the stories that converge at the Hotel Frank are about the plight of renters and workers in San Francisco, and whether they can maintain their economic standing against attacks from powerful corporate interests.

Corporations run by members of the Lembi family once controlled more apartments in San Francisco than any other landlord, growing rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s using highly leveraged real estate purchases and renting units under CitiApartments and other names.

Tenants in rent-controlled apartments are protected under various San Francisco laws, but as the Guardian has reported and the city's ongoing lawsuit against the Lembi empire alleges, the group's business model was based on trying to force, intimidate, and cajole tenants into vacating those units in order to increase rents. Those complaints were also the subject of well-attended City Hall hearings in 2006 and a campaign called CitiStop organized by the San Francisco Tenants Union.

A separate class action lawsuit by former Lembi tenants brought by the San Francisco law firm Seegar Salvas LLP in 2009 alleges that the Lembi corporations also routinely refused to return the security deposits of former tenants. Both lawsuits are ongoing, with plaintiffs' attorneys noting that the courts have fined the Lembi corporations for not cooperating with the discovery process.

Yet while the name Frank Lembi had been tarnished in progressive political circles, it was until only recently celebrated in the business press and by downtown organizations such as the San Francisco Apartment Association, which lauded Lembi as a tough-minded visionary. And it was a name that Frank Lembi's daughter sought to memorialize in 2007 when the company she ran, Personality Hotels, added the York and Maxwell hotels to its string of four boutique hotels near Union Square.