Neglect and disrepair

Toxic lead, bedbugs, broken elevators ... the complaints against Skyline Realty are piling up

By G.W. Schulz

William Tise has more than one reason to worry about the lead particles floating around his apartment building. His girlfriend, Jeanette Au, is just weeks away from having their child, and they already have a 10-year-old son.

He's been concerned about the air quality in his building since last August, when CitiApartments, part of Skyline Realty, one of the city's biggest landlords, bought 1547 Clay St. and began a construction-heavy makeover.

Early in 2006 the smell of nauseating paint and lacquer fumes, and the dust filling the building, led him to call the city.

Turns out he was right to be alarmed. Investigators from the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) checked out the situation and eventually cited Skyline and its contractors for improperly removing lead paint in February, fining them $3,300. The work site had to be partially shut down until further testing could be conducted, and a health department official warned Tise and his family to get tested themselves immediately. They're anxiously waiting for the results.

"I'm not a really confrontational guy," Tise said recently. "I just have kids, and I want the best for them."

Skyline says the building was in bad shape to begin with, and only six tenants lived in it upon its purchase. But Tise's one-bedroom apartment is rent-controlled at $750, and it's the most the family can afford right now.

And lead is only the beginning. The family goes for weeks at a time without needed maintenance being performed, Tise says. And when things are fixed, he adds, the work is often inadequate. According to Tise, it took 25 days to get a gas leak fixed, and a PG&E worker finally called Skyline from the apartment to explain the urgency of the situation.

A DBI inspector who visited the place in late January also found shellac, varnish, and paint fumes "permeating the hallways" and "not being properly contained," records show. Then there was the hole from the stove's vent in the kitchen wall, which was funneling dust from the construction zone onto their dishes and cookware. Tise says Skyline's contractors stuffed the maw with paper towels and haphazardly spackled over it — confirmed by a photo he showed us. Eventually, contractors got around to fixing it properly.

"We saw them working on all these empty apartments, and we needed things done, but they didn't want to do it," Tise said.

His complaints echo those of tenants at several other Skyline buildings — ranging from chronic bedbugs and roaches to defective elevators to leaky pipes and windows.

Skyline and its many affiliated companies together own around 140 residential properties in San Francisco.

Not all of Skyline's buildings have major habitability issues — the company owns everything from swanky, well-maintained Russian Hill properties to haggard Tenderloin relics. And in many instances, according to DBI records, Skyline has promptly addressed the approximately 500 complaints filed since 1994. But in many others, city inspectors have busted the company for building and housing code violations.

It's not surprising for a landlord with 7,000 units to have some maintenance issues and building complaints. But Skyline is also a company that's expanding fast, spending tens of millions buying new property; it would seem reasonable to question why the outfit can't keep its existing properties in better shape.

Skyline did not respond to a detailed e-mailed list of questions submitted for this story. But company manager David Raynal — who in the past insisted on handling all the questions for this series but has declined to answer any more — previously acknowledged that violations do occur and are a "challenging aspect of being a landlord in San Francisco."

"We often invite the Department of Building Inspection to review newly purchased buildings that we believe contain code violations," he wrote in an e-mail. "We do so because we would rather learn of all the violations and correct them all at the same time we upgrade the building."

Some buildings, nonetheless, seem to reveal almost a pattern of neglect, and according to a review of public records and interviews with several tenants, housing advocates, and lawyers, some of Skyline's buildings have a long history of problems.

The 39-unit Tenderloin building at 516 Ellis St. has been the subject of 19 complaints — everything from bug and rodent infestation to a broken elevator to the lack of hot water — since late 2000. A DBI inspector was told last year by Skyline that the building was sprayed monthly for pests, but complaints persisted, records show. The company's 100 Broderick St. building has been the subject of 14 complaints since 2001, mostly involving the company's failure to obtain proper construction permits, a recurring problem at other Skyline properties as well.

Last September a DBI official documented visible bug bites on the body of a woman who asked not to be identified by name when the Guardian reached her recently. She told DBI that Skyline's own pest-abatement regimen wasn't working — an issue that led, in part, to a lawsuit last spring against the company at another of its properties — so the woman and her partner sprayed the place themselves until they could no longer afford the pesticide. DBI also noted tenants' reports that the hallway carpets were full of fleas.

All the issues at 516 Ellis, including an infestation of bedbugs, were resolved by last November, records show.

In two instances, City Attorney Dennis Herrera has taken Skyline to court. The city sued Skyline subsidiary LEM/RAY Properties in December 2004 for failing to fix fire hazards in the company's 20-unit residential hotel at 81 Ninth St. Skyline failed to address demands for compliance for nearly three years, and the company eventually had to pay $105,000 in penalties.

In August 2002, Skyline's tourist-oriented Hotel Union Square, at 114 Powell St., was sued by the city for failing to address 11 violations of the city's building and fire codes. Twelve reinspections and eight letters from the City Attorney's Office prompted improvements in only a portion of the citations, according to court records. Settlement terms could not be confirmed by city attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey.

In other cases, tenants themselves took on Skyline. Chiyoko Yamamoto and nine other Skyline tenants from 1025 Sutter St. sued the company in 2002 for, among other things, "refusing to make basic requested repairs to [the tenants'] units," even while workers filled the building almost daily after Skyline bought it, conducting a seismic retrofit and "extensive remodeling work," according to court records.

The tenants cited gas leaks and no water and heat for extended periods of time as well as an inoperable elevator and dust in the hallways. According to court records, the tenants alleged that during the construction Skyline representatives "illegally attempted to force [the tenants] to move."

"My clients were wearing surgical masks, but [Skyline wasn't] willing to make even the most basic repairs they were asking for," said Dean Preston, an attorney for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic who represented the group. The tenants were eventually awarded almost $200,000 in damages and legal fees.

As for Tise, he says the ordeal at his building has not made his girlfriend's pregnancy easy. They recently went eight days without a working shower. But, he admits, things weren't always perfect under the last landlord either.

"And I don't see it getting a whole lot better," he said. *