Randy Shaw's Power Plays

Sixteen years ago, Randy Shaw started a housing clinic with $50 and a good idea: educating tenants. Now he's got more than $900,000 a year to spend -- and clout to match.

In 1979, San Francisco first looked around and noticed that residential hotel rooms were disappearing. Some 6,000 rooms had been taken off the market or demolished by landlords who saw better business opportunities than renting to the down and out. Concerned that this housing resource for low-income people was disappearing, the city passed an ordinance that barred hotel owners from converting residential rooms to tourist use. The new law slowed the shrinkage of the housing stock, but not hugely so: Over the next eight years, another 8,161 residential hotel rooms disappeared. In 1994, there were 13,951 occupied residential hotel rooms, 1,777 occupied tourist rooms in residential hotels, and 5,072 vacant rooms in San Francisco, according to housing inspector Rosemary Bosque.

In 1990, the Hotel Conversion Ordinance (HCO) was substantially amended. The new version of the law added something: It allowed nonprofits that have "the preservation or improvement of housing as a stated purpose in its articles of incorporation" to become parties to the action. This meant that people who didn't live in hotels but who wanted to sue hotel owners for violating the conversion ordinance could haul the landlords into court. The Tenderloin Housing Clinic was eligible to sue under the new ordinance. The THC also wrote the new law.

"They were working on the political side of things to get it written and adopted," says Department of Building Inspection Public Information Officer Peter Burns. "I know they were involved in it."

Or, as hotel lawyer Zacks puts it: "It was created by Randy for Randy."
"Oh sure, absolutely," Shaw says, when asked if the THC helped revise the HCO ordinance. The changes, he says, "preserved the central thrust but increased enforceability because never until then did nonprofits have the right to initiate civil litigation."

Shaw says the HCO is an essential piece of legislation. Look around, he argues -- San Francisco's residential hotel stock is the most plentiful in the nation, thanks to his enforcement of the conversion law.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think any city has been as successful as we have in preserving our residential hotels," he says. "I don't think any city has been as successful as we have because we have this ordinance and because we've spent 15 years enforcing it."

But Zacks sees things differently. The HCO, as written, is a boon for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, he says. Zacks says it allows Shaw to bring suit almost whenever he pleases, and to settle for as much money as he wants to, regardless of whether the hotel owners in question are operating in bad faith or not.

"We settle with him, and he comes back six months, a year later and sues again," Zacks says.

Since 1990, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic has been a plaintiff in over 20 lawsuits brought against hotel owners for violating the statute. A review of the court documents shows that some of the cases have been brought against the same group of hotel owners, which Shaw attributes to continued law violations and Zacks chalks up to THC harassment.

And going up against the Tenderloin Housing Clinic is difficult, Zacks says, since its lawyers are publicly funded and private law firms are not, despite what Zacks sees as similarities in the way they conduct business.

"We believe he's not really a nonprofit," Zacks says.
"Without the hotel ordinance, without zoning laws, we'd be in the same situation as New York City," Shaw responds, "where you have massive numbers of homeless adults who simply have no place to live."

Of course, what the Hotel Conversion Ordinance bans is illegal conversion of hotel rooms to tourist use from residential use. Legal conversion of the rooms is possible, and in fact, Giampaolo Boschetti, who owns 126 Hyde St., where the Tenderloin Housing Clinic's offices are, and with whom the THC entered into an option to buy the building, owns and runs a tourist hotel, the Hotel Verona, in the heart of the Tenderloin. The hotel was once a home for homeless and mentally ill adults, according to documents on file at the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Department of Building Inspection.

The Hotel Verona is right around the corner from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. When Boschetti bought it in mid-1986, he renamed it and opened its doors to tourists. Under previous owners, the hotel was called the Hotel Burbank, and a newspaper article contained in the hotel's file at the Department of Building Inspection says this: "Resident/patients of the Hotel Burbank, a mental health facility for San Francisco's homeless and disabled, are up in arms about their treatment." A 1985 inspection report notes the newspaper story and says its complaints are groundless as to the building conditions, but does not dispute the characterization of the Hotel Burbank as a facility for the homeless.

But even if it was housing the homeless as "resident/patients," the Burbank was never officially designated as a residential hotel. According to city files, when the time came for hotel rooms to be labeled residential or tourist, the Burbank was designated a residential hotel, but it successfully appealed that decision in an administrative hearing and won tourist hotel status in 1982. This, despite the fact that the Burbank listed three apartments in addition to 62 guest rooms on city registers for years. When Boschetti bought it, he was able to open it as a tourist operation, even if the year before it was housing the homeless.

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4 comments
ScottLucas86
ScottLucas86

@SFCitizen Three stories in five months, one of which was a double quote. Plus one linkbait. Not seeing why you needed to pull us in.

SFCitizen
SFCitizen

@ScottLucas86 He runs the largest corrupt non-profit in the 415- that's not a story in itself? Your quote factory functions as part of SFGov

ScottLucas86
ScottLucas86

@SFCitizen I like your work. I'd tell if I thought you were right. But I think you and I disagree on whether quoting = supporting.

 
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