The Fortress on the Hill

Once, she partied with the Rolling Stones. Now, shunned by family and sued by friends, aging eccentric Arden Van Upp has retreated to her mansion.

"In the basement were torture chambers," he says. "We found some chains down there. It's incredible. These big banner posters of what they were. It was so weird."

Castro and his partner plan to tear down the building and build three condos on the property. Their building plans are already on file with the city.

"It's 15 years of total neglect," he says. "She just let it go."

Wayne Jebian walks into his bedroom and points at what looks like a black metal box with a stovepipe running out of it. The rental listings for his apartment advertised a fireplace. This is it. When Jebian asked PG&E to inspect the "fireplace" he was told it was a gas heater, and it was a complete fire hazard.

"It's basically a TV stand," says Jebian.
Jebian and his fiancee, Deborah Davidson, have lived for a year at 272 Downey. New to the city, the young couple spent months looking for an apartment, a task made doubly hard because they had two dogs. Amazingly, they found a vacancy in the Upper Haight. Everyplace else had a waiting list, but, for some reason, people weren't elbowing each other to rent 272 Downey.

As soon as they moved in, the upstairs neighbors warned them about their landlord. Her name was Dee Rich.

Although the apartment hadn't been cleaned since the previous tenants left, Jebian and Davidson were charged a $300 cleaning deposit. The unit had no heat, the windows leaked, and the electricity went out frequently. If they used an electric baseboard heater, the bills ran up $300 extra per month. The walls and ceiling were peeling plaster and stained with water leaks. The bathroom faucets rattled, and the toilet wouldn't flush unless you held down the handle and counted out 11 seconds.

Jebian and Davidson told their landlord about the problems, but she always seemed to have excuses. They noticed she was kind of odd. When she first met them, she lied and said she was the rental agent, instead of the landlord. She acted distant, she mumbled, she didn't finish her sentences. She didn't get along with women much. She was extraordinarily cheap. She never trimmed any of the vegetation outside the building, except ivy. For some reason, she hated the ivy. She seemed to go through a lot of contractors and tenants. Using her key, she wandered into their apartment while one of them was taking a shower.

Jebian and Davidson spent $2,000 renovating the apartment and making it livable. The windows still leak, and it still has no heat. Because of a clause in the rental contract, they will never be reimbursed.

The couple filed for reduction in their rent with the Rent Board, citing a decrease in services, and their hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4. They have given up on San Francisco, and plan to move back east and get married, but now they don't have rental references or credit. As this article goes to press, Van Upp has served them with an eviction notice.

"We thought that we could live with her," says Jebian. "We would pay her on time, and she would leave us alone. We ended up dealing with Dee."

Dealing with Dee Rich, aka Arden Van Upp, has been a way of life for tenants of 272 Downey for many years.

In 1983 Ann Moore and John Hardesty moved into 272 Downey. In addition to the refuse water pouring onto their window from an upstairs washing machine, and the brown water coming out of their faucets, they noticed problems that would mirror many of Jebian and Davidson's complaints 14 years later: an illegal parking space, no heat, windows that didn't open, intermittent electricity, mice and roaches, and a landlady who entered their apartment without notice or permission.

Actions filed by the city and county against Van Upp didn't seem to help, and neither did the Rent Board, so in 1986 Moore and Hardesty stopped paying rent for eight months, hoping Van Upp would correct the conditions. She responded by serving to evict them, claiming they never provided her with keys to their apartment.

Moore and Hardesty took her to court. She claimed she had never been served, but this time the judge didn't buy it. Moore and Hardesty settled for $60,000 from Van Upp, and the case was dismissed, six years later.

A maintenance man who lived in the building recalls another incident from 1997. Two girls were living in the same apartment, 272 Downey. One day their toilet plugged up, sending raw sewage out into the driveway. Van Upp refused to pay for a Roto-Rooter call.

"There's turds floating in the driveway," the maintenance man told her. She still refused to pay any bills. The tenants ended up footing the bill.

"She's your classic, basic slumlord," says the maintenance man, who begs anonymity. "She likes to think of herself as not normal. It gives her license to be eccentric, to be inconsiderate, uncaring, and complain about how the world is treating her. She thinks she's eccentric, but it's not eccentric. They have some nobility, some flair of some kind. She's at the other end, the butt end."

Although many other court cases remain on file against Van Upp, real estate broker George Rowan, her friend for 30 years, scoffs at the complaints.

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