Heroin, ketamine, crystal meth, cocaine, and thousands of dollars in cash. When police raided 517-519 Sanchez St. in 2012, they hit the drug bust equivalent of a jackpot. Now, after years of complaints from neighbors and tenants and several more police raids, the newly marketed “wonderful Victorian home” in an “amazing Dolores Heights location” went into escrow last week. If all goes to plan, the sale carries a $2.6 million price tag. But owner Joel Elliott claims he’ll be lucky to see a single penny when all is said and done.
That’s because two years ago, S.F. City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit against Elliott, accusing him of running a known drug house rife with city and state violations.
“This property has been a neighborhood nuisance for far too long,” reads a November 2015 statement Herrera released that concerns the Victorian duplex. “Not only has the owner failed to comply with numerous orders to fix code violations at the property, he has harbored illegal drug activity there for years. His conduct endangers the health, welfare, and safety of neighbors and drains the city of resources to adequately patrol other parts of the city.”
Elliott is now selling the house in order to pay the city the more than $1.6 million in civil penalties, attorney’s fees, and costs levied against him as a result of the 2015 suit, along with the $900,000 he still owes on his mortgage.
The 2015 lawsuit outlines housing and building code violations dating back to 2010, as well multiple “Orders of Abatement” issued by the Director of the Department of Building Inspection, declaring the property a public nuisance.
But Elliot tells a different story: He claims to have been the victim of abuse by “malicious” tenants who sought to take advantage of him by making erroneous complaints to the Department of Building Inspection.
“What I am guilty of is being the victim of serious and sustained abuse originally initiated by a group of several previous and current tenants who have very effectively converted the vast array of methods and procedures in place to protect tenants from abusive landlords into offensive tools that they have employed against me, their landlord, who was (and still is) in financial distress,” he says.
The violations he’s been charged with amount to thousands of dollars, such as civil penalties of $1,500 per day for each day that housing and building code violations were permitted to persist. What’s more, he says, the city has made it difficult for him to remedy these changes, thereby making it more difficult to solve his financial and legal woes.
The 2015 suit also claims the residence had “become known in the neighborhood as a ‘drug house,’ a place where controlled substances, including methamphetamines and heroin are sold, stored and used.” This is a violation of the California Drug Abatement Act, which seeks to discourage property owners from even passively allowing their homes to be used as places for the storage, manufacture or sale of narcotics.
“Despite multiple orders to fix code violations at his property, Mr. Elliott failed to comply and continued to harbor illegal drug activity,” says Andrea Guzman, deputy press secretary at the City Attorney’s Office. “His conduct was endangering the neighborhood, and his failure to cooperate with the city made it necessary to file a lawsuit to put a stop to his egregious behavior.”
The first drug-related incident that occurred was the aforementioned drug bust in January 2012, when, according to the 2015 complaint made by the City Attorney, police seized a “significant amount” of methamphetamine, cocaine, ketamine, and other drugs along with a scale and a bunch of cash from 517 Sanchez St. Elliott claims a former tenant was responsible.
After the incident, Weiss sent Elliott a letter informing him he was in violation of the Drug Abatement Act. According to Weiss, Elliott gave assurances that no further illegal activity would ensue.
But in January 2015, the San Francisco Police Department executed a search warrant at 519 Sanchez St., Elliott’s primary residence, and arrested eight people — including Elliott. During the raid, SFPD allegedly recovered a treasure trove of narcotics, including more than 160 grams of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and cannabis — along with a loaded gun, a scale, and $1,600 in cash.
At the time, Elliott was charged with a drug-related offense, but according to his attorney, David Wise, that case — along with the seven others — was later dismissed based on the illegality of a search warrant.
Three days before he was issued an injunction via a default judgment last September — which, in this case, occurred because he failed to respond to his summons — Elliott wrote a letter in opposition stating that “it would be a very serious miscarriage of justice to approve a default judgment of more than $1.6 million against a man without allowing him a chance to know what he’s been accused of or to allow him the opportunity to defend himself against those accusations.”
The City Attorney’s Office refutes this statement, saying that he was in fact aware of all violations filed against him.
“These were choices Mr. Elliot made, and now is seeing the very real consequence of his choices. His claims that he was unaware of the accusations and was denied the opportunity to defend himself are simply at odds with the facts,” Guzman says.
Ultimately, S.F. Superior Court issued the default judgment in September 2016 in favor of the city, placing Elliott on the hook for $1,696,272.63.
This amount has been accruing significant interest since last fall. Elliott has since filed an appeal to his Feb. 9 motion to set aside the default judgment, but it remains to be seen what the ruling on that appeal will be.
Despite his claims that he was unfairly prosecuted for both the code violations and the Drug Abatement charges, the City Attorney’s office maintains that Elliott was given ample opportunity to address the issues, but failed to do so.
“Mr. Elliott was given an abundance of opportunities to fix his problems but chose not to. The building and housing code violations began in 2010 and continued through February 2016,” Guzman says. “This included six notices of violation and six orders of abatement. As to the Drug Abatement issues, the first search warrant was January 2012 and the second January 2015. Despite this, our office did not file a lawsuit until November 2015.”
In the meantime, Elliott, at his own direction, has placed his house on the market in order to pay off the city as well as the $900,000 he owes on his mortgage.
It’s currently in escrow, but it’s not not clear what the conditions of the final sale will be — if the new buyer requires the property to be vacant, for example, that might make the deal fall apart. If that becomes the case, the city may request the bankruptcy court to appoint a trustee to take charge of the property.
Either way, folks living on the 500 block of Sanchez can probably rest easy with the assumption that the days of drug busts at this particular residence are, most likely, over.
As for Elliott, he says that his future is unclear. He’ll likely be left with no financial assets, and he has no housing lined up yet. “I’ll end up on the street, getting general assistance and food stamps. … And I’ll sleep in Michael Weiss’ driveway if I can,” he says.