In February 2015, the Board of Supervisors approved a bizarre sale. A privately owned street that runs past multi-million-dollar mansions in the Presidio Terrace neighborhood was sold for $90,000 to a San Jose couple. The Board wasn’t totally at fault here — the transaction was one of the hundreds approved in a single motion — but it led to a chain of events that dominated headlines and snarled City Hall meetings for months until a resolution was finally reached Tuesday night.
Presidio Terrace’s street was put up for auction after county property taxes — totaling $14 each year — went unpaid for decades. The address for such bills was that of a former Presidio Terrace Homeowners Association accountant, so the neighborhood was unaware that the bills were not being paid. The tax collector, upon receiving returned bills from the accountant, failed to follow up with the homeowner’s association.
When it was put up for sale, the street was bought by South Bay real estate investor Michael Cheng and his wife, Tina Lam. The couple has discussed renting parking spots back to the residents who live there, and rumors flew that they were hoping the neighborhood would purchase the street back from them, at a profit.
The whole thing was a comedy of errors, and it resulted in a two-and-a-half hour fiasco in this week’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting when the wealthy residents of the street hired a lawyer to formally appeal that supervisors rescind the sale. They succeeded, with a 7-4 vote.
But the events raised a slew of issues, which Sup. Hillary Ronen articulated well. “This case has viscerally impacted San Franciscans because there’s no discretion in the law when it comes to poor people, there’s no discretion in the law when it comes to people of color,” she said. Ronen pointed out that most car-owning city residents are forced to park their vehicles on public streets, suffering the inevitable parking tickets that come along with it. “Did the treasurer act unreasonably? I don’t think so. Should we give a second bite of the apple to these homeowners when most people never get that? I don’t think so.”
Ronen was one of four supervisors who voted against rescinding the sale. Sup. Norman Yee, Sup. Aaron Peskin, and Sup. Jane Kim also dissented.
The more moderate supervisors who supported giving the land back to the homeowners slammed claims from members of the public that this was a class issue, with Sup. Katy Tang calling that “frankly insulting.”
Sup. Mark Farrell, who ended up siding with the homeowners, called it a “very very unique and bizarre situation.” But he pointed out that there is “plenty of blame to go around,” and highlighted that the system must be fixed to prevent situations like this from happening again. There are 264 private streets in the city, in every single district but the Richmond. “I think it’s wholly unreasonable that a failure to update your address would result in land being sold out from under you,” he said. “Hopefully this is the last time that we’ll hear this at the Board of Supervisors.”
That very fact — that the homeowners dragged this to the Board of Supervisors, who have been bogged down with complicated marijuana legislation for months — is in itself a gross display of privilege. Presidio Terrace’s residents — who in the past have included San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, United States Sen. Dianne Feinstein and novelist and newspaper columnist Merla Zellerbach — could certainly afford to purchase the street back from Cheng and Lam, even at a significant markup. There are 36 homes on the street, nearly all of which sold for upwards of $6 million.
And flashing one’s privilege is not a new move for residents of Presidio Terrace. When it was first constructed after the 1906 earthquake, it was marketed solely for white residents. “There is only one spot in San Francisco where only Caucasians are permitted to buy or lease real estate or where they may reside. That place is Presidio Terrace,” read a 1906 brochure distributed by the developer.
In the end, the millionaires got their street back and Chen and Lam will have their $90,000 returned. But what won’t be rescinded is the more than two hours that we all suffered through yesterday, just so 120 parking spots for millionaires could be preserved for the minuscule city fee of $14 a year.