Drywall and plywood partitions separated sleeping areas. Pipes that ran across the ceiling leaked. Rats, mice, and cockroaches skittered across the floor. The windowless basement had no running water or heat, and exposed wiring snaked across the walls. For the past decade, 20 people — ranging in age from 12 to 72 — lived in these squalid conditions, right under the nose of people waiting for their spin cycles to wrap up at the Clean Wash Center laundromat at 4680 Mission St and 5 Persia St. One tenant was receiving dialysis, while another was a cancer survivor. All were low-income, unable to afford apartments elsewhere during the city’s inaccessible housing boom.
The fire department discovered the space on Christmas Day 2016, fresh on the heels of the tragic Ghost Ship fire, in which 36 people died at an Oakland warehouse illegally converted to a residence and event space. Firefighters alerted building inspectors, who subsequently found code violations on every floor. Boilers operated without permits, which could have caused an explosion. The top floor was used as a church, without any permits for group assemblies. Exits and hallways were blocked. The landlord was asked to correct these violations, but after weeks passed with no changes, the tenants were evacuated. Each received $4,262 in relocation funds, and the city hustled to find them homes.
But the story doesn’t end there. This week, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit against the building owner, Melissa Mendoza, and her limited liability company, Lexamark Building, LLC. The lawsuit also names Ernesto Paredes of Daly City, the master tenant, who was responsible for collecting $300 to $900 per month (in cash) from the basement’s other residents.
In a press release sent out Tuesday, Herrera didn’t mince words.
“This building was a firetrap. The living conditions were not only appalling and illegal, they were extremely dangerous,” he says. “These people were basically stuck in a dungeon. I don’t want to think about what would have happened if there had been a fire down there. … My office is continuing to do everything we can to protect tenants and ensure they aren’t being put in harm’s way by unscrupulous landlords looking to make a quick buck.”
In the suit, Herrera seeks a court order that would prevent the use of the basement and top floor of the building until it’s brought up to code. In addition, he’s asked for restitution for the tenants, plus financial penalties — such as $1,000 for each day that the building is in violation of the fire code.
Supervisor Asha Safai, whose district contains the squalid basement, supports the suit.
“Witnessing the squalor and horrifying conditions that the residents of 5 Persia had endured for years was appalling and heartbreaking because the residents, mainly vulnerable immigrants, already represented some of our most dispossessed San Franciscans,” he says. “Let this be a warning to all slum landlords and their enablers: Either follow the law, or be ready to face severe consequences.”