Fire Destroys Alleged Castro Drug Den

City attorney Dennis Herrera sued landlord Joel Elliott in 2015, in a complaint that cited years of code violations and other issues.

A fire broke out in the Castro at 18th and Sanchez streets Friday morning, drawing 11 fire trucks, two ambulances, and dozens of neighbors to the scene. According to the San Francisco Fire Department, authorities received a 911 call at 10:30 a.m., and firefighters had water on the fire 15 minutes later. The building appears to be gutted on the inside, though its cheerful blue facade remains largely intact.

It’s not just any house, either — 517-519 Sanchez St. is the site of the alleged drug den that City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued in 2015. As we reported at the time, owner Joel Elliott was forced to put the $2.6 million Victorian home with an “amazing Dolores Heights location” on the market to pay more than $1.6 million in legal fees.

Elliott maintained that he was at the mercy of malevolent tenants, although the house has been cited for code violations as far back as 2010. At one point, fees were racking up to the tune of $1,500 per day.

According to an anonymous tip that SF Weekly received in January, Elliott has been renting the home on Airbnb to pay his bills. Whether or not this is true, Friday’s fire has ended any possibility of living in the troubled Victorian for some time.

“I heard a huge bang and I looked out the back window and I saw a solid wall of black smoke,” Pete Woulfe, a 50-year resident of the neighborhood, told SF Weekly. Within “two or three minutes there were huge flames.”

Abraham Navarro, who was working a backyard three houses up the hill from 517-519 Sanchez St., told SF Weekly he smelled the smoke, and immediately alerted neighbors in three homes along the block — at least two of whom had small children. A regular laborer in the neighborhood, he knew that next door to the burning house, on the third floor of a beautiful lilac-colored Victorian, was  85-year-old Bob Schultz, who had difficulty walking. Navarro raced in, and managed to get Schultz out of the house before any injury occurred.

SF Weekly chatted with Schultz as he sat on the steps of a home across the street, watching the firemen carry burned planks of wood out of his apartment’s front door. As a 40-year resident of his home, he’s had a first-hand look at the activity that’s been plaguing his neighbor’s building for the past few years.

“It was crazy for a while,” Shultz said. “Police were here almost daily, pulling people out.” 

Schultz said he’d talked to Elliot, who told him he suspected foul play as the cause of the fire. 

“He’s had a terrible relationship with his tenants,” Schultz said. “At one point he actually locked the bathroom doors so the tenants couldn’t use them, they had to go down to the corner. It’s been a real story.”

Amy DiBenedetto has lived at the corner of Sanchez and Hancock streets for 10 years, three houses up the hill from the house on fire. She fled her home with one small child on each hip, and said she wasn’t surprised things ended this way. 

“The police have come through a number of times and done raids on the house, and found all kinds of things,” she said. “We heard from the former captain of the Mission station at a neighborhood watch meeting that they have a file a mile high of [the house’s] violations.”

The tales told about the three-story home aren’t what you’d expect on a fairly affluent, hilly block sandwiched between the Mission and the Castro districts. But the problems it’s brought have plagued the neighbors of 517-519 Sanchez St. for years. After a lack of responsiveness from both SFPD and the District Attorney’s office, DiBenedetto told SF Weekly they’d hired a special patrol to keep the area safe.

“It makes me concerned for the safety of my children. We see open drug use, and we know they are dealing out of that house regularly,” she said. “I’ve found people sitting outside of my house, using, leaving needles.”

Inside the house, the situation didn’t seem safe for residents, either. “During neighborhood watch meetings, we had a gentleman who lived in the house come to the meeting saying he’s been retaliated against by the owner of the house and fears for his safety,” said DiBenedetto.

As for Elliott, he denied all claims of the house being used for drug distribution. “I’m not sure who started that [rumor],” he told SF Weekly. “That label was attached to this house by the deputy city attorney, Michael Weiss. He’s a liar and corrupt.”

In regards to the house’s past difficulties, Elliott told us he’d “tried to talk to Scott Weiner when I had trouble with my tenants, and I couldn’t even get in to see the motherfucker. I had to stalk him with my bicycle, and he still wouldn’t give me the time of day.”

As of noon, the fire was contained. All windows on the second story were smashed out, and a wet, grimy Gay Pride flag sagged against the side of the building.

No injuries have been reported, and the cause of the fire is still under investigation.


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