Family business

Pub date March 29, 2006
WriterG.W. Schulz

Frank Edward Lembi has spent nearly six decades turning San Francisco’s hot housing market into his version of the American dream, in the process creating nightmares for many struggling renters.

The aging patriarch still resides at the top of the Lembi family’s colossal accumulation of capital, Skyline Realty, also known widely as CitiApartments, the second-largest owner of rental units in San Francisco, as the company describes itself.

Skyline owns somewhere between 130 and 150 apartment buildings, hotels, and commercial properties throughout the city. Over the past few years, the company has spent tens of millions of dollars buying new properties everywhere from the Tenderloin to Russian Hill, quietly making the already controversial Skyline an even more ubiquitous force in San Francisco’s housing market.

As the Guardian has reported over the past few weeks, some Skyline tenants claim the company has developed an aggressive business strategy intended to empty newly purchased buildings of unprofitable tenants with rent control by either offering onetime buyout deals or simply frightening and coercing them until they leave.

Records from the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection also show violations of the city’s building and housing codes leading to complaints from tenants of roach and bedbug infestations and inoperable heating systems and elevators at some of the company’s properties. Such allegations have resulted in two lawsuits filed by the city and several more by tenants. Skyline also filed more eviction attempts in San Francisco Superior Court last year than any other single year during the past decade, according to a review of court records. Those cases have climbed fastest over the past four years and don’t reflect the true volume of notices to vacate that appear on tenants’ doors and are resolved before the matter appears in court.

From additional interviews and a review of publicly available records, corporate filings, and old press accounts emerges the portrait of a man, Frank Lembi, who has survived some of the darkest periods of the past few decades of American capitalism and retained his position as one of the city’s most powerful real estate moguls.

A San Francisco native, Lembi returned from serving in World War II and founded Skyline in 1947. Today he still lists the same Burlingame home address he had at least a decade ago when his longtime wife, Olga, passed away. The stark white and pea-green split-level is modest considering the wealth he’s accrued since Skyline began its ascension.

He and Olga had five children, two of whom would join Frank’s list of chief business allies. Yvonne Lembi-Detert is the president and CEO of a Skyline-affiliated company that owns a handful of posh boutique hotels. His son Walter joined the real estate business in 1969.

"I learned nepotism from my father," Frank told California Business in 1987. "He came to this country from Italy and started his children off pretty much the way I’ve started mine. It’s a way of life for us."

Frank and Walter eventually founded Continental Savings of America in 1977, a savings and loan association that propelled the family beyond the simple purchase and resale of small apartment buildings. At its peak, Continental maintained a staff of nearly 200 and more than half a billion dollars in assets. The company was making individual real estate loans of up to a million dollars by 1983.

During the ’80s and early ’90s, federal deregulation of the S&Ls encouraged a push for much more profitable, yet risky, high-interest loans and resulted in a race to the bottom. It was the era of financial scandal, and paying back federally insured depositors who had invested in failed S&Ls eventually cost taxpayers billions.

Continental began posting major losses in the ’90s as the company’s capital sank, and in 1995 the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) took it over, fearing insolvency. Not long beforehand, just before Continental went public, Frank stepped down as chair, owing to a conflict of interest tied to Skyline’s HomeOwners Finance Center. But Frank and Walter both remained major shareholders in the company.

It was a bad time for lenders, nonetheless, and Frank was apparently not happy. The feds had to file a restraining order against him after he allegedly threatened to plant security guards at Continental’s 250 Montgomery St. doors to "physically prevent" the confiscation of its office furniture, according to court records.

In the end, according to an OTS official we contacted, the cost to taxpayers amounted to about $22 million. But it clearly didn’t send the Lembis to the poorhouse: Since the Continental Savings collapse, Skyline Realty, along with CitiApartments, has grown to become a very lucrative focal point of the family’s enterprises.

Skyline Properties alone generated approximately $36 million in sales during the 2004 fiscal year, according to the Directory of Corporate Affiliations. But the company has founded more than 100 corporations and limited liability companies, each owning individual Skyline properties, and making it difficult to ascertain Skyline’s real annual revenue.

Its business model is not uncommon, but the complex web of affiliates has enabled the company to keep some legal liabilities aimed away from Skyline and Lembi and make sizable political contributions to various candidates and causes — nearly $40,000 since 1999 — all of it in small amounts stemming from several different entities. In one case, Skyline’s affiliates donated $20,000 on a single day to help defeat a 2002 ballot initiative designed to increase utility rates and improve the Hetch Hetchy water system.

The company has declined to answer further questions for this series, but Skyline manager David Raynal stated in response to a list of e-mail questions in early March that the company’s "plan is to restore apartment buildings to the highest standard." He wrote that Skyline supports the creation of special assessment districts that benefit those neighborhoods. "Every year we renovate many apartments, upgrade common areas, and improve neighborhoods."

Since we began publishing stories on Skyline, former employees have contacted us with tales about how the company conducts business. A onetime Skyline employee who requested anonymity said she was well aware of the company’s buyout offers to rent-controlled tenants and added that the company was "pretty heavy-handed." She also said she was encouraged to enter tenants’ units without prior notice.

"We were told we were making the community better, but we knew that was a bunch of bullshit," she said.

She added that Skyline had trouble retaining employees. High turnover rates are hardly uncommon in the real estate industry, but another former employee who also asked that his name not be revealed said Skyline’s group of hotels had similar issues.

"[Frank Lembi] is not the friendliest man in the world," he said. "Salespeople would get frustrated and move on."

Dean Preston, an attorney for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said he’s assisted at least 100 Skyline tenants with legal advice over the last five years.

"I deal with tenants, as well as landlords, all across the city," Preston said. "In my opinion, CitiApartments is the most abusive landlord that I deal with in my practice." *