Ryan Thomas Riddle

Missed buses



Buses seemed more crowded than usual the weekend of Dec. 5-6 as the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency implemented what it called "the most significant change in more than 30 years," which altered more than half of Muni routes and upset some frequent riders.

The changes were made to save money, although some routes were beefed up in the process. For example, the 26 Valencia was eliminated because of low ridership, but the 14 lines along nearby Mission Street were expanded with longer operating hours and more stops to compensate for discontinued routes. The 9X, 9AX, and 9BX Bayshore Express lines that go through Chinatown have been reorganized and renumbered 8X, 8AX, and 8BX.

"We have a lot of duplicate service either one or two blocks away from another service," SFMTA Executive Director Nathaniel P. Ford said about the reductions and reorganization at a Dec. 2 press conference.

The new route changes are part of a comprehensive plan to deal with dwindling resources and close a $129 million budget deficit. But it will take time for the changes to yield cost savings. "The actual service we are putting on the street — bus-by-bus, dollar-by-dollar — it’s almost a net zero gain in terms of savings," Ford said.

He said the real savings come from the changes made in the bus operator schedule. The projected annual savings from the operator schedule is calculated to be $3.2 million annually. The key element of the route changes is efficiency. "In this particular case, we have been able to enhance the system and maximize our resources overall," Ford said.

But many riders aren’t happy with the changes, and the transit agency still faces an additional $45 million deficit for this fiscal year, partly because it has yet to move forward with plans to extend parking meter hours (see "We want free parking!" Oct. 28) or pursue other revenue generators.

Upset riders

SFMTA says it deployed about 150 agency employees throughout the city as ambassadors to help riders make sense the route changes. No ambassadors were seen over the weekend when the Guardian went out to check out the changes in Chinatown and the Mission District, although notification signs in English, Spanish, and Chinese were posted.

"We do not want customers waiting for buses, for example, that are not coming," said Julie Kirschbaum, project manager of the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP), the study on which the route changes were based. "And so we are working very hard to interact with customers."

Not hard enough for those in the Chinese-American community, according to a Nov. 19 Streetsblog San Francisco article. Community advocates report the agency didn’t thoroughly inform Chinatown and Visitacion Valley residents about renumbering the Bayshore Express.

When the Guardian asked Ford about this lack of communication, he said that his agency has tried to work closely with the Chinese-American community and other non-English speaking communities. "I think there’s an opportunity for us to continue the dialogue in terms of our communication and outreach," Ford said. He also expects to receive some "positive and not-so positive" comments in the coming weeks.

Some working-class riders are naturally upset over the discontinued routes, particularly the 26 Valencia. Apartment maintenance worker Norm Cunningham said he "wished they hadn’t" discontinued the 26, because it was less crowded than the 14 Mission, which will bear the brunt of diverted passengers. "Now I have no choice but to take the 14," Cunningham told us.

Fast-food worker Damon Johnson said he has already noticed a change in what he called "one of the more reliable" transit systems, including unnecessary delays. "It’s starting to become unreliable," Johnson said. "Now it’s just like the rest of them." Rider Christina Lowery said Muni is still reliable, but she is bummed out by the fare increases, which this year climbed to $2 a ride. Cunningham fears that eventually the price will go up even more. In fact, monthly passes have spiked to $55, and an additional $5 increase is expected next month.

Ford is aware of the financial burden on passengers and said no further increases are currently being considered to solve the budget crisis. Mayor Gavin Newsom also addressed the issue Dec. 3, telling the Guardian: "I don’t want to see an increase in Muni fares."

Ongoing problem

At the moment, Ford said, SFMTA is "100 percent focused" on the route changes, although the budget crisis is always lurking in the background. "We are working with the MTA board as it relates to potential solutions to that $129 million dollar deficit."

As to the stalled proposal to extend parking meter hours that could bring in more revenue, the discussion is ongoing, Ford said. "We have committed to do some meetings with the business communities, and we will bring all of that back to the MTA board at some juncture in terms of making some decisions to close that budget gap."

But future service cuts and additional route changes are possible as a way of dealing with the "physics of our finances," as Ford put it. "Our budget continues to be a challenge but I think this is a great first step in increasing our ridership for the system by providing better service on those corridors that seem to need more capacity, more frequency."

The silver lining for Ford is that this rollout has forced his agency to take a hard look at streamlining Muni. SFMTA officials expect to make further changes and tweaks to Muni over the next six months. For now, you can visit www.sfmta.com or call 311 to see how your commute is affected.

The 448’s war



The Green Room of the San Francisco Veterans Building has been taken over for the night by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a charity organization that mashes Catholic imagery and drag, perhaps San Francisco’s most iconic gay group. But among the drag queens and leather daddies are military veterans in garrison caps and vests decorated with medals.

This is the Sister’s bingo night, an event to raise money for the various nonprofit organizations the order supports. Above the stage hangs the banner of the Sisters’ partner in the event: American Legion Post 448, also known as the Alexander Hamilton post.

It may seem like a strange partnership — drag nuns joining forces with the American Legion, the country’s largest veterans’ organization with 14,000 posts worldwide. The goals of the Legion are traditionally conservative: uphold the constitution, make national security the top priority, demand loyalty to the union, and "foster and perpetuate a 100 percent Americanism," according to its preamble. It even maintains a pseudo-military rank structure among its members.

But the partnership isn’t so strange. The 448 is the only Legion post in the nation for gays and lesbians who once served in the military. Its relationship with the Sisters is a "good partnership," as Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms Morningstar Vancil puts it, and a "win-win situation." The post runs the outside bar since city bingo rules don’t allow liquor during the game and the Sisters get the room at the vets’ reduced rental rate.

The bingo proceeds go to the Sisters’ charities while the proceeds from the bar go to Post’s causes, particularly its ongoing push to repeal the military’s long-standing ban preventing homosexuals from serving openly. Today, that cause seems more hopeful than ever considering that the current presidential administration has promised to bring the ban to an end.

"We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. We should be celebrating their willingness to show such courage and selflessness on behalf of their fellow citizens, especially when we’re fighting two wars," President Barack Obama said in his speech to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission on Oct. 10.

However, some of the post members are only cautiously optimistic about Obama’s promise after the long, tough climb just to establish a gay post in San Francisco.


Noted gay rights activist and veteran Dr. Paul D. Hardman formed the post in 1984, naming it after Alexander Hamilton, who wrote affectionate letters to Continental Army Capt. John Laurens. A quote from one letter appears on the post’s Web site: "I wish, my dear Laurens, that it might be in my power, by action, rather than words, to convince you that I love you." Hardman and some historians have speculated on a homosexual relationship between the two.

Hardman needed at least 15 gay veterans to form the post and he got 18, including the late Marcus Hernandez, former leather columnist for the LGBT newspaper Bay Area Reporter. But acceptance was hard to get in the early days.

According to Arch Wilson, World War II vet and the oldest living founding member at 85, the post had a difficult time getting approved. During the approval process, the Legion stalled, losing applications and paperwork, which Wilson attributes to old-guard homophobia.

"They absolutely had no tolerance for homosexuals in their midst," Wilson said

At first, the 448 wasn’t even allowed in the Veterans Building. But they had a powerful weapon: the city’s nondiscrimination ordinances. Since the building was city property, the American Legion had to abide by the ordinances. The threat of a lawsuit was leverage enough to allow the Alexander Hamilton Post an office and its charter, but not a seat on the War Memorial Commission that ran the building. The 448 got a seat on the commission after taking the Legion to court in 1987.

According to Commander John Forrett, one of his predecessors had once been asked at a national Legion convention, "Oh, you’re from San Francisco. You’ve got that queer post, don’t cha?" And when a gay slur was uttered at a delegate meeting, the post again took the Legion to court. "Following that they haven’t dared mouth off any kind of venom about queers," Wilson said.

And while acceptance is more readily found today, there is still some resentment. "It shows through sometimes," Wilson said. "If you were a black man, you’d know when you were getting a subtle brush-off by a white who didn’t like you and wouldn’t dare say so."

Forrett agrees. "The clash still exists but it’s the old guard — the older veterans as well as older active duty members."

When called for comment, the national American Legion office said it didn’t even know a gay post existed. However, the American Legion’s Department of California — the state headquarters, which is located in San Francisco — told us that the 448’s sexual orientation just isn’t even an issue nowadays.


When Congress approved 10 United States Code, Section 654, commonly known as "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (DADT) — the Alexander Hamilton Post had a new fight. Signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, DADT is the policy that allows homosexuals to serve as long as they stay in the closet. Since its inception, the 448 has fought aggressively to get it overturned.

The history of DADT is "kind of the history of the post," according to Forrett, who was a reserve Army officer living in the closet during the first Gulf War. Fortunately, his sexuality never came into question, but he eventually resigned his commission because of the unfortunate changes he saw in the military as a result of DADT.

"DADT, with the best of intentions, didn’t go far enough to protect and left a huge window of opportunity for predators and harassers," Forrett said.

Forrett has met two of the most prominent casualties of DADT: Lt. Dan Choi, who has since become a post member, and former sailor Joseph Rocha, who wrote an Oct. 11 Washington Post op-ed piece outlining the brutal harassment he received because of his sexuality. He wrote that his chief forced him to simulate oral sex with another sailor, and was once tied up in a dog kennel.

Since the mid-1990s, the 448 has sought to build support for repealing DADT. Hardman and others testified in Congress in 1996 on the damaging impact of the policy. He also pushed for the belated release of what he called the "long-suppressed" 1993 Rand Corporation study on gays in the military. The study’s conclusion was that sexual orientation wasn’t germane when deciding who can and cannot effectively serve in the military

The report spearheaded the post’s partnership with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a nonprofit organization helping those harassed under DADT. "The Alexander Hamilton Legion has been a longtime committed partner," Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN Executive Director wrote in an e-mail to the Guardian.

Post members attend SLDN’s Lobby Day, where supporters gather on Capitol Hill asking politicians to take action. And they continue to work with SLDN on getting the Military Readiness Enhancement Act — a bill that would repeal DADT — pushed through Congress.

But other post members are getting impatient. "Get on with it," Service Officer Robert C. Potter told us. "As my mother would say, ‘Either shit or get off the pot.’"

"Before Obama gets out of office, I want this changed," Sergeant-at-Arms Jimmy McConnell said. "And it’s not just for me. I want it for every person who feels that they are gay, bi, transgender, whatever."

However, Forrett is confident the president will make good on his promise. He feels that the president is going about it the right way by waiting for the next Congress. "Come on, man, 2010 isn’t that far," he said. "We’ve been suffering this long."


When DADT is repealed, the post will work toward building a LGBT veterans’ memorial honoring those brave gay soldiers who gave their lives protecting their country. "For those who were before us, for those who are with us, and those who will come," Forrett said. "That’s kind of the concept. We want it to be an ongoing tribute."

In the meantime, the post continues to fight for veterans’ rights as well as LGBT rights, even bringing care packages to the wounded soldiers at the Fort Miley V.A. Hospital. "When we go to the V.A. hospital we don’t focus on LGBT, we focus on veterans," Forrett said.

And they’ll continue working with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and marching in the Pride Parade because Forrett believes that everything the post does comes back to DADT. "It keeps us out in front of everybody and that’s what’s important."

The pension fund evictions



In the wake of some big money-losing real estate deals, the California Public Employee’s Retirement System, the largest public pension fund in the nation, is reviewing its investment policies. But it’s too late to help working-class people displaced by two major CalPERS investments.

In 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble, CalPERS put $600 million into real estate deals in New York City and East Palo Alto that, critics say, have led to rent hikes, displacements, and harassment of moderate-income tenants.

The pension fund invested $100 million in Page Mill Properties II, which used the money, along with a sizable bank loan from Wachovia, in a 2006 building-purchase frenzy. The outfit wound up with more than 100 buildings in East Palo Alto — some 1,800 housing units. Another $500 million went to Tishman Speyer Properties and BlackRock Realty, cash that was used in the $5.4 billion deal to snag the Manhattan apartment complexes Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.

Those investments are currently teetering on financial ruin. The San Jose Mercury News reported Sept. 9 that Page Mill Properties missed a $50 million dollar balloon payment on its $243 million loan. Now the properties owned by Page Mill are in receivership, placing the landlord’s future and CalPERS’ investment in peril. (Our calls to Page Mill haven’t been returned.)

A Sept. 9 New York Times article quoted real estate analysts predicting that Tishman Speyer and BlackRock would exhaust their funds by December and face loan defaults. A recent New York state court ruling may hold the companies responsible for an estimated $200 million in improper rent overcharges.

Rent overcharges — in violation of rent-control laws — is one piece of what some have labeled "predatory equity" schemes. A May 9, 2008 Times article described the idea: buy rental housing with a lot of middle-income tenants, remove those tenants from rent-controlled units, and re-rent the places to richer people at higher rent. The outcome was supposed to be a quick, profitable return on high-risk investments.


The Page Mill properties in East Palo Alto border the more affluent neighborhoods of Palo Alto and Menlo Park on the west side of Highway 101. The neighborhood is home to service workers and public employees, many of them people of color. "It’s choice real estate, no question about it. I don’t think Page Mill’s plan was to serve the low-income tenants," Andy Blue of the advocacy group Tenants Together told us.

But local officials haven’t been thrilled with the results. "We are under siege by Page Mill Properties," East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica told the Mercury News last month. The city is locked in several court battles with the real estate outfit, including two over the city’s rent stabilization ordinance.

A resolution passed by the City Council last year stated that Page Mill had imposed rent increases beyond the 3 percent allowed by the ordinance, and urged CalPERS to intervene.

In an document e-mailed to CalPERS and obtained by Tenants Together, Page Mill claims its rent increases averaged 9 percent. But a class-action suit filed by several Page Mill tenants reported increases of more than 30 percent. A 2008 injunction filed by the city against Page Mill cited increases ranging from 5 percent to 40 percent.

According to the Fair Rent Coalition’s Web site, nearly half the people affected were cost-burdened as defined by government standards — meaning that more than 30 percent of their income already went to rent. The result of the rent increases, according to the city’s resolution, was the displacement of low-income tenants from their homes.

In fact, vacancy rates in East Palo Alto spiked after Page Mill came on the scene. According to numbers crunched by the Fair Rent Coalition and based on 2007 census data, the vacancy rate reached 24 percent in 2008. Before Page Mill started buying up property, vacancy rates were as low as 2 percent. Further, there were 182 evictions between 2007 and 2009 according to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.


The Tishman Speyer deal has gotten a lot of press on the East Coast — much of it highly critical. The two massive housing complexes were built for middle-income renters and were one of the few moderate-income communities remaining in Manhattan.

David Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York, wrote in a Sept. 17 Huffington Post piece that it was the intention of Tishman Speyer to shove aside moderate income to make room for more affluent renters who can afford the higher rents. He called it a "classic example of ‘predator equity.’"

Dina Levy, who works with the New York advocacy group Urban Homesteading, agrees with that assessment. She told us in a phone interview that it was obvious what plans the real estate firms had in mind for the properties.

She said that CalPERS, as a public agency, should have been more careful about getting involved in this sort of investment. She told us that other bankers she talked to thought the deal was toxic and stayed away. "Why would CalPERS put money into a deal that’s predicated on displacing families?" Levy asked.

The Wall Street Journal reported Oct. 23 that CalPERS is extensively reviewing its relationship with Apollo Global Management, which handled a majority of its real estate equity. The fund also issued a new policy on its dealings with placement agents.

But so far, there has been no public investigation of the East Palo Alto and New York investments. Tenancy advocacy groups and East Palo Alto have asked CalPERS to take an active role in the management of Page Mill’s property.

"It doesn’t appear that the human impact of their investments were considered at all as part of this," Tenants Together executive director Dean Preston told us.

Preston’s group is trying to get CalPERS to adopt predator-free investment guidelines — a policy that already has been instituted by New York’s pension fund.


In a February letter to Tenants Together, CalPERS called itself a "limited partner in the partnership" and expressed concern over the situation in East Palo Alto, stating that it is reviewing the allegations.

But tenant advocates say the giant fund has been missing in action. "There hasn’t been anything that they’ve told us they’ve been doing or that we’ve seen them do," Preston said.

That hands-off approach appears to violate CalPERS’ stated policies. Two months before allocating funds to Page Mill, CalPERS coauthored and signed the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI). No. 2 of the six principals states: "We will be active owners and incorporate ESG [environmental, social, and corporate governance] issues into our ownership policies and practices."

CalPERS has been eyeing real estate windfalls since 2002. According to memos and letters given to us by the Fair Rent Coalition, agency staffers that year were discussing an "opportunistic real estate fund." The result of those discussions: discretionary authority given to the senior investment officer for investments up to $100 million, with anything beyond that requiring approval from the chief investment officer.

Paradoxically, the compensation package that rates the senior investment officer’s performance has no provision for the social responsibilities. This coming year’s compensation package now includes a "Best Practices" measure on ethics and risk management. But there’s still no provision for social responsibility.

The California Assembly Committee on Public Employees, Retirement, and Social Security monitors the pension fund, but CalPERS has autonomous authority over its investments. Chief consultant Karon Green told us that the committee is "going to watch to see what the board does and gauge our response based on that."

CalPERS has yet to respond to our inquiries, and hasn’t responded to our public records request for documents pertaining to what Page Mill and its CEO David Taran proposed for the East Palo Alto properties.

Similar requests were made by Tenants Together and the Fair Rent Coalition. CalPERS responded that those documents were confidential, although some e-mails were handed over to the advocacy groups the day before they were to meet with the CalPERS board in December 2008.

Although it calls itself a "limited partner," the e-mails illustrate a closer relationship between CalPERS and Page Mill. In an e-mail to CalPERS, Taran asked for a copy of the public records request made by a San Jose journalist so "we can review them and get back to you regarding what should not be produced and is confidential."

Preston points to the larger policy issue. "If there were a few bad real estate managers who were investing in this, then they should lose their jobs," he said. "But the idea that they just sweep under the rug their $100 million loss in East Palo Alto and their $500 million loss in New York, and whatever other schemes they’re involved in, is just unacceptable."

Christopher Lund, a Page Mill tenant and communications director for the Fair Rent Coalition, agrees. "They’ve gotten burned on some of these high-risk investments over the past year or two. But institutional memory is short and in 10 years when the real estate market is booming, if there’s no transparency and no oversight, this is going to happen somewhere else."

SF vs. Frank Lembi



One of San Francisco’s largest and most notorious landlords and the many shell corporations under his control have been withholding money from their tenants, the banks that financed their rapid real estate acquisitions, and even San Francisco’s public treasury.

But while the banks have acted, seizing property from the delinquent borrowers, city officials have let Skyline Realty, CitiApartments, Lembi Group, and related corporations stonewall the city and pay far less property taxes than they should have owed, depriving city programs of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The various corporations run by real estate mogul Frank E. Lembi (who has not returned our calls seeking comment) have earned a terrible reputation in San Francisco, even as they’ve expanded their rental property holdings in recent years.

An award-winning, three-part Guardian series ("The Scumlords," March 2006) documented how the companies used intimidating goons and an arsenal of nefarious tactics meant to drive out low-income tenants from rent-controlled units, prompting City Hall hearings and an ongoing lawsuit against the enterprise by the City Attorney’s Office.

Then, earlier this year, many tenants joined a class action lawsuit against the Lembi enterprises, alleging the landlords have been illegally withholding deposits from departing tenants as a routine business practice, even after admitting that the tenants were entitled to full refunds (see "CitiApartments once again accused of mistreating tenants," Politics blog, July 15).

Attorneys for the firm Seeger Salvas LLP filed the complaint, which tells several appalling stories, including that of Joy Anderson. When Anderson went to retrieve the deposit she was owed, CitiApartments employees allegedly threatened her in front of her eight-year-old son, telling her that if she wanted her money back, she should talk to a lawyer.

Yet in that lawsuit and the one filed by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, which deals with harassment of tenants and other business practices that the city contends are illegal, Lembi’s empire has refused to cooperate, employing a variety of delay tactics. The city’s lawsuit has been stuck in the discovery process for years.

A court filing by the city alleges Lembi’s enterprise has participated in "well over a year of discovery gamesmanship." New counsel for the defendants has promised to speed things up, but Herrera told us it is still an ongoing battle. "It has been incredibly hard to get documents and information in this case. He’s been stonewalling us," Herrera told the Guardian.

Seegar Salvas attorney Brian Devine said six defendants named in his complaint didn’t respond to discovery requests and were found to be in default by the judge, meaning they basically opted not to contest their culpability. Meanwhile, 75 other defendants did respond but haven’t turned over any documents to the plaintiffs, dragging out the discovery process.

"It’ll take sometime for anything to happen," Devine told us. "There’s no Matlock moment where it all comes to a head. There are a lot of procedures to go through."

And apparently the Lembi enterprises know a little something about how to use legal and bureaucratic procedures to hang onto their money for as long as possible, judging from how they’ve worked the process to avoid paying the full amount of property taxes on their holdings.

At last count, there were 13 property foreclosure lawsuits pending on Lembi properties because he couldn’t pay the loans. The banks have seized many of his properties and started selling them off. But while the banks are getting their due, the Assessor’s Office and city taxpayers seem to be getting stiffed.

Lembi has been on the radar of city officials for quite awhile, but he is still managing to avoid getting some of his recently purchased properties reassessed, according to a Guardian investigation of city records. For example, one Lembi-controlled corporation — Trophy Properties X — snatched up a Russian Hill parking garage for $4.7 million in 2007.

Under Proposition 13, that property should have been reassessed when it was purchased, but it wasn’t. The current taxable price tag on the property is still slightly more than $443,000, a gap that costs the city upwards of $50,000 a year in taxes.

In general, property is reassessed at fair market value when there is a change in ownership, increasing the taxes owed on the property. According to the California Board of Equalization, the purchase price is the basis for reassessed value in most cases, although officials can also take into account comparable sales and other factors to increase value even more.

Yet nearly three years later, this property still hasn’t been reassessed.

Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting told the Guardian the reason for the delay is because Lembi hasn’t been cooperative in providing the information needed to do a reassessment. We obtained an October 2007 letter sent out by the Assessor’s Office requesting Lembi’s limited liability corporation provide information on the acquisition of the property and statistics on the garage itself. That letter and others went unanswered.

Common sense suggests that the sale price be used to reassess the garage and be done with it. Yet Ting said he fears that using that price would result in an inaccurate reassessment, which in turn might screw up the amount of taxes the city could ultimately collect. Then again, simply waiting on the unresponsive Lembi enterprise has resulted in less taxes being collected on the parking garage last year and again this year, according to public tax records.

"We try to get it right the first time. If we don’t get it right the first time, then oftentimes it creates a lengthier appeals process and a much lengthier, more adversarial [relationship] between us and the taxpayer," Ting said. "We absolutely don’t want to reassess that property too low because of Prop. 13. You only get one chance, so you have to be high."

Ting told us that the only recourse he has with an uncooperative taxpayer like Lembi is to reassess using information from similar properties in the same area. Once this is done, the negligent taxpayer can either agree with or challenge the new market value, a move that would switch the burden to Lembi. But that wasn’t done for the Russian Hill parking garage.

"That’s the only recourse we have, meaning that we can’t fine them; we can’t subpoena them; we can’t force them to give us the information," Ting said. "By law, they’re supposed to give us the information. But there are no real enforcement powers behind it."

According to Section 480 of the Revenue and Taxation Code, the assessor does have an option and can levy a penalty if a property owner fails to file a change in ownership statement, which can be up to 10 percent of the taxes due on the newly appraised value.

Several other Lembi-controlled properties have been reassessed recently after a delay, including 19,650-square-foot apartment building down the street from the parking garage at 2238 Hyde St. Before the reassessment, the property was valued at a little over $1 million. The current value is $11.7 million, which amounts to a tax bill of more than $137,000 this year.

Lembi bought the building in December 2005, and the Assessor’s Office got in just under the wire of the four-year statue of limitations for reassessments. Last year the taxes paid on the building came to a little more than $13,000, based on its previous $1 million value.

Then there is the 31,812-square-foot apartment building on 1735 Van Ness Ave. that Lembi bought back in June 2006. According the city records, the taxes paid last year on the property were nearly $48,000 based on a market value of $3.9 million. Recently the building was reassessed with a value of $9.6 million. This year’s taxes amount to more than $114,000. Whether or not the Van Ness Avenue building is a case in which the Lembi Group also withheld information is currently being looked into by the Assessor’s Office.

Yet on the Russian Hill parking garage, Lembi is still getting away with withholding the necessary documents for an accurate reassessment — and time is running out. In a little over a year, the statue of limitations runs out and the city will no longer be able to collect anything from Lembi.

Further complicating the city’s efforts to collect is the fact that some other the properties in question have been foreclosed on.

When the Russian Hill garage and other Lembi properties went back to the banks, the Assessor’s Office looked into what could be done to collect the city’s lost revenue. Its solution: a transfer tax. But that was not an option because the bank held the main mortgage, so it wasn’t considered a change of ownership.

Even though the parking garage and other properties have slipped out of Lembi’s control, he is still responsible for the taxes on them during his period of ownership, according to Ting. But given the experiences of others who have tried to collect money from Lembi, that could be a long, expensive process.

While the Lembi enterprises may be stingy in giving the city and tenants their money, they haven’t had a problem making political campaign contributions. Taylor Lembi, grandson of Frank, gave $500 to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s reelection campaign in 2006, according to public campaign contribution records, although Newsom’s campaign offices returned the money exactly two months later (Newsom’s campaign office didn’t respond to our questions about the contributions or reason for returning it).

Skyline Properties, parent of Skyline Realty, also donated $100 to Newsom’s initial mayoral campaign in 2003, and supported Mayor Willie Brown before that. Lembi continues to be a prominent landlord, the subject of a sympathetic profile by the San Francisco Apartment Association in August 2008.

Yet with lawsuits mounting, the banks foreclosing, and the real estate market slumping, the multigenerational Lembi empire that once controlled more rental units in San Francisco than any other entity appears to be in trouble.

And lest anyone slide under its control unaware, the Lembi empire’s many enemies have organized into a group called CitiStop, supported by groups that include the San Francisco Tenants Union and Pride at Work, which argues that "nothing frightens CitiApartments more than knowledgeable tenants."