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Unraveling the rent control conspiracy around Aaron Peskin

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A blogger accuses SF supervisor of profiting from the demolition of rent-controlled homes—city inspectors say otherwise

San Francisco Supervisors Aaron Peskin addresses supporters during a Yes on 10 “Rent Is Too Damn High” statewide bus tour in 2018.
San Francisco Supervisors Aaron Peskin addresses supporters during a Yes on 10 “Rent Is Too Damn High” statewide bus tour in 2018.
Photo by Peter Barreras/AP Images

At the end of June, Vincent Woo, founder of the startup Coder Pad and a self-described YIMBY, published a Medium article titled “The Hypocrisy of Aaron Peskin,” alleging that San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin lives in a big-ticket North Beach home illegally converted into a single house from a rent-controlled duplex.

Woo called it a “strange, ridiculous, and criminal story” and “an astounding act of political corruption.”

But when the city investigated, they determined that Peskin’s duplex is, by their assessment, still a duplex—and neither astounding nor criminal.

According to Woo’s timeline, the story harkens back to 2001, when Joane Trafton, the former owner of Peskin’s circa 1977 home at 224 Filbert, allegedly merged the duplex’s two units into one by removing a kitchen and installing connecting stairs sans permits, and then tried to retroactively get the conversion approved.

Woo’s story holds that Trafton was unable to secure permission and ended up selling both 224 and 224A Filbert—now supposedly combined into one “monster home”—at a loss to Peskin’s parents, who later turn the property over to him.

Per the records on file with the SF Assessor’s Office, Joanne Trafton did indeed sell 224 Filbert to Tsipora and Harvey Peskin in 2002 for $800,000. The couple later added Aaron Peskin’s name to the deed in 2003.

In 2004, the Department of Building Inspection lists an anonymous complaint about unpermitted work on the home, including charges that someone “converted two units to one without approval.”

The building inspector who investigated ended up abating that 2004 complaint—i.e., directed the Peskins to correct any violations on the property—along with the direction to “renew expired permits.”

(The following year another complaint appeared alleging a “new brick wall without permit.” The building inspector found that the installation was actually just brick planters in the backyard.)

So, in Woo’s version of 224 Filbert’s history, a former owner tried to scam the city out of a rent-controlled duplex, then cut her losses by selling the property to a politically connected family. And then the whole thing allegedly got swept under the rug when someone attempted to expose the dirty dealings.

The crux of the would-be scandal lies in the fact that earlier this year Peskin introduced new legislation that would curb “residential demolitions, mergers, and conversions,” with the aim of hindering landlords who want to axe rent-controlled apartments by combining them into what Peskin calls “monster homes.”

If the District Three supervisor, a loud and longtime advocate of rent control in SF, happened live in just such a home, it would constitute a major political black eye.

But another building inspection performed last week seemingly debunked the story. Investigating a complaint filed shortly after Woo published his article, Inspector Dominic Keane reported on July 10 that “site inspection revealed two units.”

Woo cited a staircase between the upstairs and downstairs units as the “smoking gun.” But although Keane did find “communicating stairs,” according to the Planning Department guidelines on dwelling unit removal, “conversions occur when legal residential units undergo the removal of cooking facilities.”

While Woo claimed that the former owner did remove one of the unit’s kitchens, Keane says that each dwelling has a kitchen today, making them both legally separate units. The fact that they’re conjoined by a staircase doesn’t enter into the assessment.

Despite these findings, Woo stands by his accusations.

“Aaron may technically have had a DBI inspector certify the building as a duplex, but his use of the building is without a shadow of a doubt a single-family home,” Woo tells Curbed SF via email.

Woo contends that Peskin is not renting out the second unit in his home and is using it as a de facto single residence. Peskin declined to comment on the status of the second unit, his spokesperson citing the DBI report as a “closed matter.”

Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Peskin previously called the duplex fracas “a political attack” aimed at undermining his conversion legislation.