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SF Planning Commissioner embroiled in weird lawsuit resigns

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Here’s why you should care

Two images of a square Italianate-style SF building side by side, the one on the left with a gray-green paintjob and the one on the right with a newer, more vivid teal color.
The 22nd Street building at the heart of the flap, both before and after renovation.
Courtesy DBI

In the inevitable final act of a surreal San Francisco housing drama, outspoken and besieged Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards resigned from one of the city’s most powerful bodies Thursday, crediting the departure in part to his ongoing legal fight with the city’s Department of Building Inspection (DBI).

Richards has been on leave from the Planning Commission since December. He says this was due to “family medical issues,” but it followed on the heels of his DBI blowup and allegations that Richards might have violated some of the same redevelopment rules he so zealously enforced over the years.

On Thursday, Richards sent a letter to Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee, saying that he wants to “pass the torch” to someone new and that he plans to take “a greater role in advocating for changes to statewide housing policies.”

He also acknowledged that his lawsuit with DBI (launched in February) played a factor in his stepping down, noting that he expects the legal trials and tribulation to take years.

The three-act drama of Richards’ departure began in early December, when he arrived at a Board of Appeals hearing full of fire and brimstone, accusing DBI of plotting against him and his business partners on a housing renovation near Dolores Park.

Building inspectors accused the investors behind upgrades at 3426-3432 22nd Street of altering the building beyond the scope of approved permits, alleging “a pattern of misrepresentation” and even taking the rare step of cancelling the permits altogether.

For his part, Richards compared DBI to cancer. He also told city inspectors to “go fuck themselves.”

In the weeks that followed, Richards faced public criticism for his hand in the redevelopment of a rent-controlled occupied building—the sort of thing he usually eschews on the job. He also allegedly failed to notify the rent board about the buyout offers made to the building’s former tenants, as the law requires. Richards went on leave at the time, but now has made his final departure.

The strangeness of the conflict notwithstanding, his departure is not just a question of political jockeying; the Planning Commission wields enormous leverage over what and where something gets built in San Francisco, and it’s a body frequently roiled by controversy.

Back in 2002, when voters amended the city charter to change how commission appointments work, reformers forged grim prophecies about what happens when the commission malfunctions, warning that “neighborhoods and communities are damaged, small businesses are displaced, [and] historic treasures are destroyed.”

Arguably nobody took those warnings more seriously than Richards, a chronic foe of YIMBYism, a gentrification watchdog, and sometimes the bane of developers. Most recently he was an outspoken critic of SB 50, the failed Sacramento development bill by SF’s own State Sen. Scott Wiener.

Whoever replaces Richards, even if they end up having some similar policy views, they’re unlikely to be as zealous as he was—which could make a big difference in what new buildings come to your block, the addition on your neighbor’s house, or the state of your ADU permits.

As for that four-unit building on 22nd Street that broke the camel’s back, it’s still for sale. It recently re-listed with an even higher asking price, up to $8.8 million from the previous $7.5 million. Richards and his partners bought it in 2018 for $2.7 million.