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San Francisco Fines Landlord $2 Million For Renting Out Dwellings to Low-Income Veterans that Violated Zoning Codes

For the past two years the City of San Francisco has been doing everything in its power to dismantle low-income housing units that run afoul of the city's laborious zoning codes.

Over the past decade, San Francisco landlord Judy Wu (real name Xiaoqi Wu) converted some 12 properties she owns into 49 housing units which she and her husband, Trent Zhu, have rented predominately to low-income veterans, many of whom are disabled, or previously homeless.

These units, however, were only zoned for 15 dwellings. And in 2015, the city's Planning Department first became aware of the excess units, ordering her to obtain permits to dismantle many of them. In 2016, as she was working to bring her units into compliance, and while her tenants fought to preserve their homes, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued Wu, claiming that her unauthorized dwellings "substantially endanger the health, welfare, and safety of individual tenants, the residents of the City and County of San Francisco."

Many of Wu's tenants dispute this characterization, saying they are perfectly happy in the units Wu provides them. The most immediate effect of the city's actions against Wu will likely not be to improve her tenants' "health, safety, and welfare", but rather to kick them out of the only homes they have.

Wu's trial began on Monday. Facing mounting legal fees and the prospect of $8 million in fines, she decided on to settle on Tuesday.

"The basic reasons for settling is it's too expensive to fight city hall," said Ryan Patterson, an attorneys that represented Wu. "This will allow the owners to move forward and focus on legalizing these properties and working to ensure that as many of these veterans as possible can remain in their homes."

The city's lawsuit notably came before the administrative process that would allow Wu to maintain her current units had run its course, and yesterday's settlement does nothing to settle their legal status.

Throughout the entire process Herrera's office has sought to paint Wu as a slum lord, cramming poor tenants into barely livable tenements just to make a few bucks. "Defendants' motive for flagrantly violating the law is simple: profit," reads the city's 2016 complaint against Wu. "They rent out units to the most vulnerable members of our communities…as such, they have a guaranteed stream of income."  Read  More

San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen—who represents the district many of Wu's properties are in—echoed these sentiments, saying when the lawsuit was first filed, "Mrs. Wu targeted these people because she knew they were the least likely to complain in a tough housing market."

Those who have actually rented from Wu paint a far different portrait of her.

"Judy Wu is offering veterans housed in these units a chance to rebuild their lives in a way that is respectful and humane to them," says Frank Bryant, a 79-year-old disabled veteran, and tenant of Wu's for the past four years.

He tells Reason that he has had an exclusively positive relationship with Wu, who has been very attentive to the needs arising from his disability, installing a handicap-outfitted shower, and letting him store his electric scooter in her garage.

"Whenever I needed help of any kind in the apartment, checking the smoke alarm or something," Bryant says, "Judy Wu has been extremely responsive." Bryant is not at risk of eviction, given that the unit he rents from Wu has been brought into compliance with San Francisco's zoning codes.