Understanding San Francisco’s Property Code Enforcement Process

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Many San Francisco property owners are rightfully concerned when City agencies contact them about potential violations at their property. The property code enforcement process is confusing, and many enforcement notices threaten monetary penalties (or worse). Enforcement actions are often started by anonymous complaints from neighbors or tenants, which can make property owners feel particularly targeted. Information concerning the enforcement action is also publicly available on the City’s websites, even after the enforcement action is closed, creating a paper trail that continues to follow the property and could create disclosure issues when a property owner decides to sell. However, the attorneys at Zacks & Freedman, PC are well equipped to advise you through the process and make it as painless as possible.

In San Francisco, property owners are typically contacted by two city agencies: the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) and the Planning Department. Each department takes a different approach to enforcement, and understanding each agency’s process can result in a better outcome for the property owner.

Department of Building Inspection

DBI is tasked with enforcing the San Francisco Building, Plumbing, Electrical, and Housing Codes. Anyone can make a complaint about a property to DBI. Once a complaint is made, it will be assigned to a DBI inspector who will typically seek to inspect the property to substantiate whether there is a code violation. Any building construction, electrical, or plumbing work done without a permit is generally deemed a violation. The DBI Inspector will likely wish to inspect the exterior and interior of the property. Permission is needed from the property’s occupant (owner or tenant) to gain access to the interior of the property without a court order.

If the DBI Inspector substantiates the violation, he or she will usually issue a Notice of Violation (NOV) to the property owner and require corrective action be taken to abate the violation. If the NOV is for a violation of the Building, Electrical, or Plumbing codes, often the NOV will require the owner to obtain a permit. Work completed without the benefit of a permit typically requires the owner to pay 9x the cost of the permit fee as a penalty. Work that exceeds the scope of a permit generally requires the Property Owner to pay a lesser penalty. A NOV is not appealable. If the Property Owner does not take the steps required to abate the violation, DBI may send the violation to a Director’s Hearing. A Director’s Hearing is an administrative hearing used to compel property owners to comply with code violations. DBI may also issue an Order of Abatement, which is a document recorded against title to the property. An Order of Abatement may be appealed to the Abatement Appeals Board within 15 calendar days of the service and posting of the order.

Planning Department

The Planning Department’s enforcement division enforces the Planning Code. Some common Planning Code violations include:

  • Adding or removing dwelling units without Planning Department approval (including unpermitted or illegal units)
  • Unauthorized change in use of the property without Planning Department approval (i.e. converting a residential unit into an office)
  • Unauthorized group housing use (can occur when a landlord leases too many individual rooms at a property to individual tenants)
  • Use of required front or rear setback as parking
  • Expansion of the building envelope into a required setback area without Planning Department approval
  • Renting a dwelling unit for less than 30 days without a short-term rental permit

When a complaint comes into the Planning Department, the Department will usually issue a Notice of Complaint to the property owner, collect information concerning the potential violation, and request permission to conduct a site inspection at the property. Once the enforcement investigation begins, the enforcement planner will issue a Notice of Enforcement to the property owner. Some Planning Code violations may be difficult to abate, particularly if they involve tenant-occupied unpermitted units or construction in violation of the property’s zoning. Therefore, property owners should take a cautious approach and consult with an attorney early in the process to decide how best to respond to such requests. The Planning Department can impose monetary penalties for non-compliance and generally charges additional fees for “time and materials” in investigating the complaints. If the Planning Department substantiates the complaint, it will issue a notice of violation (NOV). NOVs may be appealed to the Zoning Administrator or directly to the San Francisco Board of Appeals. This is a strategic decision best made in consultation with a qualified attorney.

Beyond removing the violation, violations of the Planning Code may also be abated by seeking a variance from the Zoning Administrator or Conditional Use Authorization from the Planning Commission. If you receive a Notice of Complaint, Notice of Enforcement, or Notice of Violation for your property, Contact the attorneys of Zacks & Freedman, PC for guidance through the property code enforcement process.