SRO tenants’ tales tell scary story

Craigslist ads, Facebook posts and The Negev’s own website tout 219 Sixth St. as the epitome of modern communal living in San Francisco — a like-minded group of people dedicated to entrepreneurship, engineering, weekly tech talks, family dinners and partying.

While that might be true, there is a different side to life behind the bright-red metal gate of The Negev Sixth.

Nearly all tenants in the single-room-occupancy building — mostly in their 20s and newcomers to San Francisco with few if any local acquaintances — pay $1,250 a month for a spot on a bunk bed inside a unit, share couches and a kitchen on the first floor and recreation tables and a mini movie theater in the basement of the tech co-op.

With the makeshift-style amenities come many issues. Several complaints beginning in the summer to The City’s Department of Building Inspection make the place out to be a slum. A complaint by resident Zachary Howitt, 26, on Oct. 9 identified an inoperable heater, faulty electrical wiring, no deadbolts on some doors, a faulty fire escape and smoke detectors, no secure mail receptacle, cockroaches and mice, no hot water, a consistent odor of gas from a broken water heater and 60 people living in a place with a 22-person occupancy limit. To top it off, the complaint alleges, the person behind the operation reportedly refused to fix the issues despite multiple requests.

The latest inspection came Wednesday. City Housing Inspector Luis Barahona found that debris and personal items that were blocking the fire escape were removed, light fixtures were repaired, a shower door was fixed, some work was done on electrical outlets and deadbolts were installed on several rooms.

However, the people running the property neglected to address six violations — failure to provide identified caretakers for the building, repair all windows and latches, fix self-closing doors, move garbage receptacles to an open area, provide heat to all units and have an installation permit for a hot-water tank. For all its problems, Barahona did say other single-room-occupancy buildings in San Francisco are worse off than The Negev Sixth. But he added that during the inspection, the number of units appeared to exceed the 19 residential rooms stated in the building’s certificate for use.

“I counted more than 19 rooms,” Barahona said. “I don’t know for sure. I think there are about 22 to 25 rooms, but some of them aren’t labeled.”

Today, The Negev Properties LLC, run by Danny Haber, 26, and Alon Gutman, 27, is expected to take part in an audit of records for the past two years so the department’s housing division can determine whether the company is complying with its designation of residential units. According to San Francisco’s hotel conversion ordinance, units with a residential designation must be occupied for more than 30 days, whereas tourist units — which The Negev Sixth has none of — are for stays of fewer than 30 days.

The department will be looking into whether construction work was done without proper permits.

“It looks like they have too many rooms, so that could be the main point of contention,” said Jamie Sanbonmatsu, acting senior housing inspector for the department. “Work without a permit is a life-safety issue.”

On Thursday, the department served another notice of violation to the property for electrical, plumbing and mechanical work done without permits and requests to replace a gas stove with an electrical stove and relocate mailboxes so they do not block the exit. A Department of Building Inspection hearing on the living conditions is scheduled for Dec. 4.

Should violations remain outstanding at The Negev Sixth, the operators will be penalized and tenants are eligible to go to the San Francisco Rent Board for rent reductions. Tenants found to be living in illegally converted units could be evicted, but it would take more to shutter the entire building.

“When you’re talking about shutting down an operation, you’re talking about a lot of people without homes and making a lot of people homeless is something we try to avoid,” Sanbonmatsu said.

Prior to becoming The Negev Sixth, 219 Sixth St. was the San Francisco Gospel Mission, a nonprofit, Baptist-based mission for homeless people. Joann Knight said she sold the building in August 2013 after the death of her husband, who ran the mission that housed people until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“We had three different people bidding at $1.5 million,” Knight said, adding that it was sold to a party that “paid all cash.”

Beyond the building issues documented on paper, some tenants at The Negev Sixth have had relational problems with Haberand Gutman.

According to Superior Court records obtained by The San Francisco Examiner, The Negev Properties filed an unlawful detainer summons, the first step in an eviction proceedings, Sept. 30 against Howitt, claiming he owed $625 in unpaid rent.

Howitt said the eviction was retaliatory and, following legal advice, he complied with a law allowing him to deposit the rent into an escrow account instead, because of concerns over the legality and habitability of the building. These violations included heating, electrical and sanitary deficiencies. A judge on Oct. 21 dismissed the complaint after she agreed that Howitt had no opportunity to respond because he was never served with the complaint in the first place. According to court documents, Gutman signed that he allegedly served the complaint.

Haber and Gutman also run The Negev Folsom at 1040 Folsom St., which was the subject of a lawsuit filed Nov. 12 from tenants displaced by a fire there who claim they were not offered their units back at their former rent rate, as required by the San Francisco rent-control ordinance. Before opening The Negev Sixth, Haber and Gutman started The Negev Twelfth at 200 12th St., which is an open room stocked with bunk beds.

Other tenants say Haber, who leased 219 Sixth St. from Howard Six Bros LLC, intimidates residents into making repairs themselves or kicks them out of buildings if they consistently complain about living conditions.

Dewaine Torregroza, 28, moved into The Negev Sixth in February and paid $1,000 per month for a shared bunk-bed room. He said Haber then tried to increase rent to $1,250 for everyone paying $1,000. Since the rent-control ordinance applies to the building, the maximum allowable rent increase this year is only 1 percent.

Haber also assigned director roles to tenants, Torregroza said. As director of the basement, Torregroza was expected to revamp the dingy basement on his own time and with his own money.

“He was kind of preying on the weak in a lot of ways,” Torregroza said of Haber. “A lot of people moved in from different parts of the world without any experience in California or San Francisco as far as tenants’ rights. As far as they were concerned, things were going OK.”

The final straw for Torregroza — he moved out in early October — was when construction workers entered his unit without notification and drilled holes through his closet for water heater piping.

Group housing like The Negev seems to be popular among younger residents, said neighborhood Supervisor Jane Kim, but the company needs to clean up its act.

“The limited facts that we’ve gotten do not reflect well on this company,” she said. “It seems to be a company that is willing to break the law and exploit residents in order to make a profit, and we do not support that type of behavior.”

Haber refused to comment on The Negev Properties’ operations.

If run right, the communal type of living behind The Negev “would be brilliant,” Torregroza said.

“It really is a beautiful thing and I’m hopeful that someone, some tech entrepreneur can figure this out legally and do it right,” he said. “Because I really feel that I grew a lot there and there are friends I still have there because it’s an awesome community. At the heart of it, everyone wants to be a part of something.”