Tenants Win $3.5M From S.F.’s ‘Cruelest Landlord’

The former Mission District residents are the recipients of the largest jury verdict ever for a single unit.

Dale Duncan and Marta Mendoza stand outside City Hall during a press conference, Oct. 27, 2017 (Jessica Christian)

San Francisco is full of horrific landlord stories. There was the eviction of 100-year-old Iris Canada from her home of more than 50 years. There’s the nasty building owner at Haight and Fillmore who continually terrorizes his tenants. But the two above barely hold a candle to Anne Kihagi, who San Francisco Magazine dubbed the city’s “cruelest landlord” in a lengthy exposé this week. And now, Kihagi is being forced to pay for her crimes.

Kihagi and her sister Christina Mwangi are a bit of a mystery. They showed up in San Francisco in 2013, and quickly bought ten buildings worth more than $25 million, with 50 rent-controlled dwellers.

Immediately, tensions between the new landlord and her residents began to rise. She allegedly entered tenants’ apartments without the legally required heads up, locked them out of backyards, failed to pay water bills, and even publicly accused a 73-year-old tenant of running a sex hotline out of her home. Her offenses were ruthless and classist — she would give keys to a garbage area to market-rate tenants, but not rent-controlled ones, for example — and simply cruel; one building’s hot water heater hadn’t worked in years, because she refused to repair it.

But karma — and the legal system — appears to have come for Kihagi, her sister and their company Zoriall LLC. A lawsuit filed by the city attorney’s office has resulted in a 163-page ruling and $2.7 million in government penalties for more than 1,612 violations. As an added kicker, all pending evictions from January of this year were voided.

And a private suit, led by tenants Dale Duncan and Marta Mendoza, has garnered what lawyer Steven McDonald calls “the largest jury verdict ever for a single unit tenant case in history” — $3,528,00, plus $500,000 in legal fees.

Duncan, a musician and cabinet-maker, and Mendoza, a preschool teacher, lived at 71 Hill St. with their six-year-old daughter when they were evicted by Kihagi, under the “bogus” premise that her sister Mwangi would move into their unit. Duncan had lived in the apartment for 21 years.

“Going through the trial was really hard for me, and for Dale too, and for our daughter,” Mendoza says. “Now this ends, and I feel so relieved, but I still miss my home. I can’t go back in time and recover all the pain we suffered there.”

Duncan and Mendoza managed to stay in the city, but now live in what Duncan calls “the fringes of San Francisco,” in Sunnyside. “We’re hanging on, barely,” he says.

But they have no regrets about the multi-year battle. “We felt we needed to fight this,” Duncan says. “There were so many people before us. We’ve gotten to know other tenants who didn’t have the wherewithal or the knowledge or the personal strength to fight it. It was a long journey to get through this, and long story short I’d rather have my life back.”

McDonald currently represents three other units’ residents, which will also be going to trial — a rarity, as many evicted tenants simply settle. “Not a lot of people will go through this process,” he says. “A lot of people will settle for peanuts, $20, $30,000. Then they’ll [the landlord] will rent it, and make that money back in six months. Very few people will go the distance, and this is knock-down drag-out litigation.”

“Hopefully this will send a message to other landlords,” Duncan says. “The harm that can be done to people just to monetize their units, just to squeeze a little more money out of them, it’s pretty demonizing.”

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