To the relief of neighbors, a dilapidated Midtown Terrace residence has finally been renovated after years of disrepair — but only after the eviction of a rent-controlled tenant of two decades.
Neighbors were long annoyed by the shabby home, which featured peeling lead paint, broken shutters, rotting window frames and a squalid, rotting fence. Yet in recent months, the home was transformed into a well-kempt, attractive-looking house.
The landlord’s lawyer says his client was unaware of the home’s condition and the tenant complained only about clogged drains. Yet the former tenant, a contractor, says he not only complained, but offered to do the work himself. He and nine separate neighbors believe the property was allowed to decay over the years as a means of ousting him.
The only thing that everyone agrees about is that building owner Leonard Woolard ultimately served the tenant a March 2011 eviction notice to vacate the $1,750-a-month house to make way for his elderly mother. Evicting a tenant to make way for a family member is legal grounds for eviction under rent control.
The landlord’s lawyer, John Zanghi, said that was Woolard’s first attempt to evict the tenant. Yet the tenant says he was verbally asked to leave years earlier, and that when he declined to do so — his legal right under rent control — Woolard stopped maintaining the house.
“He was embarrassed about how the house looked,” said neighbor Pat Vanek, recalling 2008 conversations with the tenant. “He said he wanted to fix the place up, but the owners wouldn’t let him.”
Woolard declined to be interviewed and the tenant only spoke when granted anonymity.
But neighbors Gordon Crespo and John Paul Jr. said problems with the home dated back years. They said the tenant told them he believed the owner wanted him out.
Neighbors are relieved now that the property has been rehabbed, but Paul wants to know why the repairs didn’t occur years ago.
“No one understands why it was allowed to deteriorate like that,” said Paul. “We all assume it was because the landlord really wanted that tenant out.”
Resident Shirley Korm said many neighbors felt the Woolards were “untouchable” because of their stature — Leonard owns many properties and his wife, Charlotte, is a Superior Court judge. Korm and Paul said the home came up frequently at Midtown Terrace homeowners association meetings, but neighbors were reluctant to confront the couple.
Eventually, however, several took action. After they contacted the Department of Building Inspection in May 2011, inspectors logged several code violations.
Meanwhile, the tenant finally moved out. According to the San Francisco Rent Board, Woolard paid him $5,101 to relocate in July.
In August, city inspectors declared the home abandoned and held a hearing to address the violations. Woolard didn’t attend.
He has since taken measures to improve the property, however. The house was repainted, a rotting fence was removed and the overgrown weeds were landscaped.
Woolard’s mother didn’t ever move in, but the couple themselves moved into the home a few months ago, Zanghi said.
Ted Gullicksen, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, called the whole dispute a classic example of how landlords thwart city rent-control rules.
“You see this all the time — a heater gets broken or the plumbing stops working, and the landlord refuses to fix it,” Gullicksen said. “It’s all about making the tenant’s life hell so they’ll move out.”
Around the time that landlord Leonard Woolard allegedly began letting his property decay, his wife presided over a lawsuit opposing rules giving tenants more protection from the harassment of homeowners.
In a May 2009 ruling, Judge Charlotte Woolard struck down portions of Proposition M, including a provision letting tenants be repaid legal fees incurred while fighting evictions.
Leonard Woolard served his own tenant with such a notice last March, but the tenant alleges that the landlord first sought to evict him years earlier. Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union believes the judge should have stepped down from the case for that reason.
“This would sure seem like a conflict of interest for a judge to be ruling in favor of something that could potentially be applied to her husband,” Gullicksen said.
The California Code of Civil Procedure says judges should recuse themselves from a case if a “person aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial.”
Judicial ethics expert Richard W. Painter of the University of Minnesota said Woolard need not recuse herself just because her husband is a landlord, but may have crossed a line by striking down the provision letting tenants recoup legal fees.
“If she’s just applying the law, and her husband is not a party in the case, then there is no conflict,” Painter said. “But opining on if the law is constitutional, there is a broader impact. A reasonable person could think that’s excessive.”
Charlotte Woolard declined to comment. But San Francisco Superior Court spokeswoman Ann Donlan said Leonard Woolard owned the home before the couple married, and the judge is not involved in her husband’s real estate business.
Donlan said Charlotte Woolard’s ruling came well before the family decided to evict the tenant.
— Will Reisman