San Francisco officials are in a bind: Either kick poor tenants out of their homes, or don't enforce laws that officials insist are there to ensure those tenants have adequate living standards.
The city's Planning Department is demanding that Judy Wu—a San Francisco landlord who rents mostly to veterans—destroy 15 of the 49 units that she and her husband currently rent out. Officials say that Wu illegally subdivided single-family homes into separate flats.
"I don't want to remove any units, it's the city that is forcing me to do so," Wu told the San Francisco Examiner. "I don't want to displace any of our tenants."
San Francisco's Housing Rights Commission is opposed to doing away with the units. And one of Wu's tenants has asked the city to stop removing sinks and doors from the unit—a change required to bring the building up to code.
So far, the Planning Department has been unmoved, saying that the lots that Wu has turned into multi-unit housing are zoned for single-family use, and that her numerous building modifications violate city codes.
"While additional housing is desirable, the City also needs to maintain standards for the quality of dwelling units," says a July 20 departmental review.
Wu's violations were first discovered in July 2015 following some complaints from the neighbors, and in September she was ordered to bring her units into compliance. Wu appealed the order, making no claim that she had not violated city code but saying that she "felt encouraged by the City to create as many units as possible for low-income tenants."
One can forgive her for having that impression. In 2013 San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee held a press conference announcing a campaign to house 50 homeless vets in 100 days. "I can't think of a more patriotic thing to do than to find a homeless veteran their home," said Lee at the time.
Singled out praise at that conference was none other than Judy Wu, who was lauded for her efforts to house the very veterans San Francisco might now put back out onto the street.
It's not just the mayor that has good things to say about Wu. The San Francisco Chronicle said this in 2016, when the city first sued Wu for code violations:
Visits to Wu's properties and interviews with her tenants create a picture of a landlord who, while allegedly violating the city's zoning codes, also cares about housing veterans with few other options. She regularly leases to tenants whose eviction records made other landlords see them as off limits, and apparently is not quick to throw out those who fall behind on their rent, some tenants say.
The veterans advocacy group Swords to Plowshares praised Wu too, saying she was "wonderful to work with and has housed hundreds of vets over the years."
On Thursday San Francisco's Planning Commission will decide whether to force Wu to go through with dismantling her rental units and displacing her tenants.
Libertarians often argue that housing regulations raise prices while reducing the supply of housing for the disadvantaged. It's difficult to think of a clearer illustration of the principle than this one.