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Home Invader: The Life and Crimes of San Francisco’s Cruelest Landlord

Found guilty of repeatedly harassing and illegally evicting tenants, fined millions of dollars, and laughing all the way to the bank.

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Around midday on April 22, 2015, Leonard Johnson, clad in his pajamas, was slicing vegetables for a salad when he heard the front door of his apartment at 1139A Guerrero Street click open. The 74-year-old disabled former ironworker and army veteran padded out of his kitchen to see what was going on. He discovered his landlord, Anne Kihagi, standing at the end of his apartment’s long hallway, accompanied by a building inspector and a workman. According to Johnson, Kihagi had let herself into his apartment without giving him advance notice, which is illegal.

Less than pleased at finding his landlord standing inside his home, Johnson gave Kihagi a piece of his mind with a knife in one hand and a scallion in the other. Following an angry exchange down the long hallway, he agreed to let the building inspector, Anthony Lepe, examine some work that had been done in his apartment. Johnson chalked up the incident as yet another indignity of living in a building owned by Kihagi and quickly put it out of mind.

But about two months later, Johnson and his wife, Sheila Hembury, were served with an unlawful detainer notice giving them four days to vacate the apartment that they had occupied since 1993. Kihagi declared under penalty of perjury that Johnson had “suddenly and unexpectedly put himself in close proximity” to her, her workman, and Lepe; threatened them with a knife; and bellowed, “This is my unit! Try again and you will see!”

The eviction notice followed a series of actions that Kihagi had initiated soon after buying the six-unit Guerrero Street building in June 2014 for $2.58 million. Within a month, Kihagi had the door to the communal backyard padlocked and tossed out the barbecue pit and patio furniture; failed to repair a broken lock on the front door for weeks, leading to vagrants dumping trash and urinating in the lobby; and provided keys to the garbage room to new, market-rate tenants but not to their rent-controlled neighbors. Water was intermittently cut off after Kihagi failed to pay the bill, and in September electrical service to the common areas was shut off twice for the same reason, leaving residents to stumble up and down darkened steps in the predawn hours for weeks at a time. 

It was hard for Johnson and other rent-controlled tenants not to interpret Kihagi’s actions, or lack thereof, as a blunt attempt to pressure them into leaving the building. According to court records and witness testimonies, this was an old game for Kihagi, one she had been practicing for years. This time, however, it didn’t work. On November 4, 2015, a San Francisco jury rejected Kihagi’s attempt to evict Johnson and Hembury. Among the factors that likely colored their decision was the fact that Kihagi had never called the police and had waited months to serve notice, and that Lepe testified that he didn’t recall seeing a knife in Johnson’s hand, let alone feeling threatened.

But Kihagi had bigger legal problems brewing. Five months earlier, in June 2015, the city attorney’s office had filed a lawsuit against her and her associates, charging that they had engaged in a widespread pattern of unlawful business practices that included waging a “war of harassment, intimidation, and retaliation” against her tenants. In May of this year, Superior Court judge Angela Bradstreet found for the city and against Kihagi. In a devastating, 163-page ruling that one of Kihagi’s former attorneys described as “the numbing repetition of a judge being careful to nail down all the corners,” Bradstreet found that Kihagi and her sisters, Julia and Christine Mwangi, had engaged in an “egregious and ongoing” pattern of unlawful conduct and levied $2.7 million in fines upon them for 1,612 separate violations. The judge also held the defendants responsible for legal fees and costs that could more than double that amount, ordered them to abate their voluminous code violations, and voided all evictions pending as of January 2017. Kihagi has filed an appeal, and thus far, the city claims that she has failed to fully comply with any of the ruling’s legal stipulations. At least half a dozen of her former tenants are currently suing her. So far.

If the legal system were a truck, Kihagi has been run over by it, and then backed over for good measure. And yet, like an indestructible cartoon character, she keeps coming back. When the legal smoke clears, Kihagi’s mountains of fines may end up being an acceptable cost of doing business in boomtown San Francisco. She may yet laugh her way to the bank.

The rise and rise—or, perhaps, the rise and fall—of landlords like Anne Kihagi is inextricably linked to the surreal universe of San Francisco real estate. When even the most marginal apartment building in the most marginal neighborhood is a potential cash machine stuffed with millions of dollars, it’s inevitable that some people are going to try to pry it open, by fair means or foul. Of course, there have always been landlords who stack the deck in their favor, but the stakes have rarely been as high as they are in the latest Gilded Age. Recountings of Kihagi’s misdeeds read like the fever dream of a tenants’ rights activist; surely this is the stuff of political agitprop, if not outright comic-book fiction. But no, there it is in the numbing repetition of Bradstreet’s ruling, in meticulous black and white. Welcome to San Francisco, circa right now.

 

“I'm gonna have to be honest with you,” Anne Kihagi says after being reached in late August on one of the many phone numbers listed on myriad legal documents going back decades. “A lot of articles always want to write about the landlord who villainized people. If you’re looking for that article, I’ll probably tell you no worries, go write what you want. But if you want to have an open discussion, I encourage you to have one.”

All right, I tell her. Let’s have an open discussion. Kihagi is enthusiastic. Pending approval from her attorney, Karen Uchiyama, she agrees to call back at 3:30 p.m. the next day. “There’s more than one story to every side,” she says in an energetic and charmingly accented voice. “We can go into that.” She never calls back. Her attorney never calls back either. “Cheers,” Kihagi texts me before going permanently radio silent. A subsequent attempt by the magazine’s fact checker to reach Kihagi also went unanswered.

Who is Anne Kihagi, aka Anna Kihagi, aka Anna Swain, aka Anne Kihagi Swain, aka Anna Kihagi Swain? It’s difficult to know, because she has given different answers to different interlocutors about even the most rudimentary facts about herself. Where was she born? In one deposition, she claims that her birth certificate is from Somalia and that she grew up in London. But Guerrero Street tenant Sylvia Smith claims that Kihagi told her she was from Senegal, and then, not even an hour later, said she was from Belize. In two depositions, Kihagi says her birthday is September 19, 1977, and on various occasions she has claimed she graduated from UC Berkeley in 2001, which seems reasonable for someone born in 1977. On her 1993 Pennsylvania marriage license application, however, Kihagi wrote that she was born in 1967 in Kenya, where her mother, Mary Kihagi, a “real-estate developer,” still resided. And in a 2001 lawsuit, she stated that she’d been working at Bank of America since 1996, which would make her claim to have graduated from UC Berkeley in 2001 implausible. San Francisco’s city attorney’s office, which subpoenaed UC Berkeley’s attendance records, says Kihagi did not graduate from Cal at all. She did, however, take a course at UC Extension.

Kihagi’s marriage license, incidentally, didn’t involve Charles Swain, whose surname Kihagi occasionally still uses, but one Paul W. Wong, who, like Kihagi, listed himself as a student in 1993. In a 2016 deposition, Kihagi describes her connection to Swain as “literally almost a married relationship.” In March 2004, Swain sued Kihagi, claiming she changed the lock on the PO box of a jointly owned LLC, rerouted rent money to a new bank account that only she could access, and ceased payment on a $100,000 loan. Calls to Swain have not been returned. Kihagi appears to have begun honing her business practices a decade ago in West Hollywood, where she started buying apartment buildings and trying to force out tenants, running afoul of enraged renters and the law in the process. Richard Langford, a surveyor Kihagi hired—and who, like many who have had business dealings with her, ended up in court—recalls the day she paraded him through a West Hollywood property she planned to convert into tenancies in common. “The building had so many tenant issues, when she went through the units with me, people were calling her names and yelling at her,” he recalls. Later, “I asked them why they were so upset, and they’d say, ‘My hot-water heater hasn’t worked for several years.’”

As she would later do in San Francisco, in Southern California Kihagi deployed the Ellis Act, which allows a landlord to clear a building of its tenants on the condition that the landlord cease renting out the property. One of her tenants sued her for wrongful eviction. A judge specifically ordered Kihagi to not rent out his or any of the four units in the building; when she subsequently did just that, the court found her in contempt, a charge that carries a potential five-day jail sentence. Kihagi is currently appealing that decision.

After acquiring at least 14 Southern California properties between 2006 and 2013, at least 11 of which she appears to still own, Kihagi in 2013 embarked on a whirlwind buying spree in San Francisco. Between December 2013 and June 2016, Kihagi and her sisters and their various aliases and LLCs acquired 11 San Francisco buildings for a total of just under $30 million. The San Francisco Superior Court set Kihagi’s net worth at $25 million, but the actual amount is unknown, since she has refused to fully comply with a court order to disclose it. (This refusal has crucial consequences, since the fines courts impose in such cases are limited by the defendants’ assets. If Kihagi is actually worth $50 million, her fines could conceivably be doubled.)

Kihagi’s strategy for booting rent-controlled tenants was simple and effective. She personally oversaw a meticulous regimen of disruptions and deprivations that residents have likened to water torture. “It is designed to make you crazy,” Hembury says. Adds San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera, “She plays the long game and exhibits patience to ensure she is able to get people out, as opposed to one intimidating act. She’s a pro at this.”

Judge Bradstreet’s ruling reveals the professional, and crazy-making, tactics that Kihagi has employed to drive out undesired tenants—including numerous elderly and disabled people and one man suffering from terminal cancer. At multiple Kihagi properties, master keys for mailboxes went missing, forcing residents to travel miles to the post office to pick up their daily mail. Garages were boarded up with cars still inside; laundry rooms were locked with wet clothes within. At multiple sites, tenants arrived home to find backdated documents marked “third notice” plastered to their doors—when there had been no first or second warning.

When tenants complained to Kihagi, or to city officials, she responded on numerous occasions by installing security cameras facing not outward but inward, toward residents’ doors or casing the lobbies. Tenants say they know Kihagi watched the footage, because she’d warned them about moving items around in common areas when nobody was present. Construction, often unpermitted or greatly in excess of what the permit allowed, took place at all hours of the day and on all days of the week; a number of current or former tenants say that Kihagi has been wont to enter and wander about their homes on a whim, and almost never during agreed-upon periods.

Other Kihagi tactics are even more personally invasive—as Sylvia Smith can attest. The diminutive Peruvian-Argentinean retired letter carrier lives one apartment over from Johnson and Hembury on Guerrero Street. She has been a part of this neighborhood on the eastern edge of Noe Valley for four decades; she served as a crossing guard, yard monitor, and lunch lady at the nearby St. James School (two of the little girls she walked to school would go on to become her lawyer and paralegal in this case). But ever since Kihagi bought the building, Smith says, she has been afraid to leave her apartment. In 2015, Smith discovered a notice from Kihagi taped to her door, accusing her of running a “900 SEX TALK” line out of her home. Even now, Smith remains equal parts angry, incredulous, and deeply embarrassed. “I go out and my neighbors, they’re kidding, they say, ‘Sylvia, give me your number,’” she says. “Look, I’m an old lady. I’m 73. What idiot is going to call me? They believe I’m a prostitute. I can’t even lift up my leg! If I’m a prostitute, call the police. Come and get me out of her house.”

For weeks, when no mail could be delivered to the house because the master key to the mailbox was “missing,” Smith spent $22 a day taking taxis to the post office and back. She didn’t dare miss a day because she feared Kihagi would send her a backdated three-day notice. “I used my funeral money,” she says. “I got kids. They gonna bury me.” 

Smith shakes her head. “Since she bought this building, I don’t go out. She harassed me so much.” Smith says stress from Kihagi’s actions caused illnesses that forced her to go to the hospital several times. “I delivered mail to the worst ghettos in San Francisco and the richest people in Los Altos,” Smith says. “And nobody treated me like this woman.”

 

The fastest and most direct way for a landlord to empty a unit of an unwanted tenant is to use legal force majeure: owner- or relative-move- in evictions and Ellis Act clear-outs. In response to the city’s lawsuit, Judge Bradstreet ruled that on multiple occasions, Kihagi’s use of such causes of eviction was fraudulent. Among other unlawful actions, Kihagi repeatedly evicted tenants on the grounds that she was going to move a family member in, then failed to do so. But for the city, this was a difficult, time-consuming, and expensive case to make. Attorneys from Herrera’s office first had to clarify certain facts about the LLCs that Kihagi and her relatives used as a smoke screen to conceal any bad-faith evictions. It’s the kind of exacting investigative work that requires a great deal of time and focus. And while the city’s attorneys were tumbling down rabbit holes, tenants were living through all of the above and, in numerous cases, getting evicted.

Some of Kihagi’s maneuvers were sly and hard to nail down. Others were so blatantly and obviously illegal as to beggar belief. After Kihagi lost her unlawful detainer case against Johnson and Hembury, she attempted to get rid of them another way, by invoking the Ellis Act. But rather than emptying the Guerrero Street building of tenants and permanently removing it from the rental market, which is what the Ellis Act requires, Kihagi told the building’s market-rate tenants that they were “friends” who were welcome to stay and keep paying top-dollar rent. She even sent one of those tenants an email stating as much.

Kihagi’s business practices may be unconscionable, but one thing about her seems clear: She is totally unrepentant. Her legal and public relations tactics appear to be driven by the maxim “The best defense is a good offense.” In the midst of the city’s legal assault and unflattering print and TV stories, Kihagi hired PR firms to create and promote websites and social media outlets, attempting to rebrand herself not as San Francisco’s most rapacious landlord but as the provider of a “resource for the over 22 million landlords across the United States.” Her PR material assures concerned parties that Kihagi is “by no means anti-tenant.” On her blog True Facts San Francisco, Kihagi purports to be the target of a cabal of city agencies and a legal system beholden to “activist” tenants. “PROPERTY OWNERS BEWARE,” an article warns in all caps. “THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU.”

Kihagi also likes to claim she’s been victimized because of her race. In March 2015, with the city’s action against her impending, Kihagi preemptively filed suit against San Francisco—as well as individual lawyers in the city attorney’s office and individual housing inspectors—claiming that “animus” and “vindictiveness” were directed against her due to her status “as an American female immigrant and real estate entrepreneur of African descent.” This appears to be something of a pattern for Kihagi: In February 2014, she sued the city of West Hollywood, claiming that it went after her for rent control, property maintenance, and construction code violations in a discriminatory manner due to her status not only as a black woman but as a straight black woman.

Her suit notes that West Hollywood, a place where “upon information and belief the gay male population comprises approximately 41 percent of the total population,” was “the first city in the United States to have a city council with a majority of gay members.” Four of the tenants she attempted to Ellis Act out of a building, she claims, are gay. One man who sued her alleging he was improperly evicted—and whose apartment she would subsequently rent out in defiance of court orders, triggering a contempt charge—is gay. The housing inspector who issued a warning after observing a tripping hazard and dead vegetation on her property—and followed up with a citation when these violations weren’t remedied— is “upon information and belief” a gay man. The gay mafia, apparently, is alive and well in West Hollywood.

Allegedly, Kihagi also has a track record of stiffing people she has employed, including her lawyers. After surveyor Richard Langford sued her in what he calls an “open-and-shut” case of nonpayment, he was mystified when Kihagi appealed the judge’s ruling, and still more mystified when, he claims, she threatened to sue him in small-claims court in Los Angeles for the amount she owed him. That’s when he employed a novel legal tactic. “I told her, ‘If I have to show up in Los Angeles, I’m bringing your ex-husband who can’t find you and I’m bringing all the tenants who can’t find you,’” he says. “I got calls—constantly—from people who saw I had some dealings with her.” Langford says he ended up recovering most of his $6,855 ruling, but it required nearly two years to do so.

After she lost the unlawful detainer case against Johnson and Hembury, Kihagi filed suit against her three attorneys, claiming her loss was due not to the facts of the case or her own conduct and testimony, but to their professional negligence. Two of them claim they’re still owed the majority of their fees and may yet join the parade of litigants targeting their former client; the third would not comment. (When told this was an article about Kihagi, he said, “Good luck with your hard job,” and hung up the phone.) Another attorney formerly employed by Kihagi, Daniel Bornstein, has reportedly complained in the hallways of city courtroom buildings about Kihagi stiffing him, too. Asked to confirm this, he replied, “I can only say I am relieved to not be representing her anymore.” 

 

During the trial in the city attorney’s case against Kihagi, a prosecution expert testified that her talent for expelling longtime renters from the numerous buildings she and her sisters own bolstered their value by $8.8 million in the course of just two years. Moreover, by booting low-paying, rent-controlled tenants, Kihagi didn’t just pad her bottom line; she augmented her borrowing capacity, which allowed her to purchase even more properties. “The paper value of the building skyrockets, so there’s more to borrow against to make the next down payments on the next buildings,” says Peter Keith, who led the city’s legal team in the case against Kihagi. “I don’t know if she even needs any new capital to buy more property.” (The source of Kihagi’s money, like so much about her, is unknown to investigators.) 

Of course, if she loses her appeals, Kihagi will owe the city upward of $6 million in fines and legal fees. And unlike Kihagi’s tenants, the City of San Francisco can play the long game, too. “She can delay and delay, but that’s not going to make us go away,” says Michael Weiss, a deputy city attorney who has spent years dueling her in court. “It’s not going to help her in the long run. She can try every tactic in the book.” In this type of litigation, says Weiss, the city, if victorious, is guaranteed to get its costs back. “She has filed four or five summary judgment motions in this case. It was a nuisance to respond to these. It takes a lot of time. But because the statute we sued under provides our recovery of fees, it ultimately comes out of her pocket.”

Just how much comes out of her pocket, however, will determine whether Kihagi is sunk or merely operating with a lower profit margin. The city attorney’s office trumpeted the $2.7 million judgment against Kihagi—but it initially asked for $13 million. “I want to believe,” Weiss rationalizes, “that the court took into consideration the fact that there were a lot of other tenant lawsuits pending, and there should be some funds available for those suits.” 

Kihagi will need them. On October 5, a San Francisco jury returned a verdict exceeding $3.5 million in favor of ousted tenant Dale Duncan—purportedly the largest award in state history involving a single rental unit. If a multitude of tenants win large judgments like this one, and if the valuations of Kihagi’s buildings are eventually reduced to their levels prior to her ejection of rent-controlled tenants, it could drain her finances and fatally pinch the income stream she may have borrowed against to acquire her properties. A domino effect could be triggered, and Kihagi’s finances could be the last domino.

But it’s also possible that Kihagi may yet end up owing less money than the appreciation of her buildings. In which case, she could write off those fines and legal fees—and shattered lives—as merely the cost of doing a very profitable business.

At this point, you’re probably wondering how in the hell all this could happen, and keep happening, without anyone going to jail. The answer is simple: The legal consequences of actions like those detailed in Bradstreet’s ruling are minimal. Fraudulent evictions are only a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors do carry a potential prison term of a year, but landlords like Kihagi rarely serve time. Veteran attorney Nancy Conway, who is representing several of Kihagi’s tenants, notes that any landlord convicted of violating the city’s Rent Ordinance can face criminal penalties. But the last landlord she can recall going to jail in such a case is George Hoffberg, who in 1999 was sentenced to 30 days for a series of eviction schemes. 

To be sure, there have been cases of San Francisco landlords who were locked up for their crimes. In 2013, Kip and Nicole Macy, who had cut the joists supporting an unwanted tenant’s floor and were caught ransacking and burglarizing other tenants’ flats, pleaded guilty to criminal charges of residential burglary, attempted grand theft, and stalking and were sentenced to four and a half years in prison. The city attorney also went after the Lembi family, which owned the sprawling CitiApartments chain and deployed armed thugs in military garb to harass renters and inquire about their residency and immigration status. CitiApartments agreed to a $10 million settlement in 2011, but paid out only $837,000 before going bankrupt.

Whether Kihagi could face more serious charges may hinge on whether District Attorney George Gascón pursues a criminal case. State senator and former San Francisco supervisor Scott Wiener, who formerly oversaw the district where many of Kihagi’s tenants lived, says he has asked the DA to assign an investigator. The DA’s office declined to comment, but Weiss, for one, suggests that a strong perjury case could be made against her. “Anne Kihagi has repeatedly perjured herself,” Weiss says. “She lies about things big and small.” But he considers it a better use of city time and resources to continue reaping Kihagi’s money than to move to put her behind bars. 

Wiener, who is also a former deputy city attorney, says the Kihagi case “is really frustrating, because there are limits to your power. When you have someone who is engaging in blatantly illegal activity, you can’t just pass a law. It already is illegal. It’s a matter of enforcing the law, which is really hard.”

Under an injunction issued by Judge Bradstreet, Kihagi is barred from managing her properties herself for five years (although the injunction will not take effect until a ruling on Kihagi’s appeal is made). If she continues to defy orders, Weiss says, a future step could be to appoint a receiver, who could sell her buildings.

In the meantime, there’s nothing to stop Kihagi from acquiring more apartment buildings in San Francisco, or any other city. Herrera admits that “it’d be a stretch” to legally bar her from doing so. Attorney Dean Preston, the executive director of the advocacy group Tenants Together, thinks more radical measures are needed to fight landlords like Kihagi. He’s established a toll-free number for aggrieved renters statewide and says there are hundreds, if not thousands, of tenants who have it as bad as or worse than Kihagi’s. The solution, he says, is to license landlords as we license drivers or businesses. “If you’re a bar and you serve minors, you lose your license; if you’re a restaurant and you flunk your health inspection, you lose your license,” he says. Even the worst landlords, like the Macys, are free to buy up more rental properties after they get out of prison.

A program of this sort actually exists in several American cities, most notably Minneapolis. But there does not appear to be a movement to institute one here, despite the behavior of landlords like Anne Kihagi.

 

“In my discussions with other people, oftentimes they say, ‘She can’t do this!’” recalls former Kihagi tenant Allison Leshefsky, who was forced out of her home of about 10 years at 195 Eureka Street in 2015 via a “temporary” 60-day eviction. But, as Bradstreet found, Kihagi did do this to Leshefsky, and to many others like her.

Lost in the reams of legal and building code arcana are the shattering effects on people whom Kihagi has kicked out of their homes. Leshefsky’s case is pending—and she both dreads and longs for her day in court. “This eviction,” she says, “had a devastating effect on me.” For Leshefsky, a teacher at the San Francisco public K–8 school Paul Revere, her job, not her home, was her only refuge. “Waking up early and teaching all day and not having a safe place to come home to and relax—it became very stressful,” she says. “You’d come home to unknown people in the building and threatening letters.” The units started emptying out. “It felt like waiting in line.” Leshefsky got her eviction notice right before the school year started in 2015; Kihagi claimed renovations were needed and Leshefsky would have to vacate for up to two months.

Leshefsky began to frantically look for housing and attempt to find a place to keep her yellow Lab, Harvey Milk, all while teaching high-needs kids at an understaffed school. She eventually put the dog into foster care and her possessions into a garage and began living from sublet to sublet. She kept her clothes in a duffel bag and used a sleeping bag so she wouldn’t have to carry bedding from place to place. 

Before too long, Leshefsky wouldn’t know where she was when the alarm went off, or what was happening to her. “I would wake up and think, Where are my socks? Where is my underwear? Where’s my dog? Who am I living with? Where are my belongings?” she recalls. Amid all of this, her dog died.

Kihagi never allowed Leshefsky to return to her apartment. The teacher resigned from her beloved job, sold all her furniture on Craigslist, left the city, and moved to Portland, where she landed another teaching position. 

Leshefsky still loves San Francisco. She still comes back to visit. Wandering through the Castro, she feels like she never left. Like none of this ordeal ever happened to her. Then she gets to 19th and Eureka and sees her old home. And it all hits: “I lost my job. I lost my dog. I lost my possessions.”

As far as she knows, her old apartment is still vacant.

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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