The couple that paid $90,000 for a private street in San Francisco reveal how they bought it, and how the rich and powerful neighbours made them give it back

Presidio terrace street san francisco 6925Melia Robinson/Business Insider
  • A couple bought one of the most exclusive streets in San Francisco for $US90,000 in 2015.
  • Outraged residents sued the city and the couple. City leaders voted in November to reverse the sale.
  • Now the couple are fighting to win their street back.
  • Michael Cheng, the buyer, tells Business Insider that he and his wife lost Presidio Terrace because the wealthy get their way in San Francisco.

Michael Cheng and Tina Lam couldn’t afford to live on Presidio Terrace, one of the most exclusive private streets in San Francisco. But they could buy the footpaths for $US90,000.

In an online auction in 2015, the couple from San Jose, California, quietly bought the street, its common area, and the shrubbery that lines the cul-de-sac, without the knowledge of the wealthy homeowners who live there. The city had put Presidio Terrace up for sale after the homeowners’ association failed to pay property taxes on the street for more than a decade.

But the homeowners railed against the city for allowing Cheng and Lam to scoop the street up from underneath them without notice. Their district supervisor, Mark Farrell, who was sworn in as interim mayor last month, called the couple “bottom-feeding pirates” in a public hearing.

San francisco couple buys presidio terraceLinkedIn/lamtina and LinkedIn/michengTina Lam and Michael Cheng.

Last November, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 7-4 to overturn the sale.

Cheng, a real-estate investor, told Business Insider the decision was unsurprising.

“The most obvious interpretation I have is these are probably the richest residents of SF, with supervisors who like to have wealthy donors,” Cheng said in a recent interview.

He and his wife believe they lost ownership of the street, which they bought legally, because its residents are wealthy and politically connected. The law doesn’t apply to them, he said.

The couple didn’t know what Presidio Terrace was when they bought it

For at least 17 years, the city’s treasurer and tax-collection office mailed tax forms to the address of a now deceased bookkeeper who worked for the homeowners’ association before retiring in the 1980s.

Over the years, the $US14 annual property tax went unpaid by the people who live on Presidio Terrace. (San Francisco taxes the private street as a separate parcel from the homes on it.) The bill racked up hundreds of dollars in penalties and interest.

In 2015, the city listed Presidio Terrace, along with 389 parcels, on the auction block.

When Cheng bid on the parcel now associated with Presidio Terrace, he had no idea what he’d gotten himself into.

The self-employed real-estate investor is in the habit of betting tens of thousands of dollars on land for sale online in the Bay Area – parcels that are represented in the online auction system as a series of letters and numbers. Some are zoned for building residential housing, which Cheng could turn around and sell at a profit, while others are underwater.

Cheng knew by looking at the parcel associated with Presidio Terrace only that it was in a nice part of town. Over three days, other investors placed higher and higher bids.

“I figured they knew something I didn’t,” Cheng said.

His final offer: $US90,100.

About six months went by before Cheng learned he was the new owner of a gated-community street. In the city’s assessor-recorder’s office, he dug up a document that laid out the rules of the neighbourhood. It described a parcel that contained the footpath, “decorative islands,” and the street itself, which Cheng confirmed was his.

Cheng said he and his wife did not attempt to enter the street, because they didn’t want to push their luck.

“Once we found out what it was – the historical significance of it – we felt like this is really worth keeping,” Cheng said. “In life, you can have money. But having something of significance is meaningful. This kind of property doesn’t come along very often in a lifetime.”

Presidio Terrace isn’t open to the public. A stone wall surrounds most of the development, and a private security guard stands watch at the entrance.

The street’s enhanced security and isolated location have attracted some of the wealthiest and most powerful politicians in California over the years, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The homeowners’ association has reigned over the street since 1905.

According to the real-estate site Zillow, the estimated median home value in the Presidio Heights neighbourhood tops $US4.8 million, more than four times that for all of San Francisco.

Residents were furious about the sale

Though they may be well-connected, the residents of Presidio Terrace were not made aware of their street’s sale until May 2016, when a title-search company working on behalf of Cheng and Lam contacted the homeowners’ association to see whether it was interested in buying back the land.

Cheng has since said that was done in error.

Residents began a full-blown effort to reclaim the street. They hired attorneys, sued the city and the couple, and requested a hearing before the Board of Supervisors to overturn the sale.

Cheng and Lam met with supervisors from nearly every district before the hearing last November.

Cheng, who came to the US from Taiwan when he was 8 and has lived in California most of his life, said that in conversations with some supervisors, including Farrell, they were told they would probably lose because they are outsiders from Silicon Valley.

Cheng says he also remembers being told the city should have made more of an effort to notify residents of the unpaid taxes before it listed Presidio Terrace for sale.

“It’s like, OK, sounds good, except that I’ve never heard of that for anyone else who wasn’t super rich,” Cheng said.

Farrell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Presidio Terrace was one of several hundred parcels (mostly vacant lots) that hit the auction block in 2015, according to the San Francisco Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector. Cheng said that during his research, he discovered that two of those parcels were private streets like Presidio Terrace: one in the Balboa Park neighbourhood, and the other in Outer Richmond.

Both parcels sold in less affluent neighbourhoods.

“Nobody cared,” Cheng said.

Documents from the treasurer’s office that Cheng provided to Business Insider showed these two parcels exist and sold through public auction in 2015.

The treasurer’s office denied his claim in a statement: “To our knowledge, there were no other private streets sold in 2015.”

Cheng says the outcome of the hearing shows that a different standard of government applies to the rich and politically connected in San Francisco.

“The wealthy is demonstrating … they do control the laws,” Cheng said. “They have politicians in their back pockets. They can do whatever they want.”

Now the couple is suing to win their street back. Attorneys for the couple filed a lawsuit against the city in January with the San Francisco Superior Court.

The couple also launched a GoFundMe page, seeking to raise $US50,000 for their legal defence. They have raised $US3,300 in one month.

A letter sat atop a pile of papers Cheng brought to our interview. It was fan mail from a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area urging Cheng and Lam not to give up the fight.

“We feel like it’s about more than just the street,” Cheng said. “We’re standing up for the law.”

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