Slumlords and Terror

Historical Essay

by Brian Doohan, from Fire and Gold, 1981


Gartland Apartments, Valencia and 16th Street, 1958. Burned by landlord arson, 1975.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


At the risk of oversimplification, a slumlord degrades his (or her) properties. Maintenance is shoddy and the tenants are at hazard due to health (trash, sanitation, vermin) and security (crime, fire) factors.

Some victims are young. Toan Vu fell down an open elevator shaft at Gunter Kaussen's 270 Turk. His life was over at eight. Others are seniors. James Gregory was beaten and choked to death on his own false teeth in the Westchester Hotel during the height of Justin Herman's war against the residents of what is now the Moscone Center. Gregory was murdered shortly after signing a petition pleading for improved security, which plea was rejected by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

And others are civil servants. Zeno Contreras, a fireman, fell through a collapsing floor in the burning Thor Hotel and died a few days later.

Out of the clutch of slumlords, a property passes either into gentrification or abandonment. The former is most likely to occur in downtown areas and may be detected by an influx of serious and would-be artists and young professionals... Chicago's Old Town, New York's SoHo, Philadelphia's South Street district. In San Francisco, blessed with a favorable climate and a white-collar paper economy, slumlords and gentrifiers have hitched themselves to the coattails of developers who, with the active cooperation of government, strive to establish one prototype for the 21st century... the fully gentrified garrison city.

Abandonment, that spectre raised by property owners of all categories, occurs only in the older, colder cities of the North and East, struggling with migration and a scarcity of fossil fuels. Low-income residents are displaced out of the center city and swell the adjoining residential districts which are surrendered to hopelessness and crime.

Fire, which in the abandoned zones takes the functions of allowing the slumlord to cash in on insurance, is employed in the gentrifying zones to remove sub-productive tenants.


With the bloody pelt of Gunter Kaussen (1928-1985) raised at Fifth and Mission, detailed treatment of his life and crimes would be superfluous. The circumstances of his fall, however, serve to define the parameters of Mephistopoly.

Possessed by what the Tenderloin Times described as a mysterious elixir from little black flasks the size of steak sauce bottles, Kaussen gambled on a mix of slumlord maintenance and gentrifier rents. Impressed by the German's kited rents (and neglecting to investigate or take into consideration a vacancy rate that in his buildings at 270 and 275, according to realtor Bill Rosetti approached 50%) bankers at such institutions as Bayview and Pan American S&L and, courtesy of HUD, the American taxpayers, gleefully shoveled money into Kaussen's pockets; money furiously shuttled between his holdings in the City, Montreal, Atlanta and Europe.

The unraveling was a consequence of Kaussen's own arrogance and, in part, an example of the xenophobic nature of Mephistopolyritual sacrifice of foreign devils to preserve the domestic. For years, Kaussen routinely stiffed his maintenance people, suppliers and such, accumulating liens from hardware companies, electricians, even the elevator company which contributed to death of Toan Vu. These practices, doggedly followed by the Tenderloin Times (see issues of May and July, 1984) eventually came to the attention of the daily media, which must justify its being by the occasional tossing of a slumlord to the dogs.

Carl Lippenberger, Evictor, served his German master so devotedly that the courts, according to the Tenderloin Times, had a special stamp made for Kaussen evictions. But then the slumlord stiffed him too. Between 12/27/84 and 5/15/85, Lippenberger filed six claims involving 108 unpaid matters for a total of over $38,000. He also refused to institute eviction proceedings, a practice also followed by the rest of Kaussen's attorneys. And so some tenants enjoyed a well-deserved rent-free interim.

Randy Shaw, an attorney who has represented many Kaussen tenants noted that evictions had dribbled away to practically zero during the last months of 1984. Upon the slumlord's death he observed that Tenderloin residents were feeling pretty good that he sort of died in disgrace. (Examiner 4/19/85). But whether Kaussen was truly broke or rich at his death (various media accounts had listed him as either owning or owing 300 million), God had plans for Gunter Kaussen.

German police described his last days as tumultuous. He forcibly imprisoned his accountants, drove off his common-law wife and their four daughters and brooded in his Cologne penthouse on the injustice of it all. On April 15, his nude, emaciated body was discovered hanging from a bathroom heating pipe. Randy Shaw called the matter an example of a self-made man gone awry.


Terror is the coin of Mephistopoly.

It is fire. Four dead at the Miramonte at 25th and Mission June 21, 1978. Three at 1737 Ellis, August 25, 1982. Another at 10 Sumner Street, April 19, 1982. And another... May 8, 1984 at the Orlando Hotel.

Burn down the Mission. Fires... December 16, 1979 at the Dagmar, 2191 Mission. A year later at 2824 21st Street. Fire in January 1983 caused by an electric heater empties the Evergreen Hotel. The building had been cited at least six times prior to the fire for insufficient heat. Fires at 414 Grant, 908 Post. An epidemic around 16th and Valencia, Alamo Square and the 500 Block of Waller. At 1024 Page. 3153 23rd. 3115 22nd. 871 Hayes.

Why? Ask Inspector Charles Radford...

It all started in the late 1960s. We didn't give the cops enough guns. Student riots left a complete lack of respect for the law. Somewhere society fell down by letting them get away with it.

Why? Ask Fire Department Consultant Barry Goetz:

San Francisco is experiencing gentrification. The demand and cost for housing is high. Low income neighborhoods are changing to middle-class ones. Arson for profit has been known to play a role in changing neighborhoods; to cash in on insurance money, to scare tenants out and to gut or destroy buildings for redevelopment. There are indications of such arson in San Francisco, with the tragic consequences of loss of lives among citizens and firemen alike.

Which is the truth?

We step on the board of Mephistopoly across the Gartland. Two blocks away, a fireman, Zeno Contreras, was killed fighting a fire at the Thor Hotel. The cause of the fire wasn't arson. A tenant fell asleep smoking a cigarette. He went to jail.

What's happened to the Thor since then in Mephistopoly?

The burned out hotel was remodeled, and the lease acquired by Mohamedali Mirdad. As described in the North Mission News of February 1984, Mirdad removed its clientele of pimps and pushers, and during a media generated heating crackdown, the Thor was found to be in violation of ordinances setting minimum temperature... for exceeding city standards.

Mirdad died on December 30, 1983. His word was 110%, the News declared. In an enterprise that is often brutalizing for landlord and tenant alike, he became strong rather than hardened. The lease was assumed by Honif Bajee and Abdul Shaikh. The situation worsened. Within a year, conditions led to the formation of the Thor Tenant Union. Harassment increased. Bajee called the police to arrest the tenants for meeting, which the officers declined to do.

Then the City stepped in. The Rent Board awarded the Thor tenants a 50% rent reduction until services were restored. The Bureau of Building Inspections fined the landlord $5000 for violation of the Residential Hotel Conversion Ordinance. Towards the end of April, stated Jim Faye of the San Francisco Tenants' Union, it looked like the tenants had won.

Then the leaseholders counterattacked. Hired hoodlums threatened and attacked people in their halls and rooms. The police stood by. Most tenants left ... two were found dead, allegedly of drug overdoses.

In the October, 1985 North Mission News, Faye summed up the situation. "The Thor Hotel Tenant's Union did everything by the book and the landlords threw the book into the fire. Terrorism is organized violence designed to instill fear into a populace ... what happened at the Thor would in no way be dismissed by the police if it took place in a middle-class building."

People who live in residential hotels are treated like shit.

That is the terror.

There is another terror, the cold white death of displacement drifting down in flakes ... rent increases that, according to a Bank of America study (Chronicle 5/7/84) rose 9.5% in Seattle between 1981-83, 22%in Chicago, 23.6% in the United States as an average and 100% in San Francisco's Sunset District.

The study also predicted that rents would continue to rise at a rate double that of the cost of living and of home purchase price.

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