Supes Lambaste Academy of Art -- Whether They'll Deliver More than a Tongue-Lashing Remains to Be Seen

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Elisa Stephens had an admission to make today. "We have made a few mistakes," she said at a public hearing regarding the controversial housing practices of her family's for-profit Academy of Art University.

And that, claim the Academy's many critics, is one hell of an understatement.

For decades, the Stephens family -- which founded and runs the Academy -- has been buying up residential buildings and turning them into dormitories, without the appropriate city permits. Filling formerly rent-controlled apartments with multiple bunk beds per room is a lucrative business -- and up to now, the city has pretty much let the Academy get away with ignoring the law.

Planning Department officials have been working with the Academy on a "path toward legalization," but there have not yet been any consequences for the school's long-term violations. On top of this, city officials and community members have raised concerns about the safety and living standards in the Academy's converted dormitories.

Today's public hearing was held during the Board of Supervisors' land-use and economic development committee meeting. Supervisor Eric Mar, who led the questioning, said at the end of the two-hour affair that the city would consider two different ways to penalize the Academy for its actions.

The first--which SF Weekly discussed last week--would be to schedule an immediate review of 10 of the school's outstanding conditional use permits, which the Academy needs to legalize the conversion of its residential properties into dormitories. This would give the city a chance to deny the permits right now, rather than waiting for a year or more for the school to complete an Environmental Impact Report.

The second tactic would be to treat the Academy like a commercial developer -- which its critics are happy to claim it essentially already is -- and demand that the school pay a fee to compensate the city for the housing stock lost as a result of the Academy's commercial activity.

Both of these options were proposed during the hearing by Brad Paul, a former city deputy mayor and longtime critic of the Academy's housing practices. Charging the school a fee of $500 to $1,000 per student "could raise millions of dollars," Paul said. "We want to give [the Academy] the kind of incentives they need to build dormitories."

Stephens, who sat in the back of the room flanked by a phalanx of university administrators, scowled at Paul's suggestions.

In contrast, more than a dozen community members, mostly representatives of various city tenant organizations, endorsed Paul's suggestions and said that the school's unchecked devouring of rent-controlled and affordable housing units was a major concern -- especially, as Mar argued, given the Academy's plans for augmenting its student body from the current 16,000 to a projected 24,000 or more by 2017. Back in 1990, meanwhile, only 1,800 students attended the Academy.

What's more, city officials claimed the Academy is already cutting corners when it comes to housing its student body. An Academy building* at 466 Townsend used to be a vegetable warehouse -- and even after being converted to academic use, it had only temporary stairs, no access for the disabled, and no sidewalk, reported Ed Sweeney, a deputy director of the Building Inspection Department. Angelica Cabande of the South of Market Community Action Network described the experience of an unnamed friend who lived in a dormitory room converted from a studio apartment. Five students bundled into one room -- her friend was practically living in the kitchen, Cabande said. And with one closet for the five of them, clutter was everywhere -- a clear violation of fire codes.

This was not a sympathetic tribunal for the Academy. The three supervisors chairing the meeting -- Mar, David Chiu and Sophie Maxwell -- spent much of the hearing chastising the school, not only for flouting city codes, but for supposedly being bad neighbors, and for potentially packing the school's many international students into substandard housing, a particular concern of Maxwell's. Maxwell also noted that the city's inactivity dealing with the Academy could lead people to wonder "what's going on -- are people getting paid under the table?"

So why has this gone on for so long before the city resorted to even the nominal step of calling a public hearing -- a move, it should be noted, that gives city politicians the chance to thunder and roar about the Academy's supposed misdeeds, but little additional ammunition to do anything about it?

According to former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, making his first appearance before the board since he left city government, it's all about political favoritism. "This is politically charged at the highest level," Peskin testified at the hearing. "Nobody else gets away with dragging their feet for the better part of a decade."

*An earlier version of this story identified the structure at 466 Townsend as a dormitory; it is actually an academic space akin to a classroom building. This, however, has no bearing on the Department of Building Inspection's findings.

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