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An Abridged History of San Francisco’s Bureau of Building Inspection: Part II


In January 2016, this writer published a 78-page report (“An Abridged History of San Francisco’s Bureau of Building Inspection: 1944 to 1992”) that summarized:

  • “…dramatic storylines within DPW’s Bureau of Building Inspection (BBI), including tense turf wars with the Fire Department and the Board of Permit Appeals; the origins and development of the City’s current building codes and the ultimately doomed decades-long battle against State control of these codes and standards; the career (and death in 1985) of renowned Superintendent Robert C. Levy; continued efforts to modernize record-keeping and management processes; and the Bureau’s stout response to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.”

My January 2016 monograph was divided into three Parts:

  • Part I (pages 02 to 07) presented an introductory chronology of San Francisco’s Building Laws and Building Codes (beginning in 1946) from 1906 to 1992.
  • Part II (pages 08 to 17) and Part III (pages 18 to 78) then cited specific sections within the S.F. Department of Public Works’ Annual Reports from 1944 to 1992 to: a) document major dates and events in the Bureau of Building Inspection’s development/adoption processes for the post-World II codes; and b) summarize other interesting facets of the Bureau’s history.

However, this initial report did not attempt to document the Bureau’s final 2+ years of existence from July 1992 to December 31, 1994:

  • In November 1994, City and County of San Francisco voters approved a hotly contested Charter amendment that wrested BBI from the Department of Public Works to create a new Department of Building Inspection under the direct management of a new Building Inspection Commission, whose seven members were appointed by the Mayor (4) and by the Board of Supervisors (3).
  • The goal of this second report is to briefly summarize the powerful (and shrewd) political maneuvering that led to BBI’s rapid demise.

(This report is informal and qualitative in nature and is not authorized or intended for project-specific use by attorneys, building professionals or other participants in the construction, architectural, engineering, codes or litigation fields.)

Proposition G (Approved by CCSF Voters in November 1994)

As noted above, in November 1994, CCSF voters amended San Francisco’s Charter (via Proposition G) to: a) replace the Bureau of Building Inspection with a new Department of Building Inspection (DBI); and b) create a new politically appointed Building Inspection Commission (BIC) to oversee and control the new DBI with a mandate for vigorous enforcement of the San Francisco Housing Code.

Attached as Exhibit 1 to this Report is ‘Appendix D–Building Inspection Provisions’ (copied from San Francisco’s 1996 Charter), which defines the new BIC’s broad powers.  While some of these extraordinary provisions are quoted below, I urge readers to closely peruse attached Exhibit 1:

  • “Recognizing that the provision of safe and sanitary buildings is essential to the welfare of the inhabitants of the City and County of San Francisco, there is hereby established a Department of Building Inspection which shall consist of a Building Inspection Commission, a Director of Building Inspection, and such employees as may be necessary to carry out the functions and duties of said department. The commission shall organize, reorganize, and manage the department.  When the commission assumes management of the department, the Bureau of Building Inspection shall cease to exist.” 
  • “The Department of Building Inspection shall be under the management of a Building Inspection Commission consisting of seven members. Four members shall be appointed by the mayor for a term of two years; provided that the respective terms of office of those first appointed shall be as follows: two for one year, and two for two years from the effective date of this section. Three members shall be appointed by the President of the Board of Supervisors for a term of two years…”
  • “The Building Inspection Commission shall organize, reorganize, and manage the Department of Building Inspection which shall have responsibility for the enforcement, administration, and interpretation of the city’s Housing, Building, Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing Codes, except where this Charter specifically grants that power to another department. The Central Permit Bureau, formerly within the Bureau of Building Inspection, shall also be managed by the commission. The commission shall inspect and regulate additions, alterations, and repairs in all buildings and structures covered by the San Francisco Housing, Building, Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing Codes.

“…The commission shall ensure the provision of minimum standards to safeguard life or limb, health, property, and the public welfare by regulating and controlling the safe use of such buildings and structures. The commission shall ensure the vigorous enforcement of city laws mandating the provision of heat and hot water to residential tenants. The commission shall also ensure the enforcement of local, state, and federal disability access laws.

“The commission shall be a policy-making and supervisory body with all the powers provided for in Section 3.500 of this Charter.”

  • “The commission shall constitute the Abatement Appeals Board, and shall assume all powers granted to this entity under this Charter and the San Francisco Building Code. The commission shall appoint and may remove at its pleasure members of the Board of Examiners, Access Appeals Board, and Code Advisory Committee, all of which shall have the powers and duties to the extent set forth in the San Francisco Building Code.”
  • “The commission may reverse, affirm or modify determinations made by the Department of Public Works, Water Department, or Department of Building Inspection on all permits required for a final certificate of completion.”                                   

For traditional architectural/construction professionals, the “disconcerting” scope and magnitude of these new Charter provisions is well expressed in an opinion piece (by acclaimed architect John A. Raeber, FAIA, FCSI, CCS) in the December 1994 monthly newsletter of the San Francisco Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute:

  • “With the passage in San Francisco of Proposition G in the November elections, the San Francisco construction industry will face a new challenge. Those in favor classified Proposition G as ‘The Safe Housing Initiative’ and claimed that it would give tenants a means of forcing landlords to ‘turn up the heat’.  They claimed the Bureau of Building Inspection did not adequately respond to the tenant complaints because of different priorities.  To those in favor the new commission would allow public input into the priorities of the building department.  They wanted ‘civilian oversight for code enforcement’.  (From the proponent’s argument in favor of Proposition G in the voter’s handbook.)

“Other, including the American Institute of Architects San Francisco Chapter, opposed the new commission because the proposition gave the commission power to overrule technical decisions of the building department.  Defining the building department’s public policy would be appropriate for a commission.  But, determining technical issues related to public health and safety should not be in the hands of a politically appointed group of untrained persons.

“Perhaps the most disconcerting wording in the Charter Amendment is under the new Section 3.698-4, which notes, ‘The commission may reverse, affirm or modify determinations made by the Department of Public Works, Water Department, or Department of Building Inspection on all permits required for a final certificate of completion.’  

“Like a double edged sword this could mean that a negative interpretation by the building official could be reversed, but, it could also mean that a building could have a permit revoked or a building department acceptance of a variance from the code overruled if there was an appeal to the commission.”

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Activist Randy Shaw

Co-founded in 1980 by attorney and housing activist Randy Shaw, The Tenderloin Housing Clinic is San Francisco’s leading provider of legal services to low-income tenants.  Mr. Shaw’s own words (published in February 8, 2005) best explain his decision to coauthor Proposition G:

  • “The Clinic spent 14 years battling with BBI over its failure to sue slum landlords. In 1993, so many Latino families in the Mission District were living without heat and in squalor that I felt that drastic action was needed: a charter amendment to replace the unaccountable BBI with a Commission appointed by the May and President of the Board of Supervisors.

“The obvious problem: who would fund the charter amendment, as 50,000 signatures were necessary to qualify it for the November 1994 ballot.  Many groups and individuals sympathized with our cause, but only one person stepped forward and offered to put up money: Joe O’Donoghue of the Residential Builders Association.

“I wrote the Charter Amendment and O’Donoghue and the RBA put up $75,000 for collecting the 68,000 signatures to qualify what became known as Prop G for the ballot. I then learned a very important lesson about San Francisco politics.

“I had thought that everyone would support Prop G, and that we would have the enthusiastic endorsement of the two daily newspapers that had regularly covered the city’s failure to enforce housing codes. But I was too naïve to realize that the downtown interests controlling the BBI liked their favored treatment, and saw Prop G as threatening to level the playing field among all the groups dependent of BBI services.

“The Chronicle and Examiner attacked the Clinic as a ‘special interest group,’ and labeled Prop G a fraud.  Fortunately, our massive endorsement list overcame our opponent’s lies, and Prop G prevailed.

“After taking power in January 1995, the new Commission soon adopted the toughest housing code enforcement procedures in America.  Cases of slum housing were rapidly sent to the City Attorney’s office for prosecution, while prior to 1995 most of the City Attorney’s lawsuits involved illegal in-law apartments.

“In 1995, housing inspectors were prioritized in low-income neighborhoods rather than assigned to harass homeowners in the Sunset.  And the first Spanish-speaking housing inspector was hired so that Mission District tenants could have their needs better addressed.

“The Clinic spent a substantial amount of time and money in building the political coalition and campaign to change housing code enforcement through the passage of Prop G.  We have never made a more rewarding investment.”

(Note: a complete copy of Mr. Shaw’s opinion piece is attached as Exhibit 2 to this Report.)

Joe O’Donoghue (and his Residential Builders Association)

While it was The Tenderloin Housing Clinic and its executive director, Randy Shaw, that provided a strong moral argument for the passage of Proposition G, it was Joe O’Donoghue and his Residential Builders Associationwho provided the political muscle necessary to carve out of the Department of Public Works’ bureaucracy a new Department of Building Inspection and to create a new politically appointed Building Inspection Commission to oversee both of these departments and also the Water Department.

This exercise of political power is described in a long, well-written article (“The House That Joe Built / How belligerent construction titan has reshaped S.F.”) by Susan Sward, a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, published at SFGate.com on July 17, 2000:

  • “Under a big blue Residential Builders Association banner, Mayor Willie Brown looked out at the crowd in the St. Francis Hotel’s Grand Ballroom and called for a chant: ‘Let me hear you: Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe!’

“That moment at the association’s annual dinner dance last month must have been especially sweet for Joe O’Donoghue, the association’s leader: It was the tangible, undeniable demonstration of his power.

“In a city where the fiercest political battles are over land use, O’Donoghue has become a dominant figure — shaping not only the appearance of San Francisco but also operating as a behind-the-scenes power in the Department of Building Inspection and other agencies that deal with construction.

“Facing the crowd of 1,000 builders, real estate agents, politicians and others at the $160-a-plate event that night, O’Donoghue reveled in the moment. ‘You are the Residential Builders Association,’ he said, his voice thundering. ‘You are bringing this city back to the splendor it once had!’

“In recent years, O’Donoghue has used his bullying manner, penetrating sense of San Francisco politics and vitriolic attacks on foes to clear the way for waves of loft construction in the South of Market, Mission and Potrero districts. Reviled by critics as architectural abominations, the structures are the continuing focus of a political struggle, but the lofts still draw buyers willing to part with $300,000 to $1 million.

“Along with lofts, O’Donoghue has reshaped the city’s look on block after block by pushing everything from an eight-story office building on Geary Boulevard to the demolitions of single-family homes in the Richmond District.

“For an immigrant who arrived from Ireland barely four decades ago, it is a legacy of enormous proportion — making him an inspirational leader to his admirers, and to his detractors a demonic man crushing the city’s character.”

  • “Since O’Donoghue took over the Residential Builders Association in 1986, he has transformed a ragtag group into a political force…

“At 62, the big-voiced man with white hair and gold-rimmed glasses is out daily advancing his belief that the city should build, build, build, and his members should prosper as they build.

“‘Jobs, jobs, jobs is our simple motto,’ O’Donoghue says.

“O’Donoghue added greatly to his power in recent years by co-authoring a 1994 ballot measure, Proposition G, that he used to become an unappointed king in the Department of Building Inspection.

“That agency, little noticed outside the construction world, wields power over all building done in the city, by determining whether structures meet electrical, plumbing and other code requirements.”            

  • “In advancing his pro-building cause, O’Donoghue has perfected an approach of pounding on podiums, bellowing louder than others, brushing aside foes as imbeciles or elitists and portraying himself in socially conscious San Francisco as pro-worker, pro-housing and pro-progress.”
  • “In 1986, O’Donoghue said, ‘we were the black hat organization, the whipping boy for every wacko in this city. I decided enough is enough. We’re going to organize and kick ass.’”
  • Timothy Gillespie, a former consultant to small hotels, said that in the summer of 1994, O’Donoghue learned that Gillespie was asking around about the business practices of O’Donoghue’s ally Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

“’He called me and said, ‘I understand you are making calls about my friend Randy Shaw, and I want to tell you if you don’t stop immediately, me and some of my friends will take you into a gutter and bash your head in with a shovel,’ Gillespie said.

“O’Donoghue denied making the threat, saying he only told Gillespie that he had gone too far in his attack on Shaw.”

  • “Central to O’Donoghue’s rise to power has been his understanding of how to use the ballot box to his advantage, framing an issue in a way that makes whatever he seeks appear desirable.”

“…Two years later, in 1994, O’Donoghue set the stage for obtaining the level of power he has today.

“In what struck many observers as an odd alliance, he teamed with Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic to write Proposition G, which the two said was needed to reform the city’s bureaucracy-bloated Bureau of Building Inspection. O’Donoghue said he wanted speedier permit approvals and more public input through a newly created commission.

“Shaw, a lawyer whose clients are mostly low-income tenants living in residential hotels, said he wanted a system that improved the caliber of hotel inspections.”

 “Together Shaw’s clinic and O’Donoghue’s association contributed more than $58,000 to underwrite the signature collecting and campaign for the measure. Critics accuse Shaw of making a self-serving pact with O’Donoghue, allowing O’Donoghue to dictate calls on building inspections while Shaw won great control over which residential hotels get inspected.

“Shaw defends O’Donoghue as an admirable figure and dismisses criticism of his own role in the department as absurd. ‘These are wild, untrue charges,’ Shaw said. ‘I think there is no question we now have the best housing code enforcement of any major city in America.’

“The arguments mustered by O’Donoghue and Shaw to win Proposition G’s passage were hard to combat. There were few advocates for the existing Bureau of Building Inspection, where some inspectors had been disciplined and others had been fired for misconduct.

“Many in San Francisco’s liberal political establishment lined up behind Proposition G. But some well-known individuals and groups also fought the measure. Rudy Nothenberg, the city’s chief administrative officer, said at the time that it was ‘a blatant power grab by certain special interest groups who want to convince you that they are interested in public service.’”

“On Nov. 8, 1994, voters approved Proposition G by 53 percent to 47 percent.”

  • “As far as O’Donoghue is concerned, there is no problem with the influence he wields in the agency. ‘We have a say, an influence. Why wouldn’t we? We created that department,’ he said.”
  • “O’Donoghue’s admirers have no doubt that he has improved the city. Ken Cleaveland, governmental affairs director for the Building Owners and Managers Association, which represents commercial properties, says O’Donoghue has contributed to the planning debate by ‘talking about the need to develop housing in the city. He has definitely had the single greatest impact on residential development in the private sector in the last decade. He has an objective, and it is to keep his Irish builders working constantly. Everything else is a distant second.’

As for O’Donoghue’s power in the department created by his ballot proposition, Cleaveland said: ‘Because Joe pushed this measure,’ he says, ‘To the victor the spoils.’ That’s the way Joe is.’”


Confirmation of Mr. O’Donoghue’s lead role in the passage of Proposition G is found in an article (“Deconstructing Joe – Joe O’Donoghue was once the bane of San Francisco’s left. Now he’s making friends with a surprising number of progressives.  What’s the powerful developer up to – and shouldn’t we be worried?”) by Rachel Brahinsky published (September 15, 2004) in the San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly newspaper:

  • “Amid the tall tales and the threats, it has always been tough to truly pin down O’Donoghue’s politics. Though he was allied with Brown, he seemed to quickly detest Newsom, who came from the same political clan. And though he insists his conflicts with Newsom are purely on a policy level, when O’Donoghue talks about the mayor, his criticism comes off in highly personal terms, pointing out Newsom’s ‘plastic’ smile and ‘childlike and petulant’ behavior. A big thing for O’Donoghue is that, unlike Brown, Newsom has been associated with the Bay Area’s social and economic aristocracy since birth, which, for an Irishman born under British rule, is the ultimate sin.”
  • “But there’s one place where the clash between O’Donoghue and Newsom (who refused to comment for this story) isn’t likely to be personal. It’s a site of one of the odder O’Donoghue alliances – and the seat of most of his remaining power at City Hall. Back in the early 1990s, O’Donoghue was furious at the way the Department of Building Inspection was run. He wanted the inspectors to quit harassing his guys and cracking down on small-time residential-permit violations. At the same time, tenant activist Randy Shaw was fighting to get the building inspectors to clean up conditions in single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs (traditionally low-rent residential hotels).

“Their interests met over a 1994 ballot measure that restructured the department and gave them both a measure of control over what was inspected and how quickly permits were issued. Since then they have remained friends and allies.

“Several sources at the powerful department say that after the measure passed, O’Donoghue’s control there extended from top to bottom. He and Shaw deny this and have denounced a series of reports in the press and by city agencies that have criticized the department on a number of fronts. Still, even [Jack] Davis, the consultant who is close to both Newsom and O’Donoghue, says his friend controls the place. ‘Joe and Randy control it,’ Davis said. ‘It was designed to be that way.’”


1994 Voter Information Guide for Proposition G

Attached as Exhibit 5 is the 18-page Information Guide regarding Proposition G given to the November 1994 voters.

While Figures 1 to 4 below, copied from this voter guide, well summarize the main arguments and rebuttals (both for and against) the proposed Charter amendment, a full review of the “paid arguments” also contained within Exhibit 5 is recommended.

  • Proponents: “We can take our city back from the tyranny of the bureaucrats!”
  • Opponents: “Prop G will let the building industry regulate itself — allowing the

fox to guard the chicken coop.”

Figure 1 – Case Study 1 – Typical entry stair landing at 50-building apartment complex in Phoenix, AZ.

Figure 1 – Proponent’s Argument in Favor of Proposition G

Figure 2 – Case Study 1 – Removal of concrete walking surface revealed improperly attached and terminated metal flashings.

Figure 2 – Rebuttal to Proponent’s Argument in Favor of Proposition G

Figure 2 – Case Study 1 – Removal of concrete walking surface revealed improperly attached and terminated metal flashings.

Figure 3 – Opponent’s Argument Against Proposition G

Figure 2 – Case Study 1 – Removal of concrete walking surface revealed improperly attached and terminated metal flashings.

Figure 4 – Rebuttal to Opponent’s Argument Against Proposition G

Summary Discussion

The purpose of this paper is not to weigh the pros and cons of Proposition G (or the motives of its two authors) or its long-term political ramifications within the City and County of San Francisco.

Instead, this research simply is intended to identify, for future code professionals and other interested parties, the historical event (i.e., Proposition G) and two key political figures (Randy Shaw and Joe O’Donoghue) that led to the demise of San Francisco’s Bureau of Building Inspection and its replacement on January 1, 1995 by the current Department of Building Inspection.


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