Academy of Art University in San Francisco faces a lawsuit from City Attorney

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) – San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit today against the Academy of Art University, accusing the school of unlawfully acquiring and using real estate in the city’s already impacted housing market.

The lawsuit against the university and an interrelated web of corporate entities alleges that the institution schemed to violate state and local laws for nearly a decade to acquire multiple real estate holdings in the city in order to convert them into student housing, Herrera said during a news conference this morning at City Hall.

Among the 40 properties owned by the for-profit art school, at least 33 fail to comply with permit, entitlement or authorization requirements. Additionally, AAU also violated dozens of zoning, signage, environmental, historical preservation and building code requirements, according to the lawsuit.

“Again and again, AAU acquired residential and commercial properties only to convert them into student dorms and facilities. In doing so, AAU unlawfully deprived San Franciscans of some 300 residential dwellings we desperately need in the midst of our affordable housing crisis, as well as critically needed office space,” according to Herrera.

By filing the lawsuit, the city seeks to end unfair business practices and to restore the 300 residential housing units Herrera said the school unlawfully displaced.

“This is embarrassing, that we’ve been sitting here and fighting for this for 10 years, and I am angry about it,” Herrera said. “Here we have an entity that didn’t just ignore the rules, they actively flouted them and it’s infuriating.”

“This has disproportionately impacted the northeast corner of the city, where hundreds of affordable housing units have been removed during the height of this crisis. The academy has played San Francisco for a fool, but that is coming to an end today,” District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin said at the news conference.

In 2012, the city’s board of supervisors approved legislation authored by Supervisor Scott Wiener which barred the conversion of rental housing to student dormitories.

“When we pass housing measures to try to protect our scarce housing stock, it’s important that those laws mean something,” Wiener said. “Universities need to build their own housing, and we’re going to make it easier to do that, but you can’t buy up rent-controlled apartments and
convert them into student dorms.”

In response, an attorney for the firm representing AAU said the school was disappointed by the lawsuit and that it understands the city’s need for low-income housing.

“The city attorney should have never filed a lawsuit, it’s an unnecessary waste of resources,” attorney Jim Brosnahan said.

According to Brosnahan, the school has been complying with the city’s planning commission’s requests since 2007, when the school applied for authorization to change the use of its properties, from residential housing into student dormitories.

“The city has been given everything they asked for and we are going to continue to do that,” he said.

AAU was first established in 1929 and has more than 18,000 students studying acting, animation, architectural design, fashion, graphic design and music production, among other majors the school offers, according to its website.

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