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Calif. Victorian home fires expose lingering blight, code enforcement struggles

Mounting levels of solid waste, a dangerous accumulation of refuse, an attractive nuisance and blighted property were among the specific violations that Sanj Jose municipal staffers cited

By George Avalos
Bay Area News Group

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The owner of two downtown San Jose Victorian homes that caught fire and collapsed in flames was hit with numerous city complaints for code violations at the old residences, court papers show.

On March 26, San Jose firefighters were called to the scene of a blaze that had engulfed two Victorian homes, one at 146 North Fourth Street and the other at 152 North Fourth Street. The flames eventually caused the abandoned residences to collapse.

The burned-out homes are owned by a business entity operating as RPRO152N3, an LLC whose managing member is Brent Wei-Teh Lee , aka Brent Lee , according to documents on file with the Santa Clara County Recorder’s Office.

San Jose officials have become alarmed that the Brent Lee-led LLC was responsible for numerous code violations that created blighted and hazardous conditions at both houses, according to a lawsuit the city filed in November 2023 with the Santa Clara County Superior Court .

City firefighters have launched an investigation into the cause of the North Fourth Street blaze.

What’s clear is San Jose’s concerns about the two houses surfaced years ago, according to the city’s litigation against the real estate investment group.

The murky parts of this situation, however, are the steps that city officials completed to ensure the blight and hazards at the houses were actually remediated.

The homes were on a portion of a site where the Brent Lee-managed group had proposed the development of a 23-story student housing tower that would have produced 298 residential units, city planning files show.

The Lee-led group bought the development site at the corner of North Fourth Street and East St. John Street in 2013, county records show. The price wasn’t disclosed.

A few years later, code violations for the properties began to appear on the radar screens of city staffers, the lawsuit against the RPRO152N3 LLC showed.

“In February 2018 , the city’s Code Enforcement Division began investigating 146 North Fourth Street , owned by RPRO152N3, for blight as well as health and safety violations,” the lawsuit claims.

The 146 North Fourth house appeared to be greatly neglected, according to the legal filing.

Similar problems came to light at the adjacent house on North Fourth Street , court papers show.

“In March 2020 , Code Enforcement began investigating 152 North Fourth Street , owned by RPRO152N3, for blight violations,” the city lawsuit claims. Besides blight, the city staffers were concerned about disrepair and improper storage or maintenance of boxes.

At that point, the city’s investigation into the adjacent 146 North Fourth house had been underway for about two years.

Mounting levels of solid waste, a dangerous accumulation of refuse, an attractive nuisance, and blighted property were among the specific violations that the municipal staffers cited, the court records show.

“At the time of the initial inspection, 146 North Fourth Street was vacant with piles of solid waste and debris on the driveway and near the property,” the city lawsuit claims.

This first inspection at the 146 North Fourth house occurred in February 2018 , according to the legal papers.

“From 2020 through 2022, the city staffers found more violations, including storing or maintenance of boxes, lumber, dirt and debris, an unsecured building, substandard housing and a blighted vacant building,” the city legal filing related to 146 North Fourth claims.

Similarly, the 152 North Fourth house became the site of code violations that piled steadily higher.

“From 2021 to 2022, code enforcement found additional violations” that included “dangerous accumulation”, “exterior property conditions” and “substandard housing,” court records state.

City code enforcement staffers issued “multiple” correction notices, extensions, warning notices and administrative citations related to both properties, according to the lawsuit.

The San Jose Finance Department also issued citations, collection fees and penalties.

“The city needs to dramatically increase the code enforcement fines for neglected vacant buildings,” said Bob Staedler , principal executive with Silicon Valley Synergy , a land-use consultancy.

The court papers, however, provide no indications that the city was effective in getting the properties cleaned up or brought up to code.

City staffers continued to issue waves of notices and warnings for both properties.

“No fines have been paid and the invoices and delinquency notices have been ignored,” the city lawsuit claims, referring to both residences.

The only courses of action documented in the court records that city staffers pursued were focused primarily on documenting the problems, issuing warnings and attempting to collect fines and penalties.

The city lawsuit didn’t provide any details for San Jose’s plan, tactics, or efforts to force the property owner to clean up either property.

This news organization has undertaken multiple efforts to reach Brent Lee to seek a comment or context regarding the situation.

The Lee-led group in recent years has engaged in wheeling and dealing in downtown San Jose properties at sites on North Third, North Fourth and North Fifth streets, all within a block or two of each other.

The biggest deal the group pulled off in downtown San Jose was its $40 million sale in 2018 of an office building at 152 North Third Street that was bought by a group headed up by Adam Neumann, founder and former top boss at WeWork.

Blight problems have triggered growing concerns about the safety of other old buildings in downtown San Jose.

A short distance from the site of the fire-torched Victorian homes, a historic church remains boarded up at 43 East St. James Street.

China -based developer Z&L Properties had proposed a plan to build two housing towers and preserve and revamp the old church. That project has yet to break ground and Z&L Properties hasn’t renovated the church.

Staedler is concerned that additional fires might occur at largely abandoned San Jose properties such as the old church site.

“The city of San Jose needs to engage in a public conversation on blighted vacant properties before this happens again somewhere else,” Staedler said, referring to the fires that destroyed the old Victorian homes on North Fourth Street.

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