Election Matters with SDR

Did mayoral candidate Aaron Peskin get his dreamhouse by bullying the previous owner?

Peskin’s powerful Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood group filed numerous complaints and refused to give their blessing

“Peskin used a lot of my plans that I couldn’t get approved and got them approved … So how does the project they opposed become a single-family home? I’m no fan of Aaron’s. I don’t think he’s an honest person.”
— JoAnne Trafton, former owner of 224 Filbert Street

On June 25, 2019, software entrepreneur and self-declared “pro-housing YIMBY” Vincent Woo published a Medium post titled, “The Hypocrisy of Aaron Peskin: How Aaron Peskin got his illegally merged $1.5M ‘monster’ home,” in which he detailed the history of Peskin’s primary residence at 224 Filbert Street. Woo’s thesis was that Peskin used his political connections and clout to help him purchase the two-unit building at a discount and then illegally convert it from the original two units into a single-family home. Just 16 days after Woo’s post went public, Peskin had already managed to clear himself of the accusations — sort of. In early July, Department of Building Inspection investigators visited the 1,495-square-foot duplex, noting that the site inspection “revealed two units with kitchens with a communicating staircase. Case closed.” Despite the fact only Peskin and his wife Nancy Shanahan lived in the building and the “communicating staircase” clearly proved that Woo was correct, it was still technically a legal two-unit building.

Rumors about Peskin’s residence have been political fodder for years, including one I heard a decade ago claiming the discounted purchase was payoff for his NIMBY activist group, Friends of the Colombo Building, preserving the views for District 3 hoteliers. The one thing missing was an interview with the original owner of 224 Filbert Street — until now. I tracked down the elusive JoAnne Trafton, now living on the East Coast, to get her version of events. (It should also be noted that I reached out to Supervisor Peskin for comment but did not receive a reply.)

Although more than two decades have passed, Trafton recalled much of what happened with great clarity. “I was trying to get work done on 224 Filbert Street. I hired an architect named Mark Miller to draw up the plans, but I couldn’t get it approved because the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, a neighborhood group run by Aaron and his wife Nancy [Shanahan] were very powerful,” Trafton told me.   

Because the Dwellers, also known as THD, were so powerful, anyone wanting to remodel or renovate their home had to go through them, and Trafton was no different. “The first time we met with Aaron, Nancy, and the Dwellers, we met at someone’s house. As we walked in, they were all staring at us and one person said, ‘Here come the victims!’ We got nowhere with them.” 

According to Trafton, THD wanted nothing changed and everything restored to its original detail. “You could put your finger through the wood on the window, but they wanted it all historically accurate, every sash, exactly the same. They wanted it to remain two units despite the awkward layout. For example, on the very bottom there was this little, tiny kitchenette. The stairs were open and there was no wall, for living between the upper and lower floors. That’s why we made the argument for preserving it as a single-family home. But Aaron and Nancy were bullies and they filed complaints. I spent about $50,000 for the plans and trying to do everything the right way before giving up. My daughter had just committed suicide — I didn’t have any fight left in me.” 

On Jan. 4, 2002, Trafton sent a letter addressed to the Central Permit Bureau and the Planning Department: “This notice is to formally withdraw my application for Dwelling Unit Merger and the associated building Permit Application No.: 2001/06/01/0508 effective immediately. Thank you for your prompt attention to this request. Sincerely, JoAnne Trafton (Owner, 224 Filbert Street).” At the bottom of the letter, Trafton copied two other people: her architect Mark Miller, and “Nancy Shanahan – Telegraph Hill Dwellers.” 

Due to the numerous complaints against the house at 224 Filbert Street, the buyers picked it up for $800,000 — around half of what Trafton paid just two years prior. Who were the new owners of 224 Filbert Street? Peskin’s parents, Harvey and Tsipora Peskin, who later turned it over to their son and daughter-in-law. To add insult to injury, Trafton said, “Peskin used a lot of my plans that I couldn’t get approved and got them approved. When the Dwellers were opposing my plans, they said it was because it had always been a two-unit building. So how does the project they opposed become a single-family home?” After a short pause, Trafton sighed, “I’m no fan of Aaron’s. I don’t think he’s an honest person.” 


Trafton liked Telegraph Hill so much, she had purchased other homes. “Before all of this, I loved the neighborhood and the block I lived on. The other properties all had connected backyards, and I loved the open space.” After Trafton left the area, one of those other properties, 21 Napier Street, was also purchased by Peskin’s parents and later transferred to Peskin and Shanahan. That house, Trafton says, was “just old” but it wasn’t on the historic registry. Peskin and Shanahan had their eye on it and told Planning there was “concern it could be historic.” 

They used similar tactics with Trafton’s first home, 226 Filbert Street, also purchased by Peskin’s parents and later transferred to Peskin and Shanahan. Throughout the years, Peskin and Shanahan added other properties to their portfolio, including the purchase of 15–17 Castle Street from Alida Morzenti. A condominium at 522 Filbert Street once owned by Shanahan and San Francisco Planning Commissioner Hisashi Sugaya was also transferred to Shanahan and Peskin and appears to be the first residence where the couple lived together.

According to public records, Peskin’s family trust also includes a home in Berkeley valued at $1,894,487 and a property in Big Sur worth $2,342,138.


Several neighbors and former neighbors, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from Peskin, said it was no coincidence that Peskin and Shanahan bullied Trafton out of her home. One person in the construction trade said, “Anyone down there at the time can tell you that Nancy was on speed dial. Staff would call her and if she said ‘No’ the plans weren’t approved.”

As Woo pointed out, Shanahan had paid the city to receive advance notice should any permit applications be filed for 224 Filbert Street. One former neighbor, who says they moved in part because of THD and their tight hold on the neighborhood, claimed there was an ulterior motive. “They had friends who lived on the Filbert Steps, and they had always wanted to live on the Filbert Steps, so they targeted that house. They always wanted that house.”

In fact, Peskin and Shanahan set themselves up to become the multimillionaire landlords they are today by using their roles as “Planning and Zoning” co-chairs for the group. A fall 1998 THD newsletter describes the couple’s role: “Monitors and reviews proposed development projects for consistency with applicable City ordinances. Works with Planning Department staff and represents THD before the Landmarks Board, Planning Commission, Zoning Administrator and other regulating bodies to protect historic resources and maintain neighborhood character. …”

Another acquaintance of Peskin’s concurred. “He used his power with THD to control situations … Aaron is an opportunist … he told numerous neighbors he wanted to be mayor for years.” When asked if Peskin should be mayor, the person responded, “He’s done more damage to the city than anyone I know. I think the story of San Francisco’s economic demise can be traced to Aaron.”

Others who either dealt with THD or knew the couple called them “toxic,” often describing the group’s methods as unscrupulous or unethical. “Was it illegal? No, but they would attack you and threaten you if you stepped out of line,” one former neighbor said. Trafton remembers her experience with THD in a similar way. “They would threaten you with their power and say things like, ‘We are going to bring 40 people to the hearing to speak for two minutes each!’ That’s why I gave up, and a lot of other people probably did, too.”

That ruthless “take no prisoners” approach has made Peskin and Shanahan one of the wealthiest power couples on the city’s political scene, with Peskin currently the richest member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. They own four properties (including their personal residence) valued at over $5,500,000. According to Peskin’s Statement of Economic Interests, better known as a Form 700, which must be filed with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, their rental units bring in “a minimum” of $30,000 annually. Peskin’s net worth is listed at a “minimum of $6 million and a maximum of $11 million,” but it could be far greater when the stock market is on a tear: He owns over 30 stocks, valued between “$350,000 and $3,500,000,” including positions in Cisco, Zillow, Apple, Alphabet, Boeing, Pfizer, and Verizon. His largest holding, Amazon, is valued upward of $1,000,000.

One former Telegraph Hill resident said there was no love lost between Peskin and Shanahan and their neighbors, especially with regard to the couple “creating a fiefdom” in the swanky shadow of Coit Tower: “They call him a NIMBY, ‘Not in my backyard,’ but really, he’s more like, ‘I’m going to buy your [expletive] backyard!’ They’re horrible people.”

Follow Susan and the Marina Times on Twitter: @SusanDReynolds and @TheMarinaTimes.

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