Squalor, Corruption Questions Haunt Academy of Art

Importing young people and stacking them five to an apartment alleged

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    The 460 Townsend site is one of many Academy of Art University building conversions that violated planning codes.

    A public hearing in San Francisco on Monday had current and former members of the Board of Supervisors publicly blasting the Academy of Art University for ten years of flouting city planning codes.

    The for-profit school has grown from 1,800 students in 1990 to 16,000 students today, and could grow again by another 50 percent in the next few years.

    Amid all that growth has been a boom in real-estate deals swung by the school, often buying up buildings full of rent-controlled apartments and filling them with dormitory accommodations, with allegations of students packed five to an apartment.

    Nearly all of the school's buildings, 30 of 32, were cited for planning code violations in 2007. Supervisor Sophie Maxwell suggested that people would be fair to question "what's going on -- are people getting paid under the table?"

    A year of student housing for incoming freshmen in rooms with 3 or 4 students and a full bathroom costs up to $6,050, meaning the school could be earning over $2,000 a month for some dormitory apartments. The school actively recruits foreign students, who due to visa concerns or language barriers might find it difficult to raise questions about accommodations or find cheaper alternatives.

    After taking a meeting with the City Attorney's office last week, the Planning Commission declined to initiate a lawsuit. Supervisors wondered aloud what they might do to check the school's expansion.

    For instance, the school could be reclassified as a commercial developer, and forced to reimburse the city for loss of affordable housing, potentially costing the school millions.

    The city could also review outstanding conditional use permits and deny them immediately, rather than wait for the school's required Environmental Impact Report.

    For the school's part, vexed Academy President Elisa Stephens promised the committee, "We will do whatever the city wants us to," admitted to mistakes, and promised to take full responsibility.

    Jackson West always laughs at jokes about San Francisco importing twentysomethings, but didn't realize it could be such a lucrative business.