San Jose Couple Makes Big News by Snatching Up Private Street in Swanky S.F. Neighborhood

In a San Francisco enclave where mansions fetch upward of $10 million, a San Jose couple staked a claim for $90,000.

Michael Cheng and Tina Lam, who live in San Jose’s Berryessa district, snapped up the street and sidewalks of Presidio Terrace—one of 181 private roads in San Francisco—at an auction in 2015. Apparently, the city put it up for bid after the neighborhood association failed to pay its $14-a-year tax for more than three decades.

Cheng and Lam’s purchase made international headlines this week after the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about their shrewd investment. Lam, a Silicon Valley engineer and Hong Kong native, told the newspaper that she wanted to own something in San Francisco because of her affinity for the city. Chen, a Taiwan-born real estate investor, admitted they got lucky.

“Before we bid on it, they just gave us the parcel number,” he told San Jose Inside in a phone call Tuesday morning. “We didn’t’ see it, but knew the general location—that this is a pretty well known and desirable area and we placed a bid.”

During the auction, there were about 40 “very scrappy pieces” of vacant parcels, he said. One was on a cliff face and another consisted of a two-foot strip by a sidewalk. Others included underwater plots and virtually inaccessible land by hillside homes.

“Apparently a lot of people are interested in these types of properties,” Cheng said, before adding that they’re not advisable purchases.

For now, Cheng said, he wants to just hold on to the property.

“I wasn’t planning on doing anything with it right now,” he said. “It’s a beautiful street as it is, and just owning it gives us enough pride in and of itself.”

Although, eventually, the couple could very well cash in. They could charge residents to park on the street their association owned from 1905 until two years ago. Another possibility raised by the Chronicle: the couple could open up the 120 parking spots to the general public.

“We’ve been bombarded with a lot of interesting ideas over the past couple of days,” Cheng told San Jose Inside.

Residents of the exclusive tract—where a guard monitors a gated entrance and past residents have included Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi—were none too pleased when they heard about their street being sold out from under them. An attorney for the homeowners said they had no clue about the unpaid tax bill or the auction until the end of May this year, when a title company approached residents about buying the street back.

Homeowners petitioned the county’s Board of Supervisors for a hearing to reverse the tax sale, and that meeting will occur in October. Meanwhile, the homeowners association has sued the couple and the city, claiming tax collectors should have done more to notify them about the delinquent payments.

There’s a layer of irony to the whole predicament, Cheng noted. As first-generation Asian immigrants, Lam and Cheng would have been legally barred from owning any part of the ritzy Pac Heights neighborhood in the not-too-distant past.

Presidio Terrace was originally built exclusively for white residents, according to Curbed San Francisco. The Virtual Museum of San Francisco cites an ad from 1906—the year after the homeowners association gained control of the street—lamenting the influx of Japanese and Chinese people in the city.

“There is only one spot in San Francisco where only Caucasians are permitted to buy or lease real estate or where they may reside,” the ad read. “That place is Presidio Terrace.”

Presidio Terrace and many other swanky neighborhoods, continued to exclude nonwhites until 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled racial covenants illegal.

“The history of the property is clearly a disquieting one,” Cheng said. “People like me were barred from owning anything there less than 70 years ago.”

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Source: Virtual Museum of San Francisco

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Mr. Cheng says he finds the area’s history “disquieting,” yet the worry and anxiety (disquieting defined) associated with the exclusive area didn’t stop him from buying it and didn’t stop those champions of diversity, Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, from choosing it to insulate themselves from the people whose support they count on but whose proximity they loathe.

    I never believed in Hell until I grew old enough to realize I’m surrounded by it.

  2. From the article:

    …the homeowners association has sued the couple and the city, claiming tax collectors should have done more to notify them about the delinquent payments.

    Why would they sue the buyers, who did everything upfront, legally, and aboveboard? If I were the buyer and they threatened me like that, I’d just add a zero to the price. I’d add another zero the day I was served with their subpoena.

    They bought the street fair and square, no? Anyone could have bid on it—even the Homeowner’s Association, which ignored the city’s legal notice (which was not ignored by a couple of Chinese immigrants). The H.A. also ignored the Title Company, which tried to warn them. So now the same H.A. is suing the buyers?? Obviously the H.A. is the culpable one. They dropped the ball, didn’t they? This is just Darwin in action.

    For those of us watching from the peanut gallery, this is an amusing situation. The hoity-toity upper crust nabobs who were pleased to rub shoulders with DiFi and Pelousy might now actually be forced to park on common S.F. streets, and feed the meters just like the riff-raff they look down on from their hilltop mansions. Admit it, doesn’t that generate some badly needed schadenfreude in your cold hearts, for the travails of the über rich?

    And don’t you just love it?☺

    Because we know if this happened to any of us, those rich folks wouldn’t lift a finger to help, would they?

    Hey, the new owners could even block off the street completely! It’s theirs lock, stock, and barrel now, isn’t it? Then all the chauffeurs would have to drive around the block waiting for their employers, who will have to hoof it now just like the working stiffs.

    So let’s all sit back and watch how this San Francisco soap opera plays out. We’re not even to the first commercial yet!

    And raise your hand if you have more sympathy for the mansion dwellers than for a couple of smart immigrants…

    …Empty Gun? SJoutsidethebubble? J.M.O’Connor? Bueller? Anyone… ?

    Hmm-m. Didn’t think so…

  3. “claiming tax collectors should have done more to notify them about the delinquent payments”

    I am surprised they think this is how it works…

  4. Thanks for the invite Smokey,

    What would I do with it , 17 mile drive it . $5.00 toll to get in and park all day on the street.
    That will drive the residents nuts and give the tourist the cheapest spot in town to park.
    White bus service to Silicon Valley, or $20.00 to downtown SF should frost the locals.

    Tax the rich will you? Don’t you just love the free enterprise system!

  5. An amusing, but puzzling story.

    The article does not make clear whether the private road in question is a “right of way” or includes easements allowing “right of passage” for neighbors.

    If the neighbors have the right to pass over this property to get to their homes, no big deal. The buyers just bought themselves the right to maintain the street.

    My guess is there will be some earnest discussions, hard looks, and namecalling over how much the residents need to pay the new street owner for street maintenance and parking privileges.

    • Too funny….Obvously the street was previously owned by others than the homeowners. Unfortunately the rich folks in Pacific Terrace have too much time and too many lawyers to protect this all white enclave. The only mistake in this litigation case is that the new street owners ran to the media to gloat about their purchase. Sometimes it’s ok to sit back and shut up. Now only the lawyers will come out of this rich.

      • What is also too funny is why progressives didn’t have an attack of the vapors after learning that Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi lived (presumably voluntarily) in an exclusive “whites only” neighborhood.

  6. It’s a slow news day when the media break a story about something that happened two years ago.

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