Investigative Report: Neglect taints a star's legacy
Ex-NBA player's holdings frequently cited by city
By Terri Hardy and Phillip Reese - Bee Staff Writers
Last Updated 8:53 am PDT Sunday, October 14, 2007
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1
A pungent, sickly sweet odor punctuates the breeze on 33rd Street in
Oak Park. Ramon and Jennifer Nickelberry grimace as they stand in
their front yard and gesture toward the vacant lot next door.
More dead things, they say.
For months, the remains of animals -- sheep and goats that neighbors
suspect were dumped by someone butchering them for meat -- have turned
up with gut-churning frequency on the empty weed patch.
Neglected lots attract problems, especially in lower-income areas. On
the 33rd Street parcel, the animal remains molder alongside garbage,
discarded construction materials and jagged bike parts as children
"I guess somebody high-ranking, a high-up figure owns it," Jennifer
Nickelberry said. "At the least, they should be keeping it maintained
and cleaned up."
The "high-up figure" behind the lot is Kevin Johnson, 41, the former
NBA All-Star and local philanthropist. Johnson's for-profit company,
Kynship Development, also owns two rental homes nearby. One has had
sewage bubbling up in the backyard and waste backing up in the washing
machine, while the other is infested with mice, according to tenants
and a city report.
Within a two-mile radius, a Bee investigation found, half of the 37
parcels owned by Johnson or companies and organizations he founded
have been cited by the city in the past decade, some multiple times.
The 73 violations at those Oak Park properties resulted in 42 fines or
fees totaling at least $32,080.
At speaking engagements across the country, Johnson touts his success
in helping Oak Park. Top officials in his organization and at the
Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency sing his praises, saying
no one has done more to improve the struggling area.
"We maintain the properties better, if not the best of anyone in the
community," said Tom Bratkovich, the chief financial officer for St.
HOPE Academy and part of the development team. "We're making sure they
look good and we're taking care of matters. Do we hit every single
thing? I'm not sure."
Chris Pahule, who oversees Oak Park projects for the redevelopment
agency, said Kynship Development and the nonprofit St. HOPE (Help Our
People Excel) Development Co. have made a difference in Oak Park. The
SHRA has given St. HOPE Development almost $3 million in grants and
"We believe they've done quite a bit of investment in Oak Park, and
that they're committed to the community," Pahule said.
But Johnson's organizations, whose combined holdings rank them among
Oak Park's largest private property owners, also are one of the
neighborhood's most frequent city code offenders, said Max Fernandez,
Sacramento's code enforcement chief.
"It's unfortunate that these particular properties that we've had
problems with are owned by one person," Fernandez said.
In its investigation, The Bee reviewed property records, code
enforcement files, permits, and police and fire reports. Reporters
visited every property affiliated with Johnson and interviewed dozens
of Oak Park residents.
Shown the results, Kynship and St. HOPE officials acknowledged they
lack the employees or funds to do the revitalization projects long-
promised to the community. Plans for a pediatrics building, lofts and
shops to transform Oak Park's central core all have been sidelined,
St. HOPE Development is struggling with "no money and a lot of debt,"
said Kynship's attorney, Kevin Hiestand. Based on its most recent tax
forms, by mid-2006 the nonprofit was more than $900,000 in the red and
carried debt of $6.2 million.
Hiestand told The Bee that Kynship, which owns a majority of the Oak
Park properties, has only one other employee -- an administrative
assistant who doubles as an office manager on St. HOPE Academy's staff
-- and no one with development expertise.
It takes a thorough document search to sort out responsibility for and
ownership of the 37 properties, but all have strong ties to Johnson.
Johnson is CEO of the Kevin Johnson Corp., the sole general partner of
Kynship, according to the California secretary of state's office.
Johnson also founded and is president of St. HOPE Academy, according
to federal tax forms filed by the agency. The academy is his umbrella
group and it owns a headquarters building and three school-related
Johnson also founded St. HOPE Development Co., which owns six Oak Park
properties, including Johnson's urban renewal gem, the 40 Acres
complex on Broadway, with its Starbucks, art gallery and theater. St.
HOPE Development is guided by Johnson's vision for Oak Park, Hiestand
said, but Johnson does not currently serve on its board.
The three organizations have owned 80 percent of the Oak Park
properties for more than five years; about a third for more than a
decade. Additionally, a home at 3450 16th Ave. has been owned by the
Kevin M. Johnson Living Trust since 1991.
Yet today about two-thirds of those properties sit vacant or empty,
The Bee found. One deteriorated so badly that the city took the
unusual step of threatening to refer the case for criminal prosecution
before tearing the home down, according to city documents.
In August 2006, records show, a Kynship representative asked the city
to exempt two of the uninhabitable structures from Sacramento's vacant
building ordinance, aimed at preventing structures from languishing in
"I don't recall anyone ever asking for that before," said Randy
Stratton, the city's code enforcement manager.
The request, Stratton said, was denied.
Roofs fall; fire risk rises
Among the 42 city citations of Johnson-affiliated properties that
included fines or fees, 19 resulted from code enforcement for junk,
roofs open to the sky or, in three cases, demolition of buildings so
decrepit they had to be destroyed. The remaining 23 were for weed
abatement: the vegetation grew so high that it constituted a fire
In three instances during the past five years, Kynship failed to pay
its fines and the city put a lien on the properties.
In 19 of the 31 instances where fees were not involved, the city sent
a violation notice to St. HOPE or Kynship telling them someone had
illegally dumped trash on a property. One of those notices was for the
lot on 33rd Street -- the one with the dead animals.
Kynship was hit with three violations last month as part of the city's
new crackdown on vacant buildings. If the company does not at least
begin repairs on those buildings within 30 days, it could face ramped-
up fines starting at $1,000 per violation.
Johnson did not respond to The Bee's repeated attempts to reach him
for comment via phone, e-mail, a letter left at his Curtis Park home
and a handwritten note left at Sacramento High -- the charter school
founded in 2003 by St. HOPE Academy. Asked whether Johnson would agree
to an interview, Hiestand, Johnson's longtime friend, responded: "I
don't think that's going to happen."
In a spring 2007 interview published in Stanford University's "Social
Innovation Review," however, Johnson called his company's development
projects a success. The projects are a crucial part of his Oak Park
renovation plan, he said, because they provide a tangible benefit to
"We felt that young people and families on the edge of hopelessness
needed to see something real," he said.
Hiestand and other employees of Johnson's companies charged with
overseeing his properties acknowledge that they are aware of
complaints about many of the parcels -- from the city and from
Members of a group called "Oak Park United against Slumlords" -- OPUS
-- have appeared before the Sacramento City Council and other
government bodies, pleading for someone to force Johnson to develop or
at least clean up the properties.
Ron Emslie, who heads OPUS, said the group has targeted Johnson
because he and his organizations own a lion's share of key properties
in the community's core and have received millions in taxpayer funds.
"He's got a monopoly on anything close by or developable," Emslie
said. "We believe he's stopping progress in Oak Park."
Other Oak Park residents who have lived in or near a Kynship property
have complained directly to the company that maintenance is lacking.
"Some projects, like 40 Acres, he's done right," said Alan Lehman, who
lives near one of the vacant homes, on San Jose Way. "But sitting on
properties, letting them deteriorate, he's not delivering on his
Vacant house crime magnet
Much of Johnson's story is well known. He started coming home to
Sacramento in the late 1980s, pledging to transform his old
neighborhood through education reform and economic development. He had
notable, highly publicized development successes, including
rehabilitating key properties in the Broadway corridor, such as the
U.S. Bank Building with its majestic columns, the multihued Oak Park
Victorian and the 40 Acres complex.
His ability to bring mainstream commerce to the area in the form of a
Starbucks and a bank overcame initial business community skepticism.
Records on other properties tell a different, less-heralded story.
Over and over, neighbors and city officials have tried to get
Johnson's organizations to fix a roof; remodel a substandard house;
even cut a lawn. In return, city records show, they often get talk but
For example, a short distance from 40 Acres is a vacant lot at 3535
Third Ave., the site of Johnson's most egregious code enforcement
case, according to city officials.
The lot once contained a high-water bungalow purchased by Kynship in
2000. For more than 3½ years, the code enforcement department battled
with Kynship, pushing the company to make needed repairs on what it
deemed a dangerous building.
Kynship boarded and secured the house, but city code enforcement
records show little was spent on repairs. The vacant structure became
a center for drug use, prostitution and a magnet for transients and
graffiti, according to police reports, city records and neighbors.
Sgt. Matt Young, a spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department,
said vacant homes in higher-crime areas such as Oak Park are
particularly attractive to criminals.
"The word gets around that there is a vacant house," he said. "It's
not fair to the rest of the community if they have to deal with that
More than $20,000 in fines and fees followed; the home started to
list. In April 2004, the city grew so frustrated that it threatened to
send the case to the city attorney for prosecution.
Hiestand said Kynship "did everything we could to manage the
property." He said Kynship fought against tearing the house down,
hoping instead to relocate it to make way for a pediatric medical
center on the site.
City records, however, indicate Kynship officials vacillated about
what to do with the bungalow. In 2003, the company tried to halt
condemnation, saying it was waiting for a city loan to make the fixes.
Three months later, Kynship put off the repairs, saying it had
purchased other properties and was rehabilitating them first.
But, on March 31, 2005, Kynship gave final authorization to destroy
the building. The city charged the company $11,773 for the demolition
work, administrative fees and penalties.
Now, a neighboring Kynship bungalow, at 3519 Third Ave. is
deteriorating in a similar manner, according to city code enforcement
reports. Kynship bought that property in 2000; the enforcement case
has been open since January 2006.
Last July 27, Kynship submitted an application for a $26,000
renovation of the home. On Aug. 22, Al Williamson, the St. HOPE
employee charged with overseeing vacant lots, commercial buildings and
properties with violations, notified the city that the plan is being
modified. Stratton, the city's code enforcement manager, said
Williamson has yet to move forward.
"This is two months now without action or follow through," Stratton
said. If nothing is done by Wednesday, he said Kynship will be fined
Boarded-up bakery unstable
Two of the ongoing code enforcement cases involve buildings visible
from the St. HOPE Development office.
Across the street is the former bar Don Ju's Swiss Club, which St.
HOPE bought in 2003. The city deemed the multiuse building
uninhabitable in August 2006. Next door is the former Esther's Bakery,
at 3408 Third Ave.
Owned by Kynship since 1999, the brick bakery is boarded shut and
posted with no trespassing signs. Labeling it unsafe, the city has
been threatening to levy heavy fines for the past year. Out back, part
of the building has collapsed.
The structure is so unstable that the company can't even put a roof on
it, Williamson said, for fear the weight would send it toppling onto
adjacent buildings. Asked whether Kynship had plans to clean up rubble
inside, visible from the alley, Williamson said he "hadn't even
considered going inside."
St. HOPE's Web site says Don Ju's will be renovated this year and
Esther's Bakery will be rehabilitated within five years. But in
August, Williamson submitted demolition permits for the two buildings
and Hiestand said no plans are pending to rebuild on the sites.
"Unless we get a tenant inked, nothing pencils out," he said.
A pattern of repeated violations and inaction also is evident at many
of Johnson's vacant lots, city records show. Neighbors who live near
those lots say they are tired of the trouble they cause: illegal
dumping, transient encampments and an aura of neighborhood decline.
Over and over, residents said they'd at least like to see the lots
maintained and fenced.
Though the city does not typically require fencing, Hiestand said
Kynship did look "at the numbers and considered (fencing the lots) but
it doesn't make economic sense." Two of Kynship's 15 empty lots are
Citing fire danger, city officials have cut or plowed Kynship's
overgrown lots about two dozen times during the past three years --
the duration of the city's weed abatement files -- and fined his
organizations about $5,000 for the work.
"We're not in the lawn business," said Sacramento Fire Marshal Troy
Malaspino. "We're the Fire Department."
Williamson, an engineer, said he's needed time to understand city
regulations related to vacant lots. He said the company has mowed its
lots, too, but the weeds grow back quickly. He's protested the city's
2007 clearings, accusing the city of not giving him adequate notice.
Mom's former home decaying
Not all of the properties in the 37-parcel portfolio lie in the
Broadway corridor, the hub of Johnson's urban renewal plans. Hiestand
said some properties, such as those near Johnson's childhood home on
16th Avenue, were chosen for sentimental reasons.
Kynship purchased a brick Tudor on San Jose Way where Johnson's mother
once lived, according to Hiestand. From the street, the house is
attractive. But up close it shows signs of significant decay, with
mortar easily flaking from between the bricks with a simple finger
Neighbors said -- and Hiestand confirmed -- that the house has been
vacant for more than a year. They complained to St. HOPE of falling
bricks, windows riddled with dry rot and weeds growing, at times,
"My concern is that the house will disintegrate on the spot," said
next-door neighbor James Bowland. Scanning the neighborhood, he added,
"We have a nice house, they have a nice house, and then there's this
eyesore. And, it's a safety hazard."
Bowland and other neighbors said their complaints about the property
have not been adequately addressed. He and Alan Lehman, who lives down
the street, said that for six months last year the yard was unwatered
and unmowed -- except when neighbors pitched in and did the work.
Williamson acknowledged that he's been in frequent contact with Lehman
about the San Jose Way house. "He shoots me an e-mail, I pass it to
Kynship, they gather things and get it resolved," Williamson said.
Hiestand said Kynship has tried to respond to the neighbors' concerns,
including giving money to the neighbor on one side to help build a new
Inside the home, on a recent tour arranged with Hiestand, the neglect
was visible. A dead mouse lay on the kitchen floor, a vine was growing
into the house through a crack in the window. Every surface was
covered with a thick film of grime, floorboards were warped, and
newspapers and old carpet foam were strewn throughout.
At one point, Hiestand looked into the dank basement and remarked,
"I'm sure it probably stinks and it's probably ugly, but what do you
want me to do?"
Lehman said friends of his offered to buy the home but were turned
down. Kynship doesn't want to sell the house, according to Hiestand.
Instead, he said the Johnson family plans a $175,000 remodel,
including extensive mortar work, although he said no timeline has been
set for the work.
Dreams -- but no concrete plans
Uncertainty dominates answers to questions about many of Johnson's
properties. St. HOPE and Kynship officials said Johnson and his
organizations have a lot of dreams for future projects, but they
acknowledged that nothing firm is in the works.
"What's being done? Great question," Hiestand said, with a shrug.
Even the 40 Acres project, built with millions of dollars in
assistance from public redevelopment funds, has not proved the
catalyst Johnson and his team had hoped, Hiestand said. A lack of
interested tenants and an economic downturn, he said, has meant
Kynship and St. HOPE are unable to undertake projects that might
otherwise appear to make fiscal sense.
"We won't do anything we can't finish," Hiestand said. "We won't do
anything that isn't to the highest standard and won't do anything that
won't contribute to the community."
Kynship also has struggled unsuccessfully for 18 months to find a
commercial tenant for its renovated Oak Park Victorian on Broadway,
Despite such economic difficulties, Kynship recently picked up its
option to buy the former Made-Rite Sausage Co. site on the Broadway
corridor, at 3352 First Ave., for an undisclosed sum. Kynship and St.
HOPE Development officials have met with potential partners who could
provide needed cash for developing the site, Hiestand said, but no
deal has been reached.
Pahule, of the city's redevelopment agency, said Kynship and St. HOPE
have discussed several scenarios for their Broadway parcels in recent
years, but so far nothing has panned out. Although the agency doesn't
track the economic benefits of Johnson's projects, Pahule said he
thinks they helped bring in a few other new developments, including a
loft project on Fourth Avenue.
Through much of an hourlong interview, Hiestand also maintained that
Kynship was a model landowner for Oak Park. But after the tour of the
house on San Jose Way, he conceded there might be some isolated
"We have high standards, but I believe we may have fallen below those
in some instances," he said. "The U.S. Bank building on Broadway,
that's what we're about. This is an anomaly; it's an embarrassment."
The Bee's investigation found the attractive bank building far from
the norm. Of the 37 Oak Park properties affiliated with Johnson, it is
one of 10 with a structure and assessed value over $75,000. Fifteen
are empty, mostly unfenced lots. Three are parking lots or
playgrounds. Nine contain structures assessed at less than $75,000.
'I hate where I live'
Tammy Rodriguez rents one of the low-value homes on 33rd Street,
around the corner from Johnson's childhood home. Hers is the house
with the sewage bubbling outside, mold growing on bathroom baseboards
and smelly shower water.
"I hate where I live," said Rodriguez, a tenant for more than two
years. At $800 a month, she said, the three-bedroom home seemed like a
good deal until the troubles started.
When she has problems, Rodriguez said she typically calls property
manager HomePointe, which handles Kynship's rentals. HomePointe's
general manager, Ann Fisher, said plumbers visited Rodriguez's home
four times in June and July and ended up installing a new sewer line.
Hiestand confirmed that he authorized the work.
"Kynship and Kevin Hiestand are great to work with," Fisher said. "We
wouldn't represent a property owner that was not responsive."
In July, however, Rodriguez filed a complaint about ongoing sewage
problems with the city code enforcement department, city records show.
Fernandez, the code enforcement chief, said his department told
Kynship representatives to send out another plumber.
Asked about the city's involvement, Fisher and Hiestand said that they
were not aware that the sewage problems had continued. Fisher
suggested Rodriguez might have been responsible.
"It might be something Tammy did," she said.
The night of The Bee's call, HomePointe sent out a plumber who cleared
a blockage in the line.
But Christina Rodriguez, Tammy Rodriguez's adult daughter, who lives
in the home, later said sewage was still coming out. "There's a pipe
in back that needs some sort of cap," she said. "It still smells
pretty bad back there."
Dead animals spur cleanup
The Rodriguezes live next door to the lot with the dead animals. Their
neighbors and owners of some of the surrounding properties said
they've complained about dumping and waist-high weeds there to the
city or Kynship, but problems persist.
On a recent afternoon, Ramon Nickelberry led the way into the trash-
strewn dirt lot, curious neighbors and their children straggling
behind. The group headed toward a heap of garbage bags -- the
suspected source of the putrid smell.
Nickelberry opened a bag and a mass of maggots spilled out. Inside was
a bucket of entrails. People ran into the street, some covering their
faces, others retching.
It was not the first time dead animals had been dumped in the lot, the
Nickelberrys said, and not the first time they had remained there
until they rotted.
After reporters showed up with a photographer, the Nickelberrys'
landlord notified Kynship about the mess and Williamson hired a
contractor to clear the lot.
St. HOPE understands the psychic damage trash-strewn lots can have on
a community, Williamson said. In fact, the nonprofit was so concerned
about illegal dumping that two years ago he began organizing community
But Williamson was surprised to learn of the dead animal dumping, even
though he said he frequently cruises by the lot, checking the height
of the weeds.
"I've made sweeps," he said, but added: "I've never gotten out of the
See an interactive map showing Johnson's properties