Inside one of the most exclusive streets in San Francisco that a couple bought for $90,000 and was forced to return to the city

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Tina Lam and Michael Cheng said all they wanted was their “American dream.”

In 2015, the couple dropped nearly $100,000 on the purchase of Presidio Terrace – a private cul-de-sac in San Francisco lined by 35 mega-mansions. The city put the parcel up for sale in an online auction after residents failed to pay taxes on the street for more than a decade.

On November 28, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors heard from residents and voted to reverse the sale. Lam and Cheng will be reimbursed for their speculative investment.

For at least 17 years, the city’s Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector mailed tax forms to the address of a now deceased bookkeeper, who once worked for the homeowners’ association. The $14 annual property tax went unpaid by the people who live on Presidio Terrace. Lam and Cheng paid just above $90,000 for the street, the sidewalks, and well-manicured shrubbery.

In August, we visited the ultraexclusive Presidio Terrace to see the street for ourselves.


Welcome to one the most exclusive streets in San Francisco.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Presidio Terrace is a block-long, oval street (and private development) that has been run by homeowners who live there since at least 1905, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

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Google Street View

Source: San Francisco Chronicle


It has attracted some of the wealthiest and most powerful politicians in California over the years, thanks to enhanced security and its isolated location at the top of the peninsula.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

No one gets in or out without the hired private security knowing. A uniformed officer with Black Bear Security Services stands guard at the stone-gate entrance at all hours.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

We peeped through the wrought-iron fence to see what Presidio Terrace is like.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

On the corner sits a Tudor-style home that once belonged to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her husband, financier Richard C. Blum. Built in 1909, it contains a whopping 16 rooms.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Feinstein grew up across the street from the home but always admired this mansion with its storybook charm. She bought it through a family trust in 1985.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Feinstein later passed it on to her daughter, Judge Katherine Feinstein, who sold the property for $9.5 million in 2013, within weeks of listing it.

“She has loved this house since 1945 and I’ve told her it’s just too much house for us right now and she said, ‘You know, life is short, be happy,'” the younger Feinstein told The Wall Street Journal.


House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi once lived in a Mission-revival mansion further up the street. The Democratic Party held many fund-raising events there over the years.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The home most recently sold in 1990 for $2.7 million, according to property records obtained online from the City and County of San Francisco Office of the Assessor-Recorder.

Source: The Atlantic


A white Beaux Arts estate at the top of the cul-de-sac (you can barely see it through the trees) belonged to Mayor Joseph Alioto. It sold for $9.5 million in 2013, according to property records.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The median home value in the Presidio Heights neighborhood tops $4.8 million, according to real-estate site Zillow — more than four times the median home value for San Francisco.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: Zillow


Residents pay an annual fee to the homeowners’ association. In 2013, that came out to $3,410 a home, according to a listing for Alioto’s mansion.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: Forbes


The homeowners’ associated failed to pay a $14-a-year property tax since at least 2000, which is as far back as records go at the city’s Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector. Residents claim the office sent the bill to an outdated address, which caused fees to stack.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: San Francisco Chronicle


In 2015, the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector went looking for someone to pay up. It listed the street in an online auction to recover $994 in back taxes, penalties, and interest.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider


Along came Lam, a product line manager at software company VMware, and Cheng, a real-estate agent who brokers investment opportunities for high-net-worth individuals.

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Tina Lam and Michael Cheng.
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LinkedIn/lamtina and LinkedIn/micheng

The couple, who lives in San Jose, didn’t actually get much for their $90,000.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

They owned the palm trees and other greenery at the stone-gate entrance.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

They owned the sidewalks and these well-manicured shrubs.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

The stone fence that wraps around the gated community? Also theirs.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

So was this “Game of Thrones”-style wall designed to keep out passersby.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

In August, the couple threatened to charge the deep-pocketed residents for parking on Presidio Terrace. “We could charge a reasonable rent on it,” Cheng told the Chronicle.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: San Francisco Chronicle


Unsurprisingly, residents were not happy — more than two years after Lam and Cheng scooped up Presidio Terrace without their knowledge. Many were first made aware of the purchase in May, when a title-search company working on behalf of the couple contacted them to see whether they were interested in buying back the land outside their homes.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: San Francisco Chronicle


“I was shocked to learn this could happen, and am deeply troubled that anyone would choose to take advantage of the situation and buy our street and sidewalks,” one homeowner, who asked not to be named because of a pending suit, told the Chronicle.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: San Francisco Chronicle


Residents assembled a legal A-team to get their street back — and won. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 7-4 to reverse the sale of Presidio Terrace on November 28.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: Business Insider


“No one, regardless of who they are, should be deprived of their property without due process of the law,” said Scott Emblidge, an attorney representing the homeowners’ association.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: Business Insider