Noble Neighbor

written by
Brook A. Turner with Eric Andresen

Remembering Russ Flynn, an advocate
for property rights, ethical property ownership, and supporting community.

It is rare that a single person plays as large a role in any industry as Russ Flynn did in San Francisco rental housing. His presence was felt on almost every level and corner of our industry. Russ was an invaluable advocate for landlord rights and a shining example of ethical property ownership.

Russ died of heart failure on February 16 at his home in San Francisco, at age 79, less than two weeks shy of his 80th birthday.

He was born in Mt. Morris, Michigan, one of eight children in a humble Irish Catholic family. At age 18, Russ left Michigan for California to attend Santa Ana State in Orange County. To pay for his own education, Russ, a born entrepreneur, would drive throughout California and Nevada selling Vitacraft cookware. He often referred to this as one of the greatest lessons in his life, saying, “You think selling real estate is hard? Try selling pans door to door!”

After finishing his degree at San Diego State University in 1966, Russ quickly moved to the place where he always wanted to live—San Francisco. He never left.

His first job in real estate was as a salesman at Davis Realty in the Richmond District. In 1971, he bought his first apartment building. He never stopped. By 2020, he had become one of the largest private owners of rental property in California, operating multifamily housing not just in San Francisco, but also in Oakland, Marin, and Sonoma.

In 1977, Russ co-founded TRI Realtors with Bill Rosetti. As its president, he led the firm’s growth from 10 to 1,100 agents. In 1983, he founded Meridian Management Group, a property management company, and Flynn Investments, his family business. Both Meridian Management Group and Flynn Investments continue to operate today.

As Russ’s holdings grew, so did his commitment to the rental housing industry. In the late 70s, he headed up the opposition to Proposition U, a vacancy control initiative and the first of the epic landlord-tenant battles. Of this time, Bill Rosetti says, “I then came to see and appreciate Russ’s application of his natural competitiveness and talent to the political process.”

In 1979, Russ and Bill cofounded the Coalition for Better Housing (CBH). CBH quickly moved with its ally, the San Francisco Apartment Association, to successfully stop every legislative and ballot proposal for vacancy control. “Russ should be remembered as the Father of No Vacancy Control as he kept it out of the city until the passage of Costa-Hawkins. Calculate the value and significance of that,” said Rosetti. Even then his participation was essential to the passage of Costa Hawkins, holding quiet meetings with the leadership of the State Senate to twist arms.

Over the next 40 years, Russ would serve on the CBH Executive Board, often as president, to ensure the health of our industry. He was a standard-bearer for considered, yet strong, efforts to protect our businesses.

Tom Bannon, CEO of the California Apartment Association, said, “Russ was a man of passion and commitment within the rental housing industry, both at the local and state level. He was one of those unique individuals that had the ability to provide leadership to address the challenges of today as well as preparing the industry for the future.” Just two years ago, Russ was one of the leaders of the campaign to defeat Proposition 10 on the state ballot.

CBH Vice President Dave Wasserman said, “Russ Flynn provided a moral guidepost. He taught us when to fight and, more importantly, how to fight.” Russ also secured Dave’s appointment to the Rent Board in 2015 when the late Mayor Ed Lee retired Commissioner Bart Murphy. “To me, he was my mentor and hero, and far more than simply my boss.”

For over 40 years, Russ was an advisor and confidant to nearly all of San Francisco’s mayors. In 1979, he was asked by then Mayor Dianne Feinstein to serve on San Francisco’s first Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board where, as its president, he guided the process of San Francisco becoming a model for other California cities to resolve tenant-landlord disputes. Russ’s reputation was so strong that a mid-1990s New Yorker article quoted Mayor Willie L. Brown, saying “If Russ Flynn says it’s true, it is.” 

Mayor London Breed expressed her sadness at Russ’s passing, having had dinner him with only a week beforehand as he advocated on our behalf. Governor Gavin Newsom and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both considered him a friend and advisor.

Russ’s many civic and philanthropic activities reflected his deep commitment to San Francisco. He was a founding member of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the Tenderloin. In 2000, he founded Teachers Housing Cooperative, a non-profit privately funded organization that provides grants to teachers in some of San Francisco’s most underserved schools. In the 1980s, he served on the board for University High School, where his three daughters attended. He served on Arthur Ashe’s Youth Tennis Advantage board, providing educational and coaching support for underprivileged youth in the Bay Area. He was also a strong supporter of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the writing skills of under-resourced students.

But maybe Russ’s greatest gift to the city was his work with Meals on Wheels San Francisco, where he championed their work for over 20 years. As the board chair from 2017-2019, he helped lead the capital campaign for Meal on Wheels’ new kitchen and food production facility, which has the capacity to prepare 20,000 meals a day to feed food-insecure older adults in San Francisco.

“Russ contributed immensely to his beloved city,” said California State Senator Scott Wiener. “He was a thoughtful yet fierce advocate for San Francisco rental property owners and an unselfish supporter of many important local charities. Can you imagine how many San Franciscans will be fed because of his support of the new Meals on Wheels kitchen? Russ made and continues to make a difference.”

Throughout his life, Russ stressed the importance of political participation. Not only did he co-found CBH, but he also encouraged active and unified participation in all of our industry organizations from CAA to SFAA. He wisely understood that the housing industry must advocate for its interest as well as promoting responsible property management and ownership among its membership. To that end, he was not tolerant of owners who opted to stay on the sidelines and withhold their participation from the never-ending team effort.

Above all, Russ was a caring and compassionate man, for whom family was paramount. His wife, three daughters, and stepson, as well as his nine grandchildren, brought Russ the most joy, with weekly tennis matches coming in as a close second. He died exactly as he said he wished: quickly and without pain, at the helm of his business, having played three sets of tennis earlier in the day. He was at home with his beloved wife, Lee, in this beautiful city—and in escrow on a final deal.

We honor how much, for how long, and  how effectively Russ was involved in San Francisco on behalf of property rights. His life was lived to the fullest, and he has left us a legacy that will benefit so many, for so long. We can honor his memory by continuing with his Herculean efforts. Russ will certainly be missed, but never forgotten.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Russell B. Flynn Fund for the Meals on Wheels Kitchen: mowsf.salsalabs.org/russflynn.

Brook A. Turner is the director of the Coalition for Better Housing. Eric Andresen owns West Coast Property Management Company. He is a long-time boardmember and former president of SFAA.