[Hpn] SFGate: Exploited, then evicted

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Thu, 19 Aug 2004 09:03 -0700


 
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Thursday, August 19, 2004 (SF Chronicle)
Exploited, then evicted



   ROB MALAUULU looks to his right and sees a swimming pool, ringed by 31
tall palm trees, that is nothing but a cruel mirage to the hundreds of
children in his Alameda apartment complex.
   On this warm summer morning, as so many before it, the gate to the pool
remains locked. Sediment drifts in the water, lounge chairs sit stacked at
poolside, birds sing from high in the palms. Off in the distance, a few
children can be heard playing in stairwells that carry the scent of
alcohol and urine from the night before.
   Malauulu, a father of two, has lived at the complex for five years -- and
the pool has been open fewer and fewer days each summer. He counted two
last year, none this year.
   He nods toward a vacant play structure to his left. "Go look at that
slide," he suggests to a visitor.
   At the bottom of the red fiberglass slide is a jagged hole, about the size
of a toddler's behind. A chain across the top of the slide is intended to
signal that the slide, as with so many things at this apartment complex on
the west end of Alameda, is awaiting repair. The chain is not much of an
obstacle to a determined child.
   Tenants at this 615-unit complex all seem to have horror stories about
their landlord: plumbing failures, electrical problems, leaky roofs,
broken appliances. They tell of calls to management that never got
returned. They complain of frequent management changes, with each new team
disavowing any responsibility for past problems.
   Still, the ultimate indignity came in late July, when 30-day eviction
notices were slapped on the door of each apartments near the former
Alameda Naval Air Station.
   Alameda's elected representatives need to find a way to stop these
evictions.
   The owners, Mark and Ian Sanders of Fifteen Group of Miami Beach, Fla.,
claim they want to spend $15 million on renovations to the 10 buildings.
They insist it would be safer to accomplish these upgrades without having
to work around tenants. In a phone interview Wednesday, Mark Sanders said
their main concern was the "temptation for kids" to explore construction
sites.
   Fifteen Group's stated intentions ring suspicious to the tenants, as well
as to members of the Alameda City Council, who are pushing the company to
do the project in phases, allowing most of the tenants to stay. Under
pressure, the company agreed to delay the evictions to 90 days after
current leases expire -- most are on month-to-month terms -- and has
offered tenants a $1, 000 relocation fee.
   For many tenants, moving is a source of great trepidation, even with a $1,
000 stipend. Most have children, some have disabilities, few if any have
more than a modest income. They worry about credit checks, about security
deposits, about changing schools. Many of them pay part of their rent with
a federal Section 8 voucher -- which many landlords in Alameda will not
accept.
   "They really don't care about the people -- that's what it comes down to,"
said Councilmember Tony Daysog. He questions whether the owners, no doubt
eyeing a new development of single-family houses selling for up to
$900,000 across the street, have something more lucrative in mind for the
property after the tenants leave. Some residents suspect the company wants
to raze the complex to build upscale housing, which is selling at a brisk
pace in Alameda.
   As Daysog pointed out, the current rents at Harbor Island -- ranging up to
$1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment -- are almost on par with much nicer
units in Alameda. No matter how much is spent on renovations, the
three-story structures are still of a '60s-era utilitarian mold that was
popular for college dorms and military barracks.
   "What's the old expression: You can put lipstick on a pig and it's still a
pig?" Daysog said.
   The Sanders brothers, however, insist that renovations -- with
architectural flourishes and landscaping -- would transform the complex
into something appealing. They deny any intent to raze the complex.
   The question is whether Fifteen Group, which has owned the complex since
1996, can be trusted in its sudden expression of commitment to community
improvement. After the initial eviction notices created an uproar, city
officials began a rigorous inspection of the premises for code compliance.
Alameda City Council members believe the discovered violations might give
them leverage to force Fifteen Group to accommodate the existing tenants.
About 40 percent of the units are now vacant. If the renovations were
approached in phases, most if not all of the tenants who wanted to stay
could remain in the complex during construction.
   Malauulu, 30, is not going to wait. He is already looking for a new home
for his family, which includes a week-old daughter.
   "I don't want to bitch about this, I don't want to dwell about it -- it
hurts my head," he said. "I don't want to fight these people.
   "I can pack up my stuff and roll. I just feel sorry for the old people
here who can't."
   Yvonne Keel, 62, has lived in the same ground-floor apartment for 31
years. "All the years I've been here I've been treated very badly," she
said. Several years ago, her toilet kept breaking down in her one-bath
unit. When she complained to management about its slow responses, "They
told me to get a portable toilet for when that happens."
   Keel has no idea where she might go if she is evicted. A Section 8 voucher
covers the bulk of her $1,032 rent.
   The attempted eviction of hundreds of low-income residents by a Miami
Beach landlord has generated an unexpected wave of community support for
the tenants in a suburb of 80,000 that has a history of hostility toward
affordable rental housing. "I think this is a proud day for Alameda,"
Daysog said of the uprising against the evictions.
   It is not a proud day yet. Alameda's elected leaders must not relent on
pressuring the landlords to accommodate the tenants.
   At a hearing Tuesday night, skeptical Alameda City Council members
questioned why Fifteen Group needs to evict the tenants so abruptly --
especially because the permit process for the renovation project could
take many months.
   "We still don't know the size and scope of what they're talking about,"
said Councilmember Marie Gilmore. She expressed irritation that Fifteen
Group seemed to regard the evictions as merely a botched "public relations
issue." She called the evictions "a disaster for hundreds of our
residents."
   The tenants, while bearing the most direct anguish of the Harbor Island
saga, are not the only victims. American taxpayers have been subsidizing
rents every month for what were supposed to be decent living conditions
for the poor. Alameda's school district is worried that a sudden loss of
up to 300 students could mean a huge revenue hit, and maybe even a school
closure. Other cities in the region may have to deal with the effects of
the evictions if they leave people homeless.
   Reginald James, 22, has lived in the complex with his mother since he was
8 years old. He remembers when the pool was always open -- a magnet for
youths from all over town. "It was like Safari Land for kids," said James,
who works as a counselor for an Alameda after-school program. He also
remembers when management would leave a note of apology if it could not
promptly fix a broken dishwasher.
   The atmosphere changed for the worse under Fifteen Group, he and many
other residents contend.
   Incredibly, Fifteen Group has the audacity to highlight the neglected
Harbor Island swimming pool on its Web site, which boasts of the company's
13, 000 apartment units in nine states. The lounge chairs are neatly
positioned around the pool for the photograph, as if it were a scene from
a destination resort.
   "We're proud of that pool," said Mark Sanders, when asked why a company
would showcase an inoperable asset. He acknowledged that it has not been
open a single day this summer. He claimed the company had a contract to
fix its "valve pump" problem, yet he offered no assurance that it would be
fixed by season's end.
   "They haven't taken care of this apartment complex," James said. "Now they
want to force a lot of people on the streets."

Battle for home
   What needs to happen
   -- The city of Alameda must complete a thorough accounting of suspected
code violations at Harbor Island.
   -- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs to
investigate whether the owners were complying with federal standards, and
whether the city housing authority was doing its part to enforce them.
   -- The owners of Fifteen Group must agree to do their renovation in
phases, allowing as many existing residents as possible to stay in the
complex.
   What you can do
   Express your views to Fifteen Group -- as well as to government leaders
who can put pressure on the company to stop the evictions.
   Fifteen Group:
   Mark and Ian Sanders
   1680 Michigan Ave.
   Miami Beach, FL 33139
   Phone: (305) 938-4300
   Web site: www.fam15.com
   Alameda City Council:
   Mayor Beverly Johnson (e-mail: bjohnson@ci.alameda.ca.us)
   Tony Daysog (tdaysog@ci.alameda.ca.us)
   Marie Gilmore (mgilmore@ci.alameda.ca.us)
   Barbara Kerr (bkerr@ci.alameda.ca.us)
   Frank Matarrese (fmatarrese@ci.alameda.ca.us)
   Congressional representative:
   Rep. Pete Stark
   E-mail: petemail@stark.house.gov
   Send us your comments:
   Letters to the Editor
   901 Mission St.
   San Francisco CA 94103
   E-mail: letters@sfchronicle.com ----------------------------------------------------------------------
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