A three-story, six-unit apartment building destroyed by fire early last year will remain rent-controlled, and former residents should have the right to return to the property, city staff said Tuesday night.
The Berkeley City Council heard an appeal Tuesday, filed by former tenants, of a June 2013 Zoning Adjustments Board decision regarding the property. Appellants alleged that property owner Lakireddy Bali Reddy was negligent in his approach to building maintenance, and that his negligence contributed to an unsafe situation that led to last year’s devastating fire at 2227 Dwight Way.
In addition to criticizing the city process related to rebuilding after the fire, appellants also said Reddy, of Everest Properties, should have to pay into the city’s affordable housing fund. City staff explained that the municipal code does not require that, since what is slated to be rebuilt is no different from what was on site before.
More than anything, Tuesday night’s hearing allowed former tenants to air their frustrations about what they described as Reddy’s negligence, and also to give city staff and officials the chance to clarify what happens next, and what rights former tenants do have.
Appellants asked the council to make a ruling related to whether Reddy had been negligent or not. City attorney Zach Cowan said, even if the council made that determination, it would have no impact on the zoning board ruling. Council ultimately did not address the issue of negligence.
Former tenants, some of whom have been involved in lawsuits and settlements with the property owner, said they believed Reddy may have disconnected fire alarms at the building following numerous false alarms prior to the March 2012 fire, and that some rooms in the building were without smoke detectors altogether. They said they believed an improperly installed water heater had led to the fire, which they said also should have been deemed to be Reddy’s fault.
(The city staff report prepared for Tuesday’s hearing includes the official report from the Berkeley Fire Department about the fire, which investigators ruled to be accidental: “Based on the available evidence the fire appears to have originated in or around the water heater enclosure near the bottom of the rear staircase. The probably source of ignition is the heat produced by the gas fired water heater appliance within the enclosure.”)
Appellant and former 2227 Dwight tenant Adam Bolt told the council that, “Negligence is a reasonable factor when determining fault when a building like this is destroyed in Berkeley.”
Bolt said, on the morning of the fire, he heard no smoke alarms, and that when he tried to pull an alarm to alert other residents or authorities, “nothing happened. Nothing happened at all.”
Bolt said he had been asleep at the time of the fire but woke up at 4 a.m. due to coughing from thick smoke, which had completely filled his room on the third floor. He woke up his roommates then ran downstairs.
“This building was an absolute tinderbox,” he told the council. He said, as he tried to get outside, he had to navigate broken glass, pieces of the ceiling that had “fallen out and rotted,” and discarded construction materials that littered the hallways prior to the fire.
Bolt said there had been six prior false alarms to the building, and that firefighters had arrived within six minutes each time. But the night of the actual fire, he said, none of the alarms he tried appeared to work, and it took more than 25 minutes for firefighters to arrive. He also noted that a staff member from Everest Properties had told another tenant, prior to the fire, “to stop calling the Fire Department because they were assessed a fee for every time the false alarm went off.”
Bolt said he has since moved out of Berkeley and never received any relocation assistance from the landlord. When he went into Everest Properties to collect his security deposit and pro-rated rent, he said, “I was told I was going to be charged for the four hours when I was in the building when it was burning down around me.”
Bolt said everyone in the building suffered from smoke inhalation, and that he had to undergo several medical treatments as a result. He said he hasn’t yet decided whether to file a lawsuit against the property owner, and is focusing on moving forward with his life as a law student in Davis.
One community member who spoke during public comment, Judy Shelton, said the city needs to rethink its policies with regard to negligence and fault: “It’s too narrowly construed if it means taking a match and starting a fire.”
She said she believed there had been clear negligence with regard to maintenance of the building’s water heater and smoke alarms, and called the process following the fire “extremely confusing.”
City planning director Eric Angstadt told council members that units at 2227 Dwight will remain rent-controlled and subject to the city’s rent control ordinance; that former tenants have a right to return to those apartments; and that former tenants should be eligible for relocation assistance.
Councilman Jesse Arreguín described the appeal as “one of the more complex” ones he’s seen: “There are so many different issues. There’s also a lot of unanswered questions.”
In his motion to uphold the zoning board’s decision, he also asked staff to make rental safety reports for 2227 Dwight for the past five years available to council members, and asked staff to contact the property owner to ensure he is aware of his obligations related to relocation assistance for former tenants. Arreguín advised tenants to make sure they know their rights related to returning to the property if they so choose.
Arreguín also said it will be vital for the city to take another look at its policies to ensure that it’s not creating an incentive for property owners to fail to maintain their buildings properly.
Property owner Lakireddy Bali Reddy is one of Berkeley’s wealthiest men, owning about 1,000 apartments that generate about $12 million in rental income each year, according to the San Francisco Public Press. Reddy was involved in a notorious human trafficking case in 2001, which ultimately led to his conviction and a state prison sentence. (He has since been released.)
Prosecutors said that, over a period of 14 years, Reddy asked many young girls to work in his house or come to Berkeley to work cleaning his apartments. He then subjected the girls to “sexual servitude.” Two of his sons helped bring the girls into the United States illegally, according to prosecutors. The ring was exposed by Berkeley High Jacket reporters after one of the girls, Chanti Pratipatti, 17, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in November 1999 while sleeping in a Lakireddy Bali Reddy apartment in Berkeley.
Fire displaces around 35 people, building a hazard (03.09.12)
Berkeley fire leaves at least 9 people homeless (03.08.12)
Early morning apartment fire near campus, no injuries (03.08.12)
10 years later: How 2 Berkeley High reporters broke sex-ring scandal (12.08.09)
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