A broken elevator at a Berkeley apartment building owned by Equity Residential has left numerous tenants with mobility issues in the lurch this holiday season, and building management has been slow to handle the problem, residents report.
The single elevator at The Acton Courtyard, at 1370 University Ave. (at Acton Street), broke down 11 days ago, Nov. 13, after months on the fritz, tenants say. At least six tenants in the building have mobility impairments. The broken elevator has left them “trapped in their apartments or stranded outside of them,” according to a Nov. 20 letter sent to Equity by Disability Rights Advocates.
“This means that they have either been completely shut off from the outside world or completely stranded within it—unable to cook, unable to access their clothing or other possessions, and denied the basic comforts of their homes,” according to Disability Rights Advocates, a Berkeley-based nonprofit and nationally recognized legal center focused on disability rights.
The letter was written on behalf of tenants Dominika Bednarska and her partner Perlita Payne, who have lived in the building for more than three years, along with other unnamed residents. Bednarska uses a scooter to get around, and Payne has chronic knee pain that makes climbing stairs difficult. The couple live on the fifth floor at The Courtyard, and have been in a hotel since the Nov. 13 elevator breakdown. Equity is covering the hotel costs, but tenants say the company has not taken the problem seriously enough.
At least one other tenant was also put up in a hotel, said Payne. And a fourth resident, Leroy Moore Jr., who uses a three-wheeled bike to get around, has been for the most part stuck in his third-floor apartment since the elevator went out of service.
“I can’t get to work, I can’t go to events,” Moore said. “And now, because it’s the end of the month, I’m low on food. Usually I go shopping with my bike, and now I have to find somebody else to do the shopping.”
Said 35-year-old Bednarska, who has lived in Berkeley for more than a decade: “It’s been really frustrating because we’ve been reporting problems with the elevator for many many weeks prior to it completely dying. We were never responded to.“
On its website, Equity promotes the building as a “Mobility Impaired Living Enhancement” property, further stating, “Equity Residential is committed to the needs of our residents who are mobility impaired.” In fact, a sign in The Courtyard’s lobby boasts a similar message.
Payne, 38, said seeing that sign — when she’s returned home briefly to pick up clothing and other small items — has been “a slap in the face.” She said Equity has made no particular effort to get the repair done quickly and has not been communicative about when the couple might be able to return home.
Initially, they were told the needed part would be ordered Monday, Nov. 16, and that they would be home by the 17th or 18th. That came and went. Equity then told tenants work would be done this past weekend. In the most recent update, Equity said it received the wrong part Friday, and was expecting the vendor to come out with the correct part Wednesday, Nov. 25.
Equity spokesman Marty McKenna said by email that “We are also displeased about the elevator being out of commission. We are working diligently with the vendor to get it repaired and are working with residents to accomodate [sic] them until it is repaired.”
McKenna said Equity has “made every effort to get the repair work done as quickly as possible” and hopes for the repair to be complete Wednesday. He did not respond to emailed questions about whether any specific steps had been taken to expedite the process, and was not ultimately available by phone prior to publication.
Tenants say they will believe it when they see it.
Kevin Hara, who lives on the fifth floor with his wife, said both are disabled and have struggled since the elevator broke down, since neither one of them is able to use the stairs. Hara said he has been “forced to cancel several important medical appointments, church, and critical meetings at my office. Since the elevator has stopped working, we are virtually trapped in the apartment.”
To get to a medical appointment last week, Hara had to be carried down five flights of stairs by two men, “which took an entire day. It was very painful for both of us, it was a very arduous, cumbersome, and dangerous process.”
Friday, there was a fire alarm in the building and many residents evacuated, he told Berkeleyside in an email.
“We were in our apartment, prepared to be dragged down the stairs. The fire department came, and luckily one of our neighbors informed us that it was a false alarm and there was no fire,” Hara wrote. “If there were a real emergency, the consequences would be dire. Overall, finding, obtaining parts and repairing the elevator seems like a relatively simple problem to fix but it has taken more than a week.”
He did note, in a follow-up email, that a regional manager from Equity has been in daily contact since Sunday and “to his credit has apologized several times and kept us updated.” The situation has continued to be a difficult, however, and local on-site staff still has not reached out.
Bednarska said, while it might be possible for someone to carry her up to her apartment, it is a dangerous process that can result in injuries, which has happened to her in the past. And, once she got inside, she would essentially be stuck there. She too referenced the fire-safety issue and said, when there have been prior fire drills in the building, no one from Equity has come to check to see if the couple made it out safely. All in all, she said, it’s just not worth the risk to return yet.
Payne said, when the couple moved in, there were 8-10 wheelchair users in the building. Moore said he knew of several other current tenants with mobility issues. Equity spokesman McKenna said he could not confirm how many tenants might have been impacted by the elevator issue, or how many had been put up in hotels, citing privacy issues.
Bednarska said the couple initially moved into the building because it seemed to be a community that cared about mobility issues and access for all. But she said basic steps — such as overnight or rush shipping for the needed elevator part, and perhaps overtime for repair work — did not seem to have been taken.
“It’s amazing that a building that houses so many people with disabilities could let something like this happen and go on for so long,” she said.
The Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) letter describes the elevator as “chronically out of service,” and states that management could have worked to address the problem earlier. There was a multi-day outage in 2012, and “outages of shorter duration are very frequent.”
In recent months, the elevator began acting up again, but numerous reports about the recurring problem went unanswered. At one point Payne was stranded on the roof. In another instance, Bednarska had to cancel a job interview because of an unplanned elevator outage.
“This history suggests that Equity Residential has a policy or practice of failing to adequately maintain and promptly repair its elevators, and of failing to provide residents with disabilities with sufficient notice of elevator outages due to scheduled maintenance, construction, and repairs,” DRA wrote. DRA said proper elevator maintenance is legally required under the Fair Housing Act and other laws to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities.
Tenants said lack of responsiveness from building management is also a chronic problem.
“I’ve been calling them, I get nothing,” said Moore, who has lived in the building for nearly 15 years and was among its original tenants. Moore said Equity had offered him a hotel voucher so he wouldn’t need to navigate the stairs, but he said that simply wasn’t an option for him because all his belongings and his work — on a desktop computer — are in his apartment.
Payne said she and Bednarska have had to check in with Equity repeatedly for updates, calling or writing building management rather than the other way around.
“In my mind, that’s not the way to treat people,” Payne said. “They should be giving us updates on what’s going on, what’s happening with the repairs. All we get is: We’ve extended your stay.”
Bednarska said Equity initially booked the couple into a non-accessible hotel, then sent them to a second hotel but didn’t put the payment authorization through. The same night, they were relocated to a third hotel, where they’ve been staying since Nov. 13. Bednarska said it’s difficult because she has digestive issues and migraine headaches in addition to her disability. Home-cooked meals are part of how she manages those symptoms, and there’s nowhere to cook in the motel.
The couple pay thousands of dollars in rent and said they have been shocked to find themselves displaced for so long. Noise and limited internet service at the hotel have made it hard to work, and there’s also been the day-to-day uncertainty of when the repair might actually happen.
In the letter from Disability Rights Advocates, the couple has asked Equity to work quickly to repair the elevator and also draft new policies to ensure the elevator is properly maintained in the future. DRA has asked Equity to cover hotel expenses, as well as food-related costs because the couple have been without access to their kitchen, in addition to prorated rent and utility credit for the time they’ve been away. DRA said a failure to respond by Dec. 1 could lead to the filing of a lawsuit.
Payne said, given the uncertainty this week, it’s difficult to plan for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. The couple had considered leaving town, but also thought about hosting friends at The Courtyard. For now, however, they just plan to wait to see if the promised repair gets completed Wednesday.
“All that is up in the air until we find out about this elevator,” she said. “Our main thing is to be able to make it back home and live our lives.”
Update, Nov. 25, 5 p.m. Berkeley City Councilman Jesse Arreguín has asked the city manager to look into the elevator problem at The Courtyard. He has requested that city code enforcement staff contact the property owner to help speed repairs along. He writes: “Berkeley Municipal Code Chapter 19.50 requires prompt repair of broken elevators in multi-unit buildings, ideally within 24 hours. The fact that this owner has had constructive notice of the inoperable elevator and has not fixed it in 2 weeks appears to be a violation of Chapter 19.50 and is a habitability issue.”
Update, Nov. 25, 10:30 p.m. Good news: We hear the elevator is working again as of about 8:20 p.m. But Equity has not reached out to tenants about the repair, so it’s unknown whether the elevator is officially fixed.
Update, Nov. 27, 10:10 a.m. Acton Courtyard sent a notice to tenants at about 9 a.m. Friday to alert them about the repair: “The elevator is back up and running. We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience during this process.”
Equity Residential to sell 8 Berkeley apartment buildings (11.18.15)
Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.