It was once a place where formerly homeless men and women could get back on their feet. It was a place where residents held poetry readings, took art classes, ate free cake on their birthdays and enjoyed donated gourmet meals from restaurants such as Chez Panisse once a month. Now, UA Homes at 1040 University Ave. is riddled with complaints. Both tenants and neighbors have complained about garbage, problems with the bathrooms, lack of building security and overt drug dealing.
Police visited more than 200 times last year.
“The calls were for everything. Warrants, restraining orders, drugs, noise ... . For one property to have that many calls is fairly substantial,” said Michael Caplain, west Berkeley neighborhood services liaison.
City, state and federal money helped transform the building from, as Housing Director Stephen Barton put it, a “sleazy” 75-unit resident hotel into a single-room occupancy apartment building that provides social services to tenants with special needs.
Although drug use is common, residents can access medical clinics, vocational training and alcohol and drug rehabilitation counseling while paying very low rent provided by Section 8 housing vouchers. The plan was to give people who are trying to get back on their feet a sense of stability.
Drug raids rattle residents
Until recently, the plan was working.
“Something happened in the last year. There was an influx of garbage, trashed furniture, dumping, loitering ... There was a lot of coming and going and overt drug dealing,” said Susan Black, who lives three houses away from the building on 10th Street.
In May, five residents were subjected to police raids for drugs. Two were arrested for drug possession – although the amount of drugs found were small.
The residents who had their rooms raided wish to remain anonymous, but said the raids were heavy-handed and hurt their struggle to remain clean and sober and off the streets.
Bill Decker, president of the tenants association, said the building’s reduced number of group activities and social services – combined with a new night time security team – is creating an atmosphere of fear and hostility.
“We have no advocates. All the things that were helping people take control of their lives were taken away,” Decker said.
Having the police break down residents’ doors and tear apart their rooms didn’t help either, he said.
“It was a complete violation of anything appropriate,” one woman whose apartment was raided in May said. “They ripped pictures off the walls. It was insane. It was like they were on drugs. They went nuts.”
Police Review Commission investigating
Police Chief Dash Butler maintains that some allegations are simply not true. But he added there is no way of knowing if the officers’ actions were inappropriate unless there is an investigation.
The residents brought their complaints to the Police Review Commission Wednesday night and secretary Barbara Arttard said the commission is aiming to review the warrants and videotape of the raids in September.
The warrants were served, Butler said, because of the combination of resident complaints and the number of calls for service.
“Like any development, you have people who are involved, you have people who are deeply involved and you have those that fall in the middle – and those people are entitled to the same rights as everyone else,” Butler said.
There has not been any raids since May and Butler refused to say if there were any more in the works.
The building has been owned by nonprofit affordable housing developer Resources for Community Development for the past 18 months, according company Assets Manager Kerry Williams. Although Williams does not agree with the raids, he said he is in a tenuous situation because he relies on the city for a lot of support.
‘No witch hunt’
“I’m in a catch-22,” Williams said. “I don’t want to alienate the city or the people at UA Homes.”
Still, Williams said he is trying to address the issues with the building in a sensitive manner.
“There’s no witch hunt. No one is going to be a scapegoat. We’re not going to violate anyone’s civil rights. We’ll follow the law and we’ll investigate,” he said.
The problems stemmed, Williams said, from the building’s management by the John Stewart Company. Although John Stewart has a good reputation throughout the Bay Area for managing low-income properties – neither Ned York, the company’s contact person for UA Homes or Vice President Loren Sanborn returned several calls for comment.
Others – including city officials – pointed fingers at the property’s management as well.
Mayor Shirley Dean said she received complaints about maintenance problems with shared bathrooms and laundry rooms and that drug dealers were coming into the building through emergency exits. But she said the John Stewart Company was responsive to her phone call requesting that some of the more pressing safety issues be taken care of.
All but two front desk clerks have been replaced and a security firm keeps tabs on all visitors after 4 p.m., according to Williams. The property supervisor has also resigned as of August 3, Williams said.
“We’ve had good results. The only complaint is that the tenants wish they were notified sooner rather than later,” Williams said.
Tenants held a meeting Thursday about the changes and Williams said he will do his best to keep them in the loop.
“My sense is that it has calmed down since the police raids when all of us were extraordinarily upset,” he said.
Since some of the social services seems to be waning, Dean expressed an interest in maintaining on-site social services for the residents.
“We can’t make it mandatory. But there has to be some aggression to aggressively contact people so there aren’t any more problems,” Dean said.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
This week, boona cheema, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, said there is a concerted effort to increase the number of on-site services. BOSS is a non-profit that helps homeless, poor and disabled people achieve independence by helping remove the causes of poverty.
Once the security issues are taken care of, cheema believes that real progress can begin.
“Look, s— happens. Let it go and let’s move on. There were problems with the management and the safety and security of residents in the building,” she said. “As soon as that improves, then things are going to turn around.”
BOSS and Lifelong have created a partnership with Bonita House and the tenants to provide clinics, drug and alcohol counseling, case management and community building.
Community building, cheema said, includes activities such as writer’s workshops, movie night, game night and HIV/AIDS intervention.
“We need a number of bodies engaging people. People didn’t have anything to do – they were bored,” she said.
If those services get back on track, it will be reminiscent of when the building was first rehabilitated after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
Under the direction of Susan Felix from 1993-99, UA Homes went through both good and bad times, Barton said. Barton was interim housing director for three years before being named director July 24.
“The residents needs are always so much greater than the money available,” Barton said. “When you are helping people who are dealing with substance abuse or mental illness, you are always running from one thing to another,” Barton said.
Felix was pretty much a one-woman show, Barton said, who poured her time into the building to make it work.
She left the building two years ago to help create a transitional housing development in Alameda. Before that, Felix said much of her time was taken up pursuing arts and community grants for a wide range of programs at UA Homes. She even convinced retail stores to donate high-quality sheets and towels.
“We had game night and cake for birthdays. There was a lot of involvement in the community before,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happening now.”