Michael Israel had been living in subsidized housing at 1040 University Ave. for only a week when fire swept through his building and put him out of a home. Like many of the 69 residents who were ousted by the Aug. 26 blaze at UA Homes, Israel had been a drifter, living in the streets of the East Bay, before rooting himself with the help of social service workers in the now scorched west Berkeley residential hotel.
“I was looking for a new and brighter future,” Israel said. He had started taking classes at Merritt College in Oakland and was trying to get his life together, he said. But progress was marred when the flames hit.
The residents were escorted without serious injury from the early morning blaze with only the clothes on their backs. They won’t be allowed to return to the partially-damaged complex for at least another five weeks. And now, in addition to personal problems the residents might be trying to deal with, many of them are again facing homelessness.
“It took a lot of work to find housing for a lot of these people in the first place, and we don’t want to lose them now,” said Drew King, an analyst with the city’s housing department.
The city is one of many groups working to find transitional housing for the fire victims.
After the victims spent two days living in a gymnasium at the James Kenney recreation center on Eighth Street, the American Red Cross moved in to assist, providing residents with private motel rooms in Berkeley and Oakland.
But with accommodation expenses costing about $30,000 a week, after Monday night the Red Cross cannot afford to pay for rooms.
“We still don’t have a plan for what’s going to happen Tuesday,” said Matt Rosenberg, relief operation director for the Red Cross. Finding a large facility, like the old Oakland army base, or cheaper rent-by-the-week motels, are housing options, but nothing has been secured, he said.
So the search continues.
Working to the benefit of the displaced residents is a section of the Berkeley Municipal Code known informally as the relocation ordinance. The uncommon city law puts the burden of finding housing on the landlord, in this case, Resources for Community Development (RCD).
RCD is “going above the call of duty” in their effort to find housing for the former tenants, according to one city official, but finding housing for 69 people is going to be difficult. The reason is cost.
RCD could not be reached for comment, but city officials said that insurance reimbursements for the fire were not coming through as RCD had hoped.
Though managed by RCD, the building is owned by UA Housing Inc., a nonprofit developer specializing in federally-subsidized housing.
City fire officials estimate that the blaze, which is thought to have been started accidentally when a pile of clothing caught fire, caused about $500,000 of damage to the building, mostly by water during the suppression effort.
All but eight of the building’s 74 units are expected to be repaired and made inhabitable next month.
This weekend, the displaced residents have moved into five west Berkeley hotels, down from nearly a dozen earlier this week and all much closer to home.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said former UA resident Carl Johnson in the lobby of the Ramada Inn on San Pablo Avenue. Johnson receives government subsidies for housing and to treat medical conditions and said that considering his circumstances Red Cross and city officials have made the last two weeks easy.
The same can not be said for displaced resident Pat Boushell.
Boushell is the third and lesser-known candidate in this year’s high-profile mayoral race in Berkeley. He says the fire has been a setback for his campaign.
“This is a real inconvenience, but we’ve been a grassroots effort all along and will be able to get over this,” he said.