Fed up with what they say is more than 25 years of strewn trash, raucous parties and a plague of vermin, 22 neighbors earlier this month filed small claims court suits totaling $110,000 against Le Chateau, UC Berkeley’s most notorious student housing cooperative.
The neighbors are each seeking the maximum $5,000 in damages from the University Students Cooperative Association (USCA), which counts Le Chateau as one of its 20 member cooperatives. The suits charge that the co-op, founded in the late ‘70s and known for its quirky residents that several years ago would invite homeless people from People’s Park to camp on their roof, has created a nuisance and diminished property values in the neighborhood.
George Lewinsky, who has lived next door to the 85-student three-building complex on the intersection of Hillegass and Parker streets since 1989, described the usual state of affairs: “When I look out my bedroom window I see the entire entrance to their backyard covered with trash.” He said on a couple of occasions the co-op, which houses about 85 mostly first-year students, has been so loud, his wife has had to sleep in a different bedroom.
The nuisance suits come at a time when Lewinsky acknowledges that behavior at Le Chateau is actually improving. Last year after a meeting with neighbors and city officials, the co-op adopted an addendum to its charter that set stringent noise rules and fines for residents who violated them. Six residents were fined last semester, said former manager Ryan O’Laughlin. However, the USCA refused to meet the neighbors demand that it hire a professional manager for The Chateau.
“Rotating elected managers has not worked,” Lewinsky said. “There’s no consistency in the way the place is managed and in the way members treat the neighbors.”
But a professional manager would “go against the entire idea of a co-op,” said Ben Reccius, a freshman and the social manager of The Chateau. “It’s about co-operative living, not a professional management company overlooking everything.”
For most co-ops, including Le Chateau, managers are elected by residents and then go through a week-long training session.
However, there is precedent for installing a professional staff. Rochdale, a student cooperative, has had a professional manager since its inception and, USCA General Manager George Proper said UC Berkeley was pushing for the USCA to install a professional manager at Cloyne Court—another freshman dominated co-op—as part of a new lease agreement.
Proper said Le Chateau—which sits on USCA-owned land—could one day receive a professional manager, but that the co-op board of directors would not tie any management change to the lawsuit, which the USCA has pledged to fight and if necessary appeal to the superior court.
Should they lose, Proper guessed that the fines would be paid through reserve funds accumulated over several years by all 1,300 students who belong to the USCA. He added that despite a similar case more than 15 years ago, a legal battle wouldn’t spell the end for Le Chateau. In the late 1980s the USCA closed Barrington Hall rather than fight a neighbor-driven lawsuit filed in superior court.
The small claims case against Le Chateau is believed to be the first against a student co-op or a fraternity, but Berkeley Neighborhood Services Liaison Michael Caplan, said such suits are a growing trend in Berkeley and elsewhere. He is aware of three to five groups of neighbors considering filing joint small claims suits against owners of problem properties. Earlier this year a group of neighbors won their case against a neighbor they alleged harbored known drug dealers at his property in West Berkeley.
“Nuisance suits are always the last resort,” Caplan said. “It’s a way to put pressure on the property owner when other means of problem solving are not available.”
Lewinsky said he and other neighbors had exhausted all of their options. In 1996 he and the USCA reached an agreement through Berkeley Dispute Resolution Services, but new managers and students who weren’t part of the negotiations never honored the deal, he said.
Co-op officials, though, insisted that the agreement reached last October was working and should have been given more time.
“We’ve done everything within our power to appease them,” said Reccius, the social manager. He said the co-op had built outdoor storage cupboards to store garbage, hired an exterminator to prevent mice and rats that neighbors say are rampant, gave neighbors notice when they would have parties and provided managers with beepers so neighbors could contact them when issues arose.
Ryan O’Laughlin, a former manager and current resident of Le Chateau, said neighbors often beeped him with frivolous complains including a loud pool filter and noisy nighttime dishwashing. He said this semester neighbors stopped beeping managers and started calling police.
O’Laughlin understands that the tawdry history of Le Chateau, especially the unwelcome invitations to homeless people, has left neighbors dubious that a solution can be reached.
“Even though the house is improving they’re convinced that five years from now it’s going to be like five years ago,” he said. “There were some assholes who used to live here, but don’t want our house to go back to that. They just don’t trust us to police ourselves.”›