Apartment Management Class Helps Women (and Men) To Survive

By Zelda Bronstein Special to the Planet
Friday May 21, 2004

How can a person survive in today’s high-rent, high-unemployment Bay Area, especially when that person is a single mother without a college degree? Indeed, with plenty of highly credentialled types are pounding the pavement in search of work, how do you survive even with a college degree? 

One way, says Berkeley resident Madeline Mixer, is to become an apartment building manager. It’s a part-time job, but your rent’s paid, and you can spend more time with your family. 

Mixer, a labor economist who administered the U.S. Department of Labor’s regional office of the Women’s Bureau in San Francisco from 1962 to 1996, spent a good deal of her own career promoting vocational training that, in her words, helps women “to pay the rent and feed the kids.” Now retired, she continues to pursue that goal. “Once a woman starts working with her hands,” Mixer says, “she can go anyplace and do anything.” 

Last summer, Mixer asked Berkeley resident and veteran plumber Naomi Friedman to teach a short-term class in apartment building management at the Building Education Center in West Berkeley. Friedman agreed, and the first session took place last summer. Fifteen people, including three men, enrolled. 

“It’s not a women-only class,” says Mixer. “The challenge, though, is getting women to enroll….Men will take a class that’s intended for women. They don’ t care!” By contrast, women have to be encouraged to sign up. That’s why Mixer asked Friedman to put her first name in the catalog—“so that women would know that the instructor was a woman.” 

The course covers repairing and installing locks, and basic electrical and plumbing maintenance. “I brought in several buckets of faucets,” says Friedman, “and we took them apart and put them together.” The students learn how to find a building’s utility shut-offs and sewer clean-outs. There’s also a segment on emergency preparedness—what to do in case of a fire or an earthquake. 

In addition, there’s a three-hour session on fair housing law taught by a representative of Sentinel Fair Housing in Oakland, a non-profit organization that helps tenants, owners and managers to understand rental law. 

To make lessons even more vivid, Friedman invites current apartment building managers to share their on-the-job experiences. 

This is a hands-on class with no homework and no tests. Materials and tools are provided by the instructor. Students who complete the course receive two certificates, one from Friedman, the other from Sentinel Fair Housing. On the back of the certificate she hands out, Friedman lists the skills that have been covered in the class. 

Friedman says that “at least four or five out of the thirteen who completed the course last summer got positions as apartment managers. Several decided they didn’t want to do it. This was a good way to find out—much better than finding out on the job.” 

One student who decided she did like it, and who subsequently became an apartment building manager is Glendy Cordero, a thirty-two-year-old single mother with two young daughters. Cordero came to this country from Guatemala over fourteen years ago; for thirteen of those years,  

she’s been working as a housecleaner. 

“From that course,” she says, “I got a lot of changes in my life.” Crodero’s talking about more than her job as a manager. Equally important is a new confidence in her own abilities. “In my culture,” she says, “women are not supposed to be doing these things”—fixing leaky faucets, painting walls, fixing furniture, changing tires. Now, “I’ m not just doing housecleaning. I’ m helping at school. I’ m running our parents’ group. It grows my self-esteem and my kids’self-esteem. They see their mom doing that, and they think they can do it, too.” 

Cordero wants to learn more plumbing and locksmithing. “I see Glendy becoming a locksmith down the line,” says Friedman. 

The next session of the apartment building management class begins on June 8 and has six meetings—two Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and two Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Building Education Center is located at 812 Page Street in Berkeley, easily accessible by the No. 72 bus on San Pablo. The cost is on a sliding scale ranging from $250 to $25, depending on need. 

The biggest challenge, say Friedman and Mixer, is getting the word out so that enough students—fifteen—sign up for the class will run. A session scheduled for January had to be canceled due to insufficient enrollment. So far only three have enrolled for the session that begins on June 8. 

Last summer, students came from as far away as Half Moon Bay, Vallejo and Hayward. When asked to account for this far-flung interest, Friedman says that “the only other place where you can get this kind of training is through apartment owners’ associations, where it is expensive and lengthier.” In other words, the Building Education Center course offers a rare opportunity. 

People who are interested in the upcoming class should call Naomi Friedman at 525-1031.