Berkeley Fire Marshal David Orth said four citations representing $10,000 in fines would be mailed this morning (Tuesday) to Dr. Lawrence White, owner of the Drayage.
The converted warehouse at Third and Addison streets was cited for numerous fire and building code violations last month. The Drayage’s tenants include artists, artisans and activists who have united in defense of their unique accommodations and have vowed to fight their evictions.
The tenants and owner had criticized the city’s actions, and Don Jelinek, White’s attorney, filed an appeal late Monday with the city. While Orth said his citations are beyond legal challenge, Jelinek said the Berkeley Municipal Code does allow appeals in such cases.
Under terms of the notice of violation, residential tenants had until 9 a.m. last Friday to vacate. But when the magic hour rolled around, only one unit had been vacated—and late on Friday Orth announced that he would issue daily citations until all illegally occupied units are vacant.
Orth and city Building Official Joan McQuarrie toured the building Friday afternoon—at least those parts he could access—not long after two other tours by attorneys, one representing building owner White, and the other representing tenants hoping to save their unique West Berkeley residents.
Jeffrey Carter, attorney for the tenants, said he’s working hard to negotiate a resolution that will allow the Northern California Land Trust to purchase the building with the goal of allowing tenants to return either as buyers of their own units or as tenants paying modest rates.
“They assist in maintaining affordable housing, generally limited equity co-ops and cooperatives,” Carter said.
Jelinek said he’s met with the trust once and plans another meeting later this week “where we’ll be talking numbers.”
As a tenant’s rights lawyer who has practiced in Berkeley and the East Bay for the last 35 years, Carter said getting code enforcement officials to visit substandard housing is “like pulling elephants teeth. But here they came running down.”
Myron Moskovitz, an attorney for the owner, toured the building in the company of Claudia Viera, a Drayage resident who has emerged as a strong voice for her fellow tenants, architect Mark Gorrell and a builder to compare the conditions in individual units with the findings of the city and Fire Department.
Moskovitz said that because “city fines are eating into Dr. White’s capital,” the landlord is offering to pay costs of first and last month rent and deposits for new apartments for all tenants, as well as cash payments for moving out by specific dates, with payments declining the longer the wait.
“The ideal solution would be that all the tenants would move out very soon, and then as soon as possible the building would be sold to a new owner who would rehab it and return it to the tenants,” he said.
Under the terms of the citation, White originally paid $5,500 a day for the round-the-clock presence of a fire crew until they were withdrawn after someone fired a pellet gun in their direction. Moskovitz said the owner is now paying $1,000 a day for round-the-clock presence of two security guards to maintain a fire watch in the absence of the firefighters.
Orth’s fines would add $2,500 a day to ongoing security costs, while Moskovitz said White’s total monthly rental income consists of between $700 and $800 each from 20 tenants.
The tenants remain strongly critical of the city’s handling of the violations.
“We’re pissed,” said Jeffery Ruiz, a furniture-maker who rents both living and work space in the Drayage.
For the last ten years, Ruiz has plied his craft in the unlikely building, making unique furniture from salvaged lumber. “I sell everything I make,” he said. Part of the reason is the building’s location. “People like coming to my shop. They like coming to Berkeley and dealing with me.”
While the low rents were a major attraction, the proximity to the shops of Fourth Street helps, Ruiz said. “I often meet with clients at Peet’s Coffee, and then there’s the Builder’s Booksource.”
A hardware store, a lumber recycling company and the close proximity to other woodworkers in West Berkeley add to the desirability, he said. The one change he’d like is to alter his arrangements so he could rent another unit with ground floor shop space and living quarters above.
Nemo Gould is another commercial tenant who builds things from recycled materials. Those his robotic sculptures are of another order altogether fromthe creations of his friend Ruiz.
Gould’s shelves are filled with retired espresso makers, vacuum cleaners and other bits of industrial detritus waiting for conversion into his whimsical creations. Until he moved his shop into the Drayage 18 months ago, Gould plied his art in the Fruitvale section of Oakland in a location many potential clients didn’t care to visit.
Because he doesn’t live in the building and his shop needed only minor alterations to bring it up to code, Gould hasn’t been ordered to vacate.
The crisis at the Drayage began last month, when a snap inspection by Orth, McQuarrie and others revealed more than 250 separate violations at the former warehouse. The Berkeley City Council voted last week to waive fines if tenants vacated by Thursday, a date tenant Viera said isn’t reasonable.
“If they had handled this reasonably, they would have explained the situation and given us three months,” she said. “Everyone probably would’ve moved out. But because they did this in such a draconian fashion, we’re having all this trouble.”
Jelinek met with Drayage tenants for five hours Monday, “and we remain united,” he said.
The controversy has soured many residents on city government, despite the fact that the enforcers say they’re acting in the best interest of the tenants.
“I’m really pissed at Tom Bates,” said Ruiz, “and I voted for the guy.”
The four tenants who did move out Friday said they were moving on to pursue their primary passion, events surrounding the Burning Man Festival held yearly in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.
Scruffy, Doc Holderdown, Dee and Michael said they regret their eviction from their unique three-story apartment.
“The Drayage has been uniquely supportive of the Burning Man community,” said Doc. “It’s been the staging area for a lot of Burning Man events, and the sign was here. We’re going to miss the place.”
Jelinek said that Friday’s inspection was the second by two groups of building and code experts who toured the structure on behalf of Dr. White.
“We never dreamed that we’d discover that many of the city’s alleged violations aren’t real,” he said. “We’ve got concrete floors they say are not fire-resistant, and they say there’s electric cabling there that isn’t there.”
Jelinek’s written appeal charges that the city’s inspection was sloppy and that the report “is filled with exaggerated conclusions and overblown rhetoric.” Seven pages of the nine-page appeal cite specific instances where his inspectors differed from the city’s.