According to Luis Damerell, until last year living near the corner of Allston Way and Ninth Street seemed like a nightmare.
“The streets were filled with drug dealers and thugs,” he said. “People were afraid to go outside. It was like being in a lockdown situation.”
These days, Damerell said, the situation has improved.
The change, he said, wouldn’t have happened if not for Neighborhood Solutions, a three-year-old Oakland nonprofit that helps neighbors fight nuisance properties by filing small claims court lawsuits against the property owners.
In Damerell’s neighborhood, 23 people sued James Ross, who they said allowed dealers to sell drugs and hold rowdy parties at his home on the corner of Ninth and Allston. They won a ruling for $115,000, and although they haven’t collected a cent, they succeeded in pressuring Ross to sell his home.
The case was the first victory in Berkeley for Neighborhood Solutions, and it further established the organization as a major player in the East Bay’s fight against problem properties, so much so that Oakland officials now refer residents to the organization.
Since the ruling against Ross, Neighborhood Solutions has forced UC Berkeley Co-op Le Chateau to pay neighbors $32,500 for years of unruly behavior and made the owner of a burnt-out building on Spaulding Street clean up the property, which neighbors said was home to drug addicts. It now has six pending nuisance cases in Berkeley.
The most celebrated one is a group of neighbors suing Lenora Moore, a 75-year-old Berkeley woman whose family members have been repeatedly arrested for selling drugs near her home and on other charges.
With a court date scheduled for Thursday, Moore’s allies have emerged as the organization’s sharpest critics.
“They’re going against the spirit of what small claims court is supposed to do,” said Osha Neumann, an attorney who is advising Moore. “I don’t think we’re getting a neighborhood solution out of Neighborhood Solutions.”
Neighborhood Solutions is the creation of Grace Neufeld, a life-long Oakland resident, who lives in the Maxwell Park area. In 1994, as the neighborhood block captain, Neufeld participated in a successful smalls claims court suit against the owner of a neighboring house, where the tenants kept pit bulls that Neufeld said terrorized the neighborhood.
The case was organized by Safe Streets Now, which lost city funding in Oakland shortly afterwards when one of its members was charged with cocaine trafficking.
Having learned the ropes of preparing small claims court cases, Neufeld, a graphic designer and publisher by trade, led neighbors in a suit against the owner of the local liquor store she said was a center for drug dealing.
The neighbors prevailed and after the store closed down, Neufeld said she started getting inquiries from other neighborhood leaders to help them initiate lawsuits.
In 2002, two years after she stopped publishing her monthly newspaper, The Pet Companion, she formed Neighborhood Solutions. As executive director, she helps clients document neighborhood nuisances and leads them through the process of filing a small claims case. In most of her cases, several plaintiffs seek the maximum of $5,000 to pressure the property owner to end the nuisance.
The nonprofit has not been a money-maker for Neufeld, who relies on her husband’s business reselling unwanted storage items for her income. She asks clients for donations, but only receives compensation when her clients collect on their court victories, a rarity in small claims cases.
To date Neufeld, whose fee is 30 percent of the settlement award, said she has collected about $25,000 from two cases.
“I’m not doing this for the money,” said Neufeld, who keeps the organization’s telephone number unlisted. “A lot of the people I work with can’t afford upfront fees. I don’t think they should be prevented from having this option available to them.”
The fee structure, which Neufeld sees as egalitarian, Neumann said gives her an incentive to push neighbors into court.
“She has a financial interest in pursuing that solution,” he said.
Neufeld said that only about one-third of her cases ever goes to court, and that in most circumstances a demand letter from neighbors or mediation solves the dispute.
For cases that do go to court, Neumann said Neighborhood Solutions is exploiting the small claims process.
“In the case of Lenora Moore, they’re using small claims court to make a family sell its house. That’s not the mission of the court,” he said. Neumann said a court case won’t help Moore’s neighbors, because even if Moore loses she won’t sell her home.
Neumann added that the neighbors, with the backing of Neufeld and her nonprofit’s advisory board, had an unfair advantage over the defendants in preparing their cases.
“The neighbors are much better positioned than Lenora is,” he said. “There is some kind of fundamental unfairness there that doesn’t seem right.”
Neighborhood Solutions has won about 90 percent of cases that have gone to trial, according to Neufeld.
Neumann blamed city and county officials for not doing more to solve the issues surrounding Moore, who recently sought and received stay-away orders against six of her family members who have drug arrests.
“Why hadn’t the DA issued stay-away orders before?” he said. “People were being busted there repeatedly.”
Officials say the group serves a niche
Some of Neighborhood Solutions’ staunchest supporters are city workers who handle problem properties.
“I think they’ve been pretty effective,” said Michael Caplan, who coordinated the city’s response to the Ross house at Ninth and Allston. “We’re having movement on nuisance properties that have been problems for years.”
Sandra Sanders-West, West Oakland’s neighborhood services coordinator, said she refers residents to Neighborhood Solutions.
“This is a huge city with a lot of issues,” she said. “There isn’t enough manpower to hold people’s hands through every nuisance problem.”
Caplan said he doesn’t refer residents to Neighborhood Solutions, but if, after exhausting other avenues, they ask for the group’s phone number, he’ll supply it.
When it comes to dealing with nuisance properties, Caplan said Neighborhood Solutions’ reliance on civil law is often more effective than the city’s tools for criminal enforcement.
“It’s fundamentally challenging to enforce against minor quality of life crimes by using the police,” he said.
Caplan said by the time police respond to a call for service there are often no grounds to make an arrest. In the case of the Ross house, he said, the city in one week spent over $30,000 on police surveillance. The operation led to arrests and cut back on the nuisance, but within weeks, he said, the problem had returned.
Neighborhood Solutions instructs clients to document what they call quality of life violations, such as harassment, loitering and late-night noise, in preparation for a small claims court trial. Neufeld said cities are often less effective at solving major nuisance cases because they fear being sued and they can’t be seen to favor one side or the other.
Last year, Oakland passed a law giving the city new authority to fine the owners of problem properties. Sanders-West said that despite the new law, residents still prefer civil action. “The municipal process takes a lot of time,” she said. “People want a way to move forward with their concerns.”
Sanders-West said Neighborhood Solutions has helped residents who are at their wits’ end over a nuisance, but said the small claims court route hasn’t been a cure-all.
Since it is difficult for plaintiffs to receive the damage awards won in court—often victorious plaintiffs must file liens and wait until the property is sold—a court victory doesn’t always end the nuisance, she said.
“For a few months there’s a change,” she said, “but when people realize they can’t go after them for damages, they go back to their old habits.”
Several of those helping Lenora Moore, who is African-American, question whether the action by her neighbors, some of whom are themselves African-American, is a tool of gentrification.
“This is a case of long-term homeowners being ganged up on by people with much more resources that are trying to change the make-up of the neighborhood,” said Leo Stegman, a paralegal with the East Bay Community Law Center, who is serving Moore outside his role with the law center.
“These are Berkeley people,” said Andrea Pritchard of Copwatch, noting that Moore has owned the house since 1963, and it has been in her family since 1916. “It’s our responsibility to lift them up, not kick them out.”
Neufeld said her work was not about gentrification.
“It’s more about people defending the right to have people in their own house,” she said.
She said several of her current cases involve mostly African American plaintiffs, including a case on Fifth Street in West Berkeley where she is helping a group of African American residents organize against a white property owner she says has allowed tenants to create a neighborhood nuisance.
Shomari Mustafa and Rashida Mustafa Mohamed of Chester Street in West Oakland worked with Neufeld on a suit against their next-door neighbor. They said the neighbor sold drugs, defaced their car and threatened to assault them. After winning $7,000 in damages, they are now in mediation with the family.
“Grace has been a Godsend to us,” said Mustafa, adding that he believed he would have ended up trading blows with his neighbors if Neufeld had not gotten involved.
“She said, ‘Sister Rashida, shoot them with the camera.’ Mustafa Mohamed said. “It worked,” she added. “Without her we wouldn’t have had time to fill out the paper work for court and without the ruling we wouldn’t be having serious mediation discussions.”
The couple said they would recommend Neighborhood Solutions to neighbors, but Neufeld said for now she wasn’t doing much work in Oakland.
“Berkeley’s keeping me really busy,” she said.