The San Francisco Chronicle reported last October that “eight lucky families,” all victims of Hurricane Katrina, would move into a 48-unit apartment complex in West Berkeley under the auspices of a non-profit affordable housing agency.
“The carpet will be new, the walls freshly painted, and there will be clean sheets on the beds, clothes in the closet, and red beans and rice in the cupboard,” the article said.
Nine months later, one of those units lays claim to off-color patches that have seeped up through the carpet, releasing a stench, which the tenant, a hurricane victim, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes to be mold. “I’m concerned about it,” the tenant said. “But what can you do?”
Another resident, also a Katrina victim, bemoaned the prominence of drug-dealers loitering in and around the building. She expected that kind of living environment on the East Coast, she said, where projects feature prominently, but not in Berkeley.
“I’m a working single parent. I’m a college graduate,” she said. “I didn’t expect to be moved here.”
Residents living at and near 2121 Seventh St., also known as the Allston House apartments, are raising concerns over safety and hygiene at the affordable housing complex, long considered a problem location in the largely quiet, residential West Berkeley neighborhood.
Affordable Housing Associates (AHA), a Berkeley-based non-profit housing agency, entered into a lease option-to-purchase agreement for the Allston House two years ago, and has managed the building since. The organization is expected to buy the property from private owners this fall. Unit rents are between $900 and $1,200.
Tenants, some of whom are Section 8 recipients, have reported sewage water flooding the building or coming up through the kitchen sink, unkempt laundry facilities and community space, delayed maintenance calls and other problems, including crime in and around the property.
AHA staff said they are addressing tenants’ concerns and said they received just one complaint about mold, which was dealt with. Since taking the reins, the organization has spent roughly $120,000 on repairing and maintaining the building, said AHA Executive Director Susan Friedland.
“At any given time, you can’t satisfy everybody,” said Friedland. “It’s difficult for our staff to hear public criticism. We’re not slumlords, we don’t do this for gain.”
Lighting fixtures, locks, replaced sewer lines, new doors and laundry machines are among the upgrades. Most recently, management installed new security cameras, on the heels of an incident Labor Day, when a tenant was attacked at gunpoint in the building’s parking lot.
“In terms of health and safety, I feel we’ve been extremely responsive, because everyone should feel safe,” said Erin Patch, off-site property manager for AHA.
Residents hoped new supervision would improve living conditions. It hasn’t, some say.
A homeowner across the street from Allston House, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years, says she has seen circumstances worsen since AHA took over.
“There was a noticeable downward trend,” she said. “More trash around the building, an odd, unfinished paint job, the beginnings of construction but no follow-up, rotted wood on some of the balcony areas, generally more noise, a lot more hanging out on the corners—groups of young men hanging out with no purpose except possibly drug deals.”
One tenant, 19, says she and her family won’t take the garbage out at night for fear of getting attacked.
Elias Rodriquez, 12, who spoke to the Daily Planet on behalf of his Spanish-speaking parents, said the family cars have been broken into four times since they moved into the complex three years ago. Three of those incidents occurred in the gated parking lot.
According to the Berkeley Police Department, reported criminal activity at the apartment complex is on the decline. Just one incident was reported at the building since January, said public information officer Ed Galvan, though he did not have older statistics available, which would show trends before and after AHA assumed management.
April Green, who has lived in the complex for 13 years, says there need to be more security cameras, more vigilance with known drug dealers, better locks, better gates and brighter lights. In February, Green and a band of other residents lobbied the city for help. Their complaints have fallen, largely, on deaf ears.
Representatives from the offices of both the mayor and District 2 City Councilmember Darryl Moore say AHA has taken enormous strides toward cleaning up the building.
“As far as I understand the situation, when AHA took it over, there were quite a few issues with crime and habitability,” said Ryan Lau, aide to Councilmember Moore. “But ever since then … they’ve addressed as many problems as financially viable.”
AHA staff say they will make major refurbishments, like flooring replacement, security upgrades, new countertops and other features, once they secure funding to do so this fall.
AHA owns 450 affordable housing units in the Bay Area and manages an additional 75, owned by Berkeley Housing Authority. In recent years, the non-profit agency has been the subject of other tenant grievances. Residents of the Shattuck Senior Homes complained in 2004 about negligent upkeep, a lack of on-site management, dirty floors and trash buildup. Last year, the Tri-City Post reported on mold infestation in an AHA-operated apartment unit, at 1305 Ashby Ave.
“I think AHA is a wonderful organization and it’s providing an extraordinary resource,” said City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who has assisted residents of the Allston House lobby the city. “But like any organization, they seem to have problems with specific cases that need some attention.”