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California Hotel Residents Fight to Save Their Home

By Kristin McFarland
Thursday September 18, 2008 - 09:19:00 AM

On June 20, the residents of the California Hotel in Oakland received notice that they would be required to vacate the building by July 15. The 250 residents, many disabled, some with families, all low-income, were given three weeks’ notice that they would have to find new affordable housing. 

Now, nearly three months later, the hotel, at 3501 San Pablo Ave., remains open by the grace of an Alameda County judge, without management or city support. The residents take shifts as security at the front desk, maintain their own facilities and pay their rent to a court-appointed trustee. 

This independence is against the inclinations of the building’s owners, nonprofit housing developer Oakland Community Housing, Inc. (OCHI), and Cahon Associates, Inc., a division of OCHI. OCHI and Cahon Associates are both, for all practical purposes, broke, having spent both $5.1 million given by the city 20 years ago to buy and manage the hotel, and $1.5 million given to clear its debts. 

Residents of the hotel sued the management companies for damages and for closing a low-income residence that, according to the city’s original grant, should have been open for at least another 10 years.  

The tenants’ lawsuit also claims that the city aided the management companies in 2007 by ordering them to stop leasing units as they emptied.  

Robbie Clark, a representative of Just Cause Oakland, the organization helping the tenants to self-organize, points out that the building became half-vacant after this order, preventing the hotel from generating all possible income. 

But the City of Oakland was also victimized by OCHI’s mishandling of the given money, said Anne Omura, one of the tenants’ lawyers and executive director of the Eviction Defense Center, a non-profit law corporation in Oakland. The millions of dollars given by the city to OCHI to run the building have gone into a black hole, and now the city is deprived of affordable housing, a necessity in Oakland. 

In July, an Alameda County judge ordered OCHI and Cahon Associates to keep the building open and temporarily pay the bills. But the 53 remaining tenants self-organized, refusing to leave, and began managing the building on their own. 

Lawyers for the management companies maintain that the building requires intense repairs, without which it is dangerous and uninhabitable. 

But Omura, who began volunteering to aid many of the California Hotel residents on the verge of displacement, said that the residents are running the building very effectively. 

“They’re really doing an amazing job,” she said. “The hotel is clean, it’s organized, they’re taking turns running security. It seems to be working.” 

At the Aug. 27 hearing, Judge Richard Keller upheld the tenants’ self-organization, at least for the time being. He appointed Omura as trustee to collect the tenants’ rent and oversee the building’s maintenance from that money. 

According to Omura, allowing the tenants to stay and paying the bills out of their rent are sustainable to a degree, but more money will be required to make the major repairs that are needed to bring in more residents and keep the building safe. 

“If the other [empty] rooms were fixed up, the place could be sustainable,” Omura said. “We need to get more money into the building.” 

None of the responsible parties can be ordered to help, since both OCHI and Cahon Associates are defunct. 

“Everyone’s pointing their fingers, saying, ‘You should pay,’ but only the tenants are paying now,” Omura said. 

Judge Keller pointed out that ordering Cahon Associates and OCHI to fulfill their end of the contract would be a Pyrrhic victory, since both companies are out of funds. 

“How do I ensure that the tenants of the California Hotel get what they’re entitled to?” Keller asked.  

The judge proposed leaving the building open temporarily, but suggested that the owners of the building work to sell the building and use the money to move the tenants. 

“From a practical standpoint, the only solution is to get some money from the property,” Keller said.  

Judge Keller called the hotel “a shell game from the beginning,” allowing Cahon Associates to transfer tax benefits— but none of the liability—to its investors. But now, the investors and their money have fled, leaving the tenants to fend for themselves. 

The California Hotel is just one of seven Bay Area low-income residences facing closure. Tenants of Nueva Vista, Drasnin Manor and Marin Way Court have joined hotel residents in fighting for their homes. 

According to Clark of Just Cause Oakland, the Oakland City Council contracted nearly $1 million to help relocate the tenants. He said the city knew before the residents that they would be forced to relocate. 

Although money was allocated by the city to Eden Information and Referral, the company providing relocation services to help the tenants move, the tenants and their advocates argued that the relocation services were inadequate, lacking resources to move disabled residents or residents with families. 

Many of the tenants were told that their best option would be to move to transitional housing, also known as homeless shelters. Closing the building would create a greater need for the type of housing the California Hotel provided, Clark said. 

“What they’re doing seems so illogical,” he said. “The only logic that they’re showing is wanting to get rid of this type of population ... How are they expecting low-income folks to even live or survive?” 

Though Judge Keller suggested that the best final solution is to demolish the hotel and sell the property, this option is unpalatable to many community members, who regard the hotel as a landmark in the black community. 

The California Hotel served as one of the premier African-American entertainment spots in the East Bay in the 1950s and 1960s, rivaling Slim Jenkins’ place in West Oakland. Dancer Ruth Beckford performed at the hotel’s Zanzibar Club, as well as such rhythm and blues singers as Little Richard, Sam Cooke and gospel great Mahalia Jackson. 

“How creatively can we keep these people from being homeless?” Omura asked. “I’m open to suggestions.” 

The next scheduled hearing on the fate of the California Hotel will be held at the Alameda County Courthouse in Hayward on Wednesday, Oct. 29.