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Berkeley Man Battles City Over Building Codes

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday December 23, 2009 - 08:47:00 AM
Rash Ghosh's property at 2507-2509 McGee Ave. which the city of Berkeley has boarded up due to code violations.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Rash Ghosh's property at 2507-2509 McGee Ave. which the city of Berkeley has boarded up due to code violations.

For Berkeley resident Rash Ghosh, every day for the last two years has been a fight to win back his home. But last week, Ghosh may have finally received a sliver of hope. 

After completing his doctorate in Lancaster, England, Ghosh, a native of Bangladesh, worked at Stanford and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, finally settling in Berkeley in 1986. 

Four years later he spent his savings on two houses in South Berkeley—2507-2509 McGee Ave. and 1700 Dwight Way—and over the next several years renovated them according to what he claims were the proper zoning requirements. 

But the city of Berkeley apparently thought otherwise, and in September 2007 both buildings were found to be structurally unsafe and declared a public nuisance. 

Ghosh, who lived at the McGee house along with his tenants, was evicted almost immediately and has been homeless ever since, staying with friends until the city hands him back the keys to his properties. 

His life’s work, the International Institute of the Bengal Basin, a nonprofit that helps marginalized families in Bangladesh with the basic necessities of life—food, clothes and clean water—suffered when the city closed down its offices at Ghosh’s Dwight Way property. 

Today, Ghosh, 65, continues to run his institute, whose list of advisers includes Nobel Prize–winning physicist Charles Townes and acclaimed Bengali writer Sunil Ganguly, but is otherwise unemployed, paying off his mortgage to avoid foreclosure with the help of family thousands of miles away. 

Following the September 2007 public nuisance notice, the city asked Ghosh to board up his properties within seven days, an order they said he continually violated until March 2009, at which point an extension was granted. 

When Ghosh finally boarded up the buildings, city officials were far from satisfied, ultimately obtaining a nuisance abatement warrant from the Alameda County Superior Court so that the city could finish the work. 

When Ghosh refused to pay the city for securing his property, the city threatened to impose an $8,000 lien on it. Ghosh appealed to the Berkeley City Council. 

At its Dec. 15 meeting, the council listened to more than an hour’s worth of testimony from Ghosh, his supporters and former tenants, and his lawyer, Michael Sims. 

The city’s lawyers and Planning Department officials outlined the properties’ numerous “outrageous code enforcement violations,” including zoning and fire. 

Berkeley’s building officer, Joan MacQuarrie, told the council that one of the city’s main concerns is that Ghosh had illegally added a third story to the McGee building which the city wants him to demolish. 

Ghosh contends that the city approved the permit for the construction. 

  Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who has been trying to help Ghosh get his property back, pointed to a use permit the city’s Planning Department said was issued erroneously. It was that permit which set the disputed construction into motion. 

“He got a sign-off on his plan from a line-level employee, which he was later told was not valid from the higher-up officials,” Worthington told the Daily Planet after the meeting. “He went ahead and spent all this money making the changes and now they want him to undo it.” 

Worthington said that Ghosh had converted the building’s attic into living space, which the planning staff was “mischaracterizing as an extra story.” 

Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan told the Planet that Ghosh had received permits from the city for certain parts of the construction but had carried out the remaining construction on his own. 

“He would prepare his own plans, which were very difficult to read, and the building and safety department would try to accommodate it and sign off on it, but sometimes people would do it in error,” Cowan said. “When we told him he had to take down all the illegal construction, he blatantly resisted.” 

Ghosh’s turmoil with the city can be traced back to 1998 when, after red-tagging his property several times, the city began enforcement in earnest. 

MacQuarrie said that although Ghosh had made progress with improvements on the McGee building, she couldn’t say the same for the office building of the International Institute of the Bengal Basin (IIBB). 

“We want him to legalize the buildings, get the proper permits,” MacQuarrie said. “Our main issue is to make the buildings safe.” 

MacQuarrie said that, when the city cut the power in the McGee building because of electrical violations, Ghosh had broken the law by running an extension cord to get the lights back on. 

Ghosh told the City Council that the city’s permit process had left him frustrated, confused and helpless over the course of the last 18 years,  

“This is the first time I tasted the feeling of freedom, because when my house was taken away I filed a card but was not allowed to speak,” Ghosh said, referring to the official procedure for public comment at City Council meetings. “I come from one of the poorest countries in the world, I was a backbencher who worked hard to get here ... And I was treated very badly.” 

Ghosh told the Planet that the city had raided his house on multiple occasions unannounced, even threatening to arrest him. 

“Over time they would bring a new code violation that was not there,” he said. “I was continuously harassed.” 

Ghosh’s friend Nasira Abdul-Aleem, who took part in events held at IIBB’s monotheistic temple, asked the City Council to intervene in the issue immediately. 

Emotions ran high when Abdul-Aleem went as far as to say that the city was discriminating against Ghosh on the basis of race, an accusation Councilmember Worthington shot down immediately. 

“There is nothing in the record to suggest that the reason the city is doing this is because of race or immigrant status,” he said reproachfully. “I, myself, am a strict opponent of any kind of racism or sexism.” 

Worthington added that the evidence suggested that Ghosh had made “repeated attempts to meet the city’s requirements,” although he may have fallen short on certain things. 

“That doesn’t mean somebody wasn’t trying,” he said. “It seems pretty clear from the facts that this is a tragedy. We have city staff doing their job and yet we have loss of affordable housing and community benefits.” 

In response to IIBB supporters’ pleas to reopen the office space, Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said that “the issue is not whether the institute does good things or whether Dr. Ghosh is a good guy. The issue is this is a blighted property and we are dealing with a matter of public safety. There are numerous code violations and there is no reason why he couldn’t fix the problems.” 

Dismissing the charges of discrimination, Councilmember Laurie Capitelli called Ghosh’s properties “a poster child for a hazardous building.” 

“This is not affordable housing, this is dangerous housing,” he said. 

The council voted to reject Ghosh’s appeal and agreed to waive the lien if he is able to fix his houses and get a certificate of occupancy within the next two years. 

Although Ghosh looked relieved when he left City Hall after the meeting, he said he was skeptical whether the council’s decision would actually help him get his property back. 

“It means they can keep me out of my house for two more years,” he told the Daily Planet. “They want to drive me out of my house and take over my property.” 

However, Ghosh added he was willing to work with the city to address its concerns. 

Worthington said Monday that Ghosh had recently spent thousands of dollars on getting the wiring fixed at his McGee property, wiring which the city has yet to inspect. Cowan said that, unless Ghosh removed some of the dry wall covering up his electrical work, the city would not be able to do an inspection. 

He said that Ghosh still had time to agree to a court-appointed receiver—a third party who would step in and try to sort out the mess. 

“I think this is a lot more about confusion than about somebody trying to get him,” Worthington said. “He appears to have operated in good faith, but somehow things got really complicated along the way.”