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Troubles in Berkeley's Redwood Gardens

Lydia Gans
Thursday December 18, 2014 - 10:15:00 AM

The residents of Redwood Gardens are experiencing a disruption in their lives that they seem to be powerless to affect. Redwood Gardens at 2951 Derby Street is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing complex of 169 apartments for low income seniors and people with disabilities. The management company, CSI Support and Development, has been making decisions and taking actions and ignoring any input from the residents. Complaints, questions, requests are often simply ignored. They have converted a popular community room into offices for their staff. They are changing garden areas against the residents' wishes. Most recently they have converted a pleasant sun room into a laundry in spite of vehement protests by the residents. One long-time resident commented bitterly, “There is increasing enmity between the residents and management.”

Now they have embarked on a huge project that will disrupt the residents' lives for a long time to come. With a zero interest loan from HUD, CSI will do major renovations throughout the complex. The process will certainly be extremely long and stressful. And it is not at all clear what, if any benefit there will be for the tenants. It appears to be more in the interest of the management. Board member Eleanor Walden suggests that “The only reason for this renovation is to raise the value of corporate owned multi-family low income housing because the senior/low income population is the fastest growing population and as such it is potentially a highly profitable commodity in the future.” It turns out that similar projects are also going on in other HUD housing complexes. 

Management announced that their plan is to renovate one unit at a time, spending one day on each. The plan is to make a number of changes - remodeling kitchens and bathrooms, replacing cabinets and shelves, possibly floors, etc. – expecting to complete a whole unit all in one working day! (They are quickly finding out that this is almost impossible.) The residents have to move their belongings out for the day and there is no plan in place to provide them with assistance. Even if all this were possible, with 169 apartments and taking account of weekends and holidays the stress and disruption in peoples' lives is will go on for more than the next 8 months. 

The process started only about a month ago and complaints are coming from upset and angry tenants whose units have already been worked on. Having been alerted to what was happening and writing about earlier tenant protests I have been keeping in touch with Eleanor Walden and others who are sharing with me reports of their experiences. 

The difficulty of communication with management that has been an issue for a long time is intensified with many unexpected changes the tenants have not been prepared for. Nor do they have any control of the workers who are making these changes. This was brought up in many of the reports. Cecile Earle had the the work done in her apartment but then, she writes, “in case no one realizes not one of us was told the process, they leave with painting still to do … on a random day they show up and tell you they are going to paint.” 

The expectation that the tenants remove their belongings from the unit for the day raises another major problem, particularly for those who are disabled. To pack the contents of cabinets and closets in boxes and carry them in and out can be an impossible task. And they clearly cannot afford to or be expected to pay for helpers to do it for them. The question is being raised whether this is not a violation of ADA rules but so far no one has pursued it. Wheel chair user Peni Hall failed to remove belongings from her closet and found everything dumped in a disorderly pile in her living room. She posted a photo of it. 

It's hardly a surprise that completing an apartment remodeling will take more than one day. By now for some it has been going on not for days but for weeks. Some people are getting desperate. People cannot organize and put away their belongings while waiting for new shelves to be built. Kitchen remodeling is a major operation and would take several days even if the work is done without interruptions which is not the case. Without access to their kitchens, for people with limited incomes and limited mobility getting adequate meals presents serious problems. 

Situations like this, where one's living space is in disarray and there is no way to know when it will end would be stressful even for a young able bodied person with the resources to employ the necessary help. Eleanor Walden's remodeling is going on for almost two weeks and she has not been able to use her kitchen. She is severely depressed. She says “My life has been disrupted to the extent that I do not see how to put any meaning back into living.” 

Peni Hall found a number of accessibility problems with the changes being made in her kitchen. She sent a detailed message to manager Mary Kirk more than a week ago listing the changes needed to make the kitchen compliant with ADA requirements. She received no response. For almost 2 weeks she has not been able to stay in her apartment. She just sent another message. “This situation is taking a toll on my health - I need to sleep in a special adjustable bed and without it I am having major back problems … This is a major stressor - I am having twice as many migraines ... (H)aving a hard time with the chemical smell from the renovation.” Hall is an artist and she writes “I am having a hard time conducting the business of my life - I have no access to my desk or art table, messages are going astray ...” 

Not everyone has been having such traumatic experiences but the problem of communication with management has not improved. The threat of not cooperating would “jeopardize your tenancy” has been seen by several residents. For seniors or disabled individuals with limited incomes having to find alternative housing if they were evicted would be exceedingly difficult. People are careful how they express themselves. One person wrote”My cabinets look good” and she added “I could have lived with the old.” And that's the question - “who decided, and why, they cannot live with the old?