Low income tenants fight to save their homes

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Dozens of tenants at the California Hotel won a small but significant victory July 11, when a judge ordered the building’s owner and managers to keep the hotel open and maintain utilities, managerial and security services pending a further court hearing on July 30.

Many residents at the hotel, which has 150 units for low-income renters, are seniors and many are disabled. The management company told them on June 20 it was pulling out effective July 15. The building’s owner, a non-profit housing developer which says it has run out of money, advised tenants to leave before that date because it would not hire a new management firm.

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of over 50 tenants, attorney John Murcko charged the owners with violating a 1992 agreement to operate the hotel for low income residents for 30 years, in return for $7 million in tax breaks from the state.

At a rally at City Hall July 10, tenant Arthur Bunton, who uses a wheelchair, told the World, “Right now, I don’t know where I could move. I’ve put in applications at other places, but most have waiting lists and some are too expensive.”

Bunton said his current rent already takes up to 60 percent of his monthly SSI income. The hotel’s tenants pay an average of $500/month for their single-room-occupancy accommodations. While the hotel “has some problems, like any low-cost place,” he said, it used to offer a range of services to residents including a weekly visit from a doctor. Food banks and other supportive facilities are nearby.

Though after paying rent and food, he’s “pretty much broke,” Bunton told dozens of tenants and their supporters at the rally, “I’ve never been homeless, and I don’t intend to be homeless. We need to keep the California hotel open!”

Robbie Clark, an organizer with the housing rights group Just Cause Oakland, said the organization is calling on the city to help prevent the displacement of residents at the hotel and another building the same owners plan to close at the end of the month. She said five more buildings are threatened with closure in coming months.

“What we see as a resolution to this is to bring all who are involved to the table to talk about what’s necessary to maintain affordable housing and make sure it is sustainable,” she said.

The California Hotel, a landmark building once known for social events, is now one of Oakland’s largest low income residences. Besides the state tax breaks, the developers have also received millions in federal, state and city loans, as well as aid from the city to cover expenses after the developers said two years ago they were broke.

Sean Rogan, Oakland’s Director of Housing and Community Development, told reporters during the rally that the city is “disappointed” in developments around the California Hotel and the other threatened buildings, and continues to seek ways to stabilize the situation. The city has approved relocation aid for tenants, and is urging other low income residences to give them priority. But few tenants have accepted the offer, citing waiting lists and disruption of longstanding living arrangements.

Nor is the problem faced by California Hotel residents unique. “I would say that countrywide, and especially in this area, we are looking at the loss of this type of affordable housing, and at threats to public housing overall,” said Robbie Clark. “That’s been happening for many years with the federal disinvestment in housing. Now added pressures are coming from the instability of the housing market, and the foreclosure crisis.”

mbechtel @pww.org