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Hanging out the foreclosure sign? Berkeley's Strawberry Creek Lodgers protest..again

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Sunday November 18, 2012 - 01:12:00 PM

Strawberry Creek Lodge tenants are thinking about staging a protest outside the Board of Trustees’ meeting tomorrow. Monday, November 19, 2012.

SCL tenant Jane Eisley reports that the Tenant Association sent a November 14 memo to the Lodge Board of Trustees regarding proposed change in ownership: (1) “We reject the Board of Trustees plan to change the ownership of Strawberry Creek Lodge.” Motion passed with 45 ayes, 1 nay and 3 abstentions. (2) “We insist that the Board consider alternative financing, phased seismic work, apartment renewal by attrition, and negotiate new terms of the 23 Section 8 slots.” Motion passed with 37 ayes, 1 nay, no abstentions.

The Board will meet on Monday, November 19, 2012 at the office of board member Holly Near-Brown, and cast a vote that will approve transfer of ownership to a new partnership with one of three candidate management companies, unless at least a third of the members are persuaded to vote no.  

Strawberry Creek Lodge was built 1962 at 1320 Addison Street in Berkeley, California to provide adequate rental housing for lower to middle income senior citizens. In 2009, SCL achieved a 66.69 (out of 100) inspection score, which is 26.6% worse than the average for all Section 8. The Lodge has a total of 150 total units,53 “assisted units,” as they are mistakenly referred to. This not-for-profit complex consists of three adjoining buildings in a park-like setting. Some are one-bedroom apartments, most are small Section 8 studios, all with bathrooms and kitchenettes. An elective, not-free evening meal is served. There is no longer a grocery supermarket within walking distance. 

It is owned by the Strawberry Creek Lodge Foundation, a community based organization governed by a volunteer board of Trustees which contracts with California Community Housing (CCH) to manage the Lodge. Income is derived from residents’ rents and HUD subsidies under Section 8. Board members include: attorney William Samsel, banker Steven Carr, Albany- based social worker Ada Burko, Suzanne Cohen, contractor Ted Temple, interior designer Bev Wilson, and Director of Policy at Health Research for Action Holly Brown-Williams. 

Tom Slocumb is a Board ex-member, now a resident. Board meetings are attended by representatives of the Tenants Association. Tenant representatives to the Board are Saeeda Khan and Rachel Starr. However, Board member Steve Carr decreed that only Saeeda and Jerry Essel could come to the meetings related to choosing the management company. 

In March 2012, the Berkeley Daily Planet received a message from two tenants that “while Strawberry Creek Lodge is being refurbished it's causing lots of problems for the residents.” There have been health and disruption problems at SCL. “We are on pins and needles,” declared a former hospice patient.  

They estimated that there may be a dozen or so old old tenants — people who typically came to SCL when they were just plain ‘old’, then in their sixties perhaps. The tenancy is divided – the “others” are mostly boomers and in their sixties. It is the older group that has been most impacted by aspects of the rehab work that was underway: inconsiderate construction managers; toxicity from new carpeting and painting; moving their belongings elsewhere without their knowledge. Indeed, this has happened in at least one other Berkeley Section 8 seniors’ project, wherein an elderly person who speaks no English returned to find her belongings piled up in the corridor, while workers departed for the weekend. In the words of a geriatrician with a vantage point, “I have heard about the latest Strawberry Creek Lodge drama. I get the sense that the administration tends to use a lord-of-the-manor approach towards its tenants …” Seniors without power, they are further handicapped by not being computer literate.  

On Tuesday evening, March 27, 2012, a goodly crowd gathered in Strawberry’s meeting area-dining room, a long skinny room in which it is not always possible for everyone to hear everything being said. Approximately fifty persons attended; I was told that 33 is a typical SCL turnout. Board member Bill Samsel fended questions and problems, reportedly talking over one gutsy woman tenant. Six-eight persons constituting what might have functioned as a resource panel were situated at the front of the room, while the SCL property manager “floated.” Lodgers’ questions and problems focused mainly on fears of eviction and complaints about work that was underway.  

I commenced an email trail when I started work on the report that appeared in the Planet Friday March 30, 2012 issue. A friend suggested contacting Be Tran in Housing, who referred me to Rachel in the Berkeley Housing Authority, who referred me to Mike Rogers, "...the consultant, hired by Strawberry Creek Lodge to oversee the property rehabilitation." He ultimately emailed “please feel free to give me a call on either line and I'd be happy to talk about Strawberry Creek." Rogers did not return my several phone calls. Why the runaround? I wondered. A Tenants Association’s rebuttal appeared in the Planet April 17, 2012 issue. 

The role of CCH in all of this is dark. They probably introduced the idea of seismic retrofit and the federal tax credit program to pay for it. The story begins with resident Saeeda Khan, who spent much time and effort applying for and negotiating some additional Section 8 slots for the Lodge from the Berkeley Housing Authority. The BHA, which controls the Section 8 vouchers, demanded "substantial rehabilitation" as a condition. A Board member who is a contractor resigned from the Board in order to be the project manager of the rehab. He imposed a scheme that had people being forced to move into "hotel units" while their apartments were rehabbed. It was supposed to go very fast, but he hired various subcontractors who were not up to the job. One of them was caught violating the rules on asbestos containment and the whole thing was shut down. The rehab itself had features no one liked, such as taking out the bath tubs and substituting shower stalls. CCH’s response was to send many new employees into the building, supposedly to "help" with the rehab.  

CCH has been advising the Board on the tax credit program. Their expectation may well have been that they would end up owning the building. Instead, the Board has been interviewing management companies and may select one at the Monday, Nov 19 meeting. Whoever gets it will have a 51% interest in the partnership, while the Board retains 49%. After 10 years, the liability for the tax credits goes away and the partnership is dissolved, with the 51% partner owning the building. The tax credit program would be unnecessary —HUD would loan the money for a modest rehab— if it were not for the seismic retrofit.  

Board member Steve Carr seems to be the main proponent, but he has browbeaten the rest of the Board by threatening how they will feel if there is a quake. CCH has an expert —Mike Rogers— who informed residents about the tax credit financing. Strawberry Creek Lodge, a Berkeley institution, is about to be transferred to a "partnership" Many tenants feel that the Board of Trustees, which, as the SCL Foundation, owns the Lodge, is going to give them away to become eligible for federal tax credit funding. Why? So they can do a destructive seismic retrofit and some remodeling. 

Tenant activist Pondurenga Das reports “We are having an urgent problem with our Board of Trustees, who are planning to ‘sell’ the Lodge into a corporate partnership with another nonprofit corporation. The new partner will get a controlling interest. It's all a scheme to raise $14 million, with which they will rush thru a complete overhaul of the property including seismic work. This noisy, dusty work will again be imposed on 150+ tenants, most of whom are older than 80. We want to stop them, but how?... [We are not experienced with] financing of tax-exempt low cost housing with tax-exempt loans and low cost Bank bonds. I think we are being privatized in a way that you don't even realize your pants have been pulled down.” 

Strawberry Creek Lodge was the brain-child of a group of idealists who wanted old people to live in lively, friendly circumstances. Discharging their dual responsibilities for care of the property and care of the tenants, the Board of Trustees tried earlier this year to upgrade some apartments. The results were catastrophic, including shoddy workmanship, unidentified temp workers with access to our apartments, excessive noise and dust, including asbestos, sickening of aged tenants due to noise, dust, strangers and forced relocation. 

The Board then decided to seek professional assistance. Unfortunately they have hastily chosen a plan that will again be very disruptive for the tenants and, in addition, will surrender the independence of Strawberry Creek Lodge. Its appeal is that it will raise $14 million in loans and get everything done in one year - an upgrade of the apartments, dining area, activity rooms, storage spaces, etc., plus a seismic upgrade. 

“Please help us to dodge this bullet,” writes Lodger Pondi. All this construction happening at once will literally have a deadly effect on the health of tenants, the majority of whom are over 80. It will also have a deadly effect on SCL’s non-profit status. Apparently, the Lodge is being privatized to serve as collateral on the proposed loans. This may be pushed through as early as Monday, November 19.”