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Berkeley City Council to Decide on Appeal Brought by Former Tenants of Fire-Ravaged Building with History of Landlord Negligence

By Marcia Poole
Sunday October 27, 2013 - 05:21:00 PM

Lakireddy Bali Reddy, owner of 2227 Dwight Way, allegedly disconnected fire alarms from the building prior to the fire. Shortly after 7pm on October 29, 2013, the Berkeley City Council will hear an appeal on the fire-damaged 2227 Dwight Way property brought by several UC Berkeley students and alumni, including two former tenants and signed by nearly 30 immediate neighbors. The building was completely destroyed after a fire broke out in the early morning hours on March 8, 2012. 

“We want to make it clear that we do not object to the issuance of a use permit to rebuild the building,” the appellants state before expressing three chief concerns that have not been addressed by City staff: (1) Evidence suggesting that the owner – through a history of negligence – was principally at fault and should not be exempt from paying the city’s Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee; (2) The owner is legally subject to providing mitigations to offset the impacts of demolishing six rent-controlled units; and (3) Staff did not provide a complete record to the Zoning Adjustments Board, which discussed this project on June 13, 2013. The board approved the project on the narrowest of margins, a 5-3 vote. 

The owner of record is listed in city documents as Lakireddy Bali Reddy of Everest Properties, with location and residence respectively listed at 2278 Shattuck Avenue and 2233 Dwight Way (a cottage behind the impacted building) in Berkeley. At the time the fire occurred, his nephew Sid Lakireddy – also the President of the Berkeley Property Owners Association – was listed as the founder and head of Everest Properties. 

Earlier this week, the Associated Students of the University of California Senate – the legislative branch of UC Berkeley’s student government – unanimously passed a bill in support of the appeal. 

“There is a severe lack of clarity as to how this process was carried out,” said bill author Senator Justin Kong. “Not addressing this issue means that City Council and the ASUC are setting a bad precedent as to how future matters like this will be handled.” 

A contemporary Daily Californian news article reported that “all of the [former 2227 Dwight] residents ... complained that the fire alarms were not audible — and perhaps even absent — during the fire.” The fire inspection report that included former tenants’ testimony and was attached as an appendix to the appeal corroborated testimony that smoke detectors were absent or disconnected from various rooms. 

On Page 17 of 125 of Attachment 2 (Appeal Letter), city inspection records show that the following condition had to be abated: “Fire alarm is in trouble mode. Maintain in an operable condition and test monthly.” Page 7 of Attachment 2 (Appeal Letter) states: “[It] would be the opinion of a practicing fire protection engineer that an indication of ‘trouble status’ or ‘trouble mode’ would have as the most likely cause a physical or manual disabling or disconnection of the alarm.” 

Appellant Adam Bolt, a former tenant and 2011 UC Berkeley graduate, in appeal documents, stated that two Everest Property personnel came to his apartment in Fall 2011 and asked if he had smoke detectors in his unit. After he responded that there were none, “they said they’d be back in a few days to install them. They never showed up.” After being awakened by smoke around 4:30am on the morning of the fire, ”he pulled on the security alarm bell and NOTHING (sic) happened. He said the alarm had been going off randomly a few months prior (and they evacuated twice, and then it stopped happening at all). The tenants suspect that someone may have disabled the alarm.” This is corroborated by testimony from another tenant, who on Page 100 of Attachment 2, recounts calling “Everest Properties to inform them that there’d been a series of false alarms at the properties … He was told by the woman on the telephone not to call the fire department during a building alarm, but to call the property management instead because Everest would get fined if the fire department had to respond.” 

The Fire Department report on page 75 of Attachment 2 of the appeal states: “Based on the lack of general alarm and “trouble” alarms during the fire incident … it is a reasonable conclusion that the fire alarm system became impaired at some time between the last system malfunction and prior to the incident, and was not functional at the time of the fire.” 

A Berkeley Fire Department report on Page 71 of Attachment 2 states that “[during] a post-fire interview with an occupant this person stated they and another occupant had suffered second-degree skin burns while evacuating from the building … [and] were referred … to a local hospital for evaluation and treatment.” One occupant “was given medication to treat a smoke inhalation injury.” 

Several former tenants of 2227 Dwight Way allegedly filed lawsuits with the property owner, which may be either pending or resolved. Appellants state on Page 8 of Attachment 2: “The property owner … has a questionable history of providing safe housing conditions. In 1999, a young woman died at one of his properties of carbon monoxide poisoning.” 

“The [Zoning Board’s] decision not to apply the mitigation fee to the 2227 Dwight projects … sets a dangerous precedent by encouraging owners of older housing to not properly maintain their properties creating unsafe conditions which can pose fire hazards and, occasionally, actual fires,” the appellants conclude on Page 9 of the appeal. According to the staff report (Page 3), the Berkeley City Council may “(1) affirm the [Zoning Board] decision and dismiss the appeal, (2) set the matter for a public hearing, or (3) remand the matter to the [board].”