Claiming negligence, tenants and supporters of city towers organize

By Zack Haber

Tenants living in City Towers Apartments, a 231-unit affordable housing project located in three high-rise buildings in West Oakland, are organizing for healthier and safer living conditions with the help of local supporters. They claim the negligence of VPM Management Inc, the Irvine-based company responsible for providing services to the units, has caused their homes to fall into disrepair and become unsanitary and unsafe.

“I’m scared to live in my unit,” said Elise Jones, who has lived in City Towers for more than 16 years. “I don’t think we should have to suffer in our homes just because we are in poverty.”

According to Jones, the apartment she shares with her son has maggot and mouse infestations and a broken stove. She says she has given work orders to Don McShane, the VPM site manager, who has yet to resolve these issues.

In July last year, when a leak in her apartment came to her attention, Jones says she immediately informed McShane, but he was slow to respond to the issue. Her carpets, clothes and furniture were destroyed as the leak increased and her apartment became increasingly humid.

“I knew it wasn’t safe for me and my son to be there,” Jones said. “But I was told it had to be a real emergency for them to come because of the [COVID-19] closures. »

Jones reports that in September, VPM Management Inc. repaired the leak, but did not address the mold that had begun to grow on its floor.

The Oakland Post contacted McShane by phone, who declined an interview request for this story and suggested contacting VPM’s company phone number. While The Oakland Post was calling, no one from VPM returned voicemails seeking comment. This reporter also sent detailed questions to VPM CEO Philip H. McNamee and Regional Manager Rose Palmer, but received no response.

City Towers tenants, in turn, openly voiced their complaints about VPM. In four interviews with tenants and 14 written statements shared with this reporter, 18 residents of City Towers claimed to have been abused by the company. A dozen of these tenants complained of mold, 10 of broken appliances, seven of security mistreating residents and/or providing insufficient services, six of mouse and/or cockroach infestations. Six tenants also complained of urine and/or feces in elevators and/or stairs, which they say happens because security does not prevent strangers from entering their buildings. During the site visits, this reporter walked through the unlocked entrances to the city’s three towers and was not asked by security to check in, or who he was visiting.

Of the 18 tenants who complained of mistreatment, 11 mentioned that their requests to VPM to resolve the issues had been ignored or gone unanswered for long periods, while two said they were afraid to press charges. fear of reprisals.

“Everything is broken,” said Ali Boutte, tenant of City Towers. “It takes them four to six months to fix something here. It’s ridiculous.”

“I hate this place,” said City Towers tenant Tamara Hubbard, who shared complaints of mold in her apartment that went unaddressed. “I had a lot of asthma attacks. I wake up coughing in the middle of the night.

City Towers tenants have started addressing their complaints directly to VPM Management Inc in a unified way.

“We are tired of the mistreatment of low-income tenants and this is just the first step in uniting people against everyday injustices,” reads a petition signed by more than 90 City Towers residents since March. and delivered to VPM on April 1st.

The petition complains of neglect and calls for better maintenance and security measures in common areas, as well as the relocation of elderly and disabled tenants from floors near the top of buildings, which residents say causes problems security in the event of an emergency evacuation.

Such an evacuation was necessary when a fire struck one of the City Tower skyscrapers on the afternoon of February 15. A report from the Oakland Fire Department shows that two City Towers tenants and three firefighters were hospitalized that day.

In a written statement, Melvin Parker, an older City Tower resident who lives on the 10th floor, described escaping the fire as “a nightmare” as “people were scrambling” as “there there was no light in the stairwell so you couldn’t see.

Although the fire put residents at risk, the event drew attention, which helped bring them closer to the surrounding community and to each other. Katie Latimer, who lives near City Towers and is part of The United Front Against Displacement, an anti-gentrification organization that recently organized with low-income tenants living in Boston, Harlem and San Francisco, said the incident had motivated the organization to get involved.

Knowing that a fire killed 17 tenants of a Bronx high-rise when a radiator malfunctioned last January, and residents of that apartment complained that their landlord had failed to provide central heating Shortly before the fire, Latimer and other UFAD members wondered if negligence had played a role in the fire at City Towers, and if residents were facing trouble, they could s ‘arrange.

“We know that people living in low-rental housing experience a lot of [stuff] that’s not right these days,” Latimer said, “and it’s easier to organize when there are a lot of people with the same owner and similar complaints.

Five members of the organization began knocking on doors to learn more about the residents’ experiences. When they discovered that many were facing problems, they began meeting with residents weekly to unify tenants and organize responses. The group shared printed information about the skyscrapers, such as possible lingering fire hazards there and information about the companies behind City Towers. Jones, along with Loucrita Johnson, another City Towers tenant, joined UFAD’s outreach efforts to attract more tenants to organize.

“I learned not to be afraid to fight back,” Johnson said. “I want to continue working on this with other tenants until something is done about City Towers.”

In April, UFAD and tenants filed complaints with Oakland’s Code Inspection and Enforcement Department, leading the city to send KDF City Towers LP, the Newport Beach-based company that owns City Towers and hired VPM Management Inc., three “Notice of Infringement” letters. The letters accuse KDF of code violations on three units and common areas in two towers in the city, including inoperable radiators and electrical outlets, as well as leaks and damage to bathtubs, lights and cabinets. KDF now has to solve the problems, file an appeal or face fines.

The Oakland Post sent several emails seeking comment on this story to co-founders Marquis E Hyatt and Paul Fruchbom of KDF Communities LLC, the company that owns KDF City Towers LP, but did not receive a response.

On April 18, residents of City Towers received a memo from VPM Management Inc. stating “Due to the COVID pandemic, management has been unable to perform annual unit inspections for over 2 years. . For this reason, many apartments have many maintenance items that need to be addressed. »

The note also said that VPM was hiring a company to help them with the repairs which would begin on May 2. On May 10, City Towers tenant Ali Boutte told this reporter that VPM had recently taken pictures of things in his house that needed fixing and told him they would be worked on soon.

UFAD continued to meet with tenants and on May 7 they showed films about the tenant organization at an informal meeting with the aim of bringing together residents of City Towers. Organization members and tenants told this reporter that they felt their work had prompted a response from VPM Management Inc, but that there was still a lot of work to be done to adequately address all issues.

“We all have the same stories and tenants want change,” Jones said. “I’m not going to stop. I will fight for tenants’ rights and not be silent.

About Gertrude H. Kerr

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