by Carol Denney
[dropcap]“R[/dropcap]uby” never believed our building manager’s personal animosity toward her roommate could result in her own eviction. Neither did I. We live in a “limited equity co-op” where limited-income tenants are supposed to have more safety and security than ordinary renters. But it doesn’t work out that way.
Although we are low-income, we’re considered a co-op, so we’re excluded from Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board’s counselors and resources, even though we help pay for them with our taxes.
We can’t afford lawyers to help us if we’re treated unfairly, but the building itself is represented by an expensive landlord attorney we end up paying for through our rent. We end up paying for the unfair evictions of our neighbors, our friends, and ourselves.
It wasn’t always this bad. We once had a large board that knew the whole community of people in the building and had a lot of common sense about, for instance, one tenant’s tendency to exaggerate about another. We had a shared experience of having been treated unfairly by landlords for years, and had successfully bought the building with sympathetic investors after a five-year rent strike.
We did most of the work ourselves as volunteers so that we could keep costs low, so a large percentage of the building had a very clear sense of maintenance costs and naturally felt connected. We struggled at times to work together well, but we had a real sense of protecting our own real homes for each other.
These days we are forced to pay for health insurance, vacation, and ever-increasing administrative costs for paid staff with no oversight — unless you count a board of directors so small, disinterested, and divided that the staff essentially satisfy their own needs at the tenancy’s expense. If the staff wants your apartment for a friend of theirs, as in Ruby’s case, you’re out of luck.
One staff member estimated the amount of evictions (unlawful detainers) issued per year in our building at about five, with no use of mediation to resolve issues. That’s in a building with about 26 units, which rents to a local mediation group.
A lot of people here get threatened with eviction on a consistent basis, while the work which could provide “sweat equity” for those who have difficulty paying the ever-increasing rent is mostly done by highly paid staff with so much power over our lives we’re terrified to honestly report a maintenance issue or question the way the building is run.
Our rent was raised at three times the rate of the recommended rent board increase last year, while the rents of the commercial property renters were decreased. And the board is planning to raise the rent again this year.
Ruby is still in shock over having to suddenly pack, sort out what she might store with a friend, and try to hang on in a world where most people dismiss you for having no address. Ruby is African-American, an older woman with severe disabilities. The building manager and all of the staff is white. Can they do this in Berkeley? They just did.
Ruby’s lack of legal representation probably played a role in her eviction. Few of Berkeley’s rent board commissioners or city council representatives know about the difficulties and lack of resources in limited equity co-ops for low-income renters. And Ruby has her hands full trying to re-organize a life in boxes.
If you try to talk to the board members in our building, they will say it’s a legal matter and refer you to the county website, where you can read a laughably petty list of the complaints about Ruby’s unit, including dishes left in the sink, the noise of a family argument, and a broken window (which she fixed at her own expense).
Please help the Rent Stabilization Board, the Berkeley City Council, and the City Manager recognize that this wonderful model for cooperative living for low-income tenants is turning into a nightmare if you are the wrong race, or get on the wrong side of an all-too-human staff.