by Lynda Carson
Many of the residents of Empyrean Towers, a residential hotel with a notorious history as one of the worst slum dwellings in Oakland, are being bullied and threatened with eviction notices served by the management company, Innovistech Realty Co.
Empyrean Towers, located in downtown Oakland at 344 13th Street, was formerly known as the Hotel Menlo and used to be owned by wealthy millionaire Tiburon resident Richard Singer.
Singer landed in prison a few years ago when he was caught by the FBI in a sting operation for trying to hire an arsonist to burn down the occupied Hotel Menlo as part of an insurance scam.
On August 31, 2011, Singer was sentenced to 27 months in prison and fined $60,000 after entering a guilty plea to soliciting arson. At the time that Singer was caught paying for the materials necessary to set the low-income hotel on fire, it was still occupied with hotel residents.
Samuel Manning, an employee of Singer, had worked with the FBI in a sting operation to nail Singer for the arson plot. Manning was facing charges for embezzling more than $50,000 from the Girl Scouts, and he sought reduced charges in return for helping the feds go after Singer for the arson scam.
Before going to prison, building owner Singer and RMD Services, the company that managed the hotel at the time, were sued by many of the residents because of slum-like conditions at the hotel.
Fast forward a few years, and in May 2013, Richard Singer was released from prison, and received three years probation. Reportedly, he is back in business buying and selling properties.
The Hotel Menlo was renamed the Empyrean Towers, after supposedly being renovated. The owner/managers have been renting out rooms for $79.00 a night to a variety of people from all walks of life.
Preying on the Unsuspecting
The website for Empyrean Towers states that there is no guarantee that the elevator of the seven-story building is available to the residents. Residents all have to pay in advance online before moving in and do not know what they are getting into until they move into the premises.
Many unsuspecting tourists and visitors to Oakland who have checked into the hotel in recent months have written scathing reviews in Yelp describing their outrage at the hotel’s slum-like conditions.
Virtually all the out-of-town tourists who have reviewed Empyrean Towers in Yelp in the last several months have warned that it is a “pit of filth,” a “dilapidated slum apartment building,” a “crime scene” full of dangerous conditions and illicit drug use, and has “rats in the hallways and roaches in the walls.”
Other tenants reside there as long-term residents on a month-to-month basis. Reportedly, it is the long-term residents who are being run out of the building with eviction notices. Twenty or more residents now face eviction after a fire occurred in the building last July from a lit cigarette, according to tenants in the building.
Additionally, according to public records from “corporation wiki,” Richard Singer has partnered with real estate broker Alice Tse to own and manage the building through Empyrean Towers LLC, and Innovistech Realty Co.
Real estate broker Alice Tse has been buying properties for Singer for a number of years. Tse called me a few times at the beginning of 2014, and told me that she was buying properties for Singer, and that she had become very concerned about Singer’s activities at times. On Feb. 21, 2014, I received a strange email from Alice Tse (email@example.com) that said, “I have a new fraud case committed by Richard Singer who attempted to burn down the Menlo. Please call me at 650/526-2968 — Alice.”
I tried calling a few times but Tse did not respond to my call. At the time, I wondered what happened. Only recently did I learn that she is partners at the Empyrean Towers with Richard Singer.
Recently evicted tenant Andrea Polega told me that among the many problems she faced living at the Empyrean, the sink in her room did not have a “U pipe” beneath it, and she had to keep a bucket under the sink to catch the water every time she used it. She had to pay $210 a week to stay there until management forced her out of her housing.
Bullying a disabled tenant
On November 25, Polega contacted me and said, “I am a tenant at Empyrean who is being kicked out at this very second after having a money order returned to me that was in their possession for more than 24 hours. They returned it at 11 a.m., telling me to be out by noon. This is directly following my physical incapacitation in the form of a ruptured Achilles tendon which was directly caused by their negligence. I am on crutches in a six-story walkup and cannot go up or down the stairs unassisted, let alone move my belongings this way.
“At 2 p.m., they returned with police. I will be charged with trespassing if I do not leave. I have nowhere to go. I would be more than happy to go on record for any future articles against these bastards, or any other media outlets, to gain justice.”
On November 26, I was advised by the Eviction Defense Center that they were assisting Andrea Polega and have had extensive interaction with her while she was being evicted from her housing, adding that she is currently safe.
Cruel and abusive managers
Don Fisher, a tenant who lives at Empyrean Towers with his wife Maria Anast, told me, “The male resident manager (at the hotel), named Royce, beat up Andrea’s boyfriend Donald because he was sleeping in the lobby waiting for someone to come and get him and his girlfriend. I believe you are aware of the couple that Luis May kicked out, right after refusing to accept their rent payment.
“Donald went to the hospital and Royce went to jail. If you can assist, I need to know who to contact to get a restraining order or similar relief to get this manager out of the hotel. Many people are now worried about being treated in the same manner. There was blood from the floors to the doors from this. And Royce’s wife or girlfriend made threatening overtures to Maria. Maria asked why Royce simply did not call OPD and I had to intervene.”
Don Fisher and Maria Anast moved into the Empyrean Towers on Dec. 16, 2013, after being hit by hard times in a tough economy. They lost their footing in the world of the middle class, and moved from San Francisco to Oakland for cheaper housing. Now they are both living on a fixed income, and are very poor.
They each receive around $300 a month from general assistance, and they also receive food stamps. By the third week of the month, they are both pretty much broke and are experiencing hunger. “We only get around four dollars a day to live on from food stamps and that’s not nearly enough to survive in Oakland,” said Maria.
They live in Empyrean Towers in a small room with a bed, a TV, small refrigerator, microwave and a hot plate. They are lucky enough to have their own bathroom, in comparison to many others who are forced to share bathrooms in the old seven-story building.
“Life is very hard on us now,” said Anast, “and we do not feel safe living in this building. There are drug dealers, crackheads, and prostitutes living on the upper floors. The cops are here all the time. The locks are flimsy on our doors, and we keep a baseball bat handy just in case someone breaks our door down to enter our apartment.
“There is no heat. They do not allow tenants to use the elevator. The building has bed bugs, rats, and is loaded with flies and gnats from the garbage piled up at the property. Our toilet does not work, the shower barely drips any water when we try to take a shower, and the building lacks smoke detectors in most of the apartments.”
Despite the awful conditions, Maria and Don have continued to pay their rent, yet they said they were stunned to unexpectedly face an eviction notice. “We have been good tenants since moving in, are quiet, have paid our rent on time, and we were shocked to find an eviction notice posted on our door recently after management refused to accept our rent anymore.”
Eviction Defense Center
Don and Maria filed a response to fight against the eviction, and have sought legal assistance to fight their eviction. Others facing eviction from Empyrean Towers have sought assistance at the Eviction Defense Center in Oakland.
Anne Omura, the executive director of Eviction Defense Center, said, “We now represent approximately 30 tenants from the Empyrean Hotel. This case has all of us working 24/7 around the clock.”
Attorney Andrew Wollf also will assist in defending tenants facing eviction at Empyrean Towers.
According to Don and Maria, “Many people are facing eviction recently because management wants to bring in higher income tenants willing to pay $79.00 a night to stay at this building.”
Don Fisher said he used to be an officer in the Navy, and worked in the tech industry for years after getting out of the Navy. Maria Anast spent many years happily working in the hospitality industry. They are now in their 50s, and have raised two children who are now adults, including a son who entered the Navy recently, and a daughter who lives in Santa Cruz.
“We don’t know what we will do if we get evicted,” said Maria. “We are thinking about buying a van but we are too broke to do so. We are also thinking about buying a tent if we lose our housing, but we do not know where people camp out when they are made homeless in Oakland.”
Management at Empyrean Towers have declined to reply to my requests for information about the violence and evictions involving management at the hotel.
The phone number for Innovistech Realty Co. reached the Sweden Hotel in San Francisco, where the staff claimed that Alice Tse sold the property.
During a call to Patricia Singer, Richard Singer’s wife, she stated that she is divorced from Richard and does not want to comment on his activities regarding Empyrean Towers.
Eviction attorney Johanna Kwasniewski said she would not comment regarding my questions about the 20-plus tenants who are reportedly facing eviction by Richard Singer and Alice Tse. Then she reconsidered and said that she would contact Empyrean Towers LLC to see if she were allowed to make any comments. I have not heard from her since that discussion many days ago.
Lynda Carson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.