by Lydia Gans
Residents at Redwood Gardens, a U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) project for low-income seniors and people with disabilities, are experiencing increasing dissatisfaction with the project management company, Cooperative Services Inc (CSI).
Redwood Gardens is a complex of 169 apartments, gardens and meeting spaces located at 2951 Derby Street in Berkeley. It was originally established as a co-op but that is no longer its status. At present, management makes decisions and takes action without seeking input from residents.
Complaints, questions and requests often are simply ignored. There have been long delays in correcting hazardous conditions and ADA violations, as well as security threats and disregard for the health and welfare of those who are particularly fragile.
Last year, Redwood Gardens received some publicity when management announced plans for major renovations and residents protested that they were given virtually no input on either the plans or the renovation process. Many residents expressed intense frustration with the disruption in their lives as it was happening.
They appealed for help from the manager, the workers and anybody they could reach connected with the building. Eleanor Walden and Gary Hicks, co-chairs of the Residents’ Council, have been reaching out for help from community organizations, legal assistance for seniors, disability rights, housing action, as well as city departments, but virtually nothing has been available to them.
Walden explains: “We’re in an interesting position. The land that we’re on is owned by the University of California, the buildings are owned by CSI, we are in the city of Berkeley and nobody wants to take responsibility for what goes on here.”
National Association of HUD Tenants
The residents of Redwood Gardens decided that they would have to reach out nationally. Years ago, Gary Hicks had worked with the National Association of HUD Tenants (NAHT) in Boston. He made a strong case for joining the organization.
The NAHT website states: “NAHT works with organizers across the country to unite tenants in project-based Section 8 housing. Through outreach and training, tenants are mobilized to fight to preserve their housing and their rights. We are a diverse network of over 300 building-level tenant unions, area and state-wide coalitions, tenant organizing projects, legal service agencies, and other housing-related tenant organizations.”
So last month, from June 21 to 23, Eleanor Walden and another tenant, Avram Gur Arye, attended the NAHT annual conference in Washington, D. C. The first two days were devoted to tenant-run workshops, and the third, Lobby Day, was spent on meetings with HUD officials and members of Congress.
Walden describes herself as “an old activist.” The way to get things done, she declares, is by “nudging.” She lays out her approach to the building management. “OK, we have a complaint, a legitimate complaint. We’re not just going to send it to the manager, or to the corporation, or to this one or that one. We’re going to send it to everyone. We’re going to get HUD involved, we’re going to be a bug on their behind until they give us some attention.”
Avram Gur Arye is an architect. His work has been in housing and he understands peoples’ needs for comfort and security. He is thoroughly familiar with the relevant regulations, departments and commissions, where and who to go to in the city for information and assistance. This is particularly valuable in the situation that Redwood Gardens tenants are facing.
Berkeley Turns an Architect into an Activist
But he only became an activist in the last six years after he came to Berkeley. “Berkeley did this to me,” he says. “I was an ordinary architect, working in housing, doing good work in San Francisco and Oakland, but I was apolitical.”
Asked why he chose to be a delegate to the convention, Arye says, “The main thing motivating me is making sure that, whether I’m going to be in HUD housing the rest of my life or not, I want to make certain that the safety net of HUD housing is kept and that it stays a government agency, not a privatized agency.”
Tools and Connections — and Enthusiasm
Arye returned from the convention full of enthusiasm. “Tools. Tools and connections,” he explains, talking about the many workshops and informal discussions among the participants and meetings with government officials.
He described a process called “Eyes and Ears” involving people getting together and telling their stories to representatives of HUD.
It was the people he connected with that he was most excited about. “There are connections that we got on every subject that came up in the workshops, the luncheons and accountability sessions. I’m an architect, became an activist in Berkeley, and now can share information (with people) all over the country.”
Arye said he found “someone in a small town in Texas (who) was interested in how I had gotten the building officials to do what HUD didn’t do, and faster.”
Eleanor Walden echoed his enthusiasm as she described the Eyes and Ears meeting. “I was in a room with more talent, intelligence, experience, and knowledge than I have seen since 1964 in the civil rights movement,” she says.
“These mostly Black, largely women, are all tenant organizers of great skill and ability and they knew what they were talking about. They were able to recount it in story-telling fashion.”
She says, “People use the word ‘complaints’ when they talk about tenants. There is no complaining. This was the facts and the experience and this is what has happened to me and to the people in the larger region which I’m from.”
Respect and Goosebumps
On the subject of words and the attitudes they reflect, Walden says, “I heard the word ‘respect’ used so many times at this conference I still get goosebumps because that has been one of the things that hurt me most that happened in this building (at Redwood Gardens). We were treated with distance, lack of respect.
“I thought it was just me. The fact that we are old or disabled or marginalized does not mean that we don’t have experience, education, dedication, ability — all of the things that they didn’t give us credit for. That came up over and over and over.”
Walden brings back from the conference an “amazing amount of information that we didn’t know was going on nationwide. For example, buildings like ours are being renovated to the tune, in this particular case, of 3 1/2 million dollars and then they’re being sold off. And there are many ways in which they’re being sold off — by being upgraded to university dorms, upgraded to gentrification or they’re being, in some cases, sold to the tenants.
“People here have asked, ‘what are their intentions?’ That’s what I’ve been trying to find out. Now I see that we were not off the mark. There is a pattern of selling off these buildings.”
Walden and Arye say this was just a beginning. They will reach out to other Section 8 housing projects in the area and expand their contacts with activists all over the country.