by Lydia Gans
Redwood Gardens, a subsidized HUD project for seniors and people with disabilities, has been the subject of numerous reports of mistreatment of residents by the management. The apartment complex, consisting of 168 units at 1951 Derby Street in Berkeley, is in an ideal location, but the living conditions for the residents have lately been far from ideal.
The apartment complex has been managed under various arrangements for more than 30 years. In 2013, CSI Support and Development took over management of the project and they have been making major changes with virtually no consultation with the Residents’ Council.
In 2014, they proceeded with a major renovation project causing huge disruptions in people’s lives. Some had to find temporary alternative accommodations while work was being done on their units. This was a particular hardship for people with disabilities.
In the ensuing years, CSI has been receiving numerous complaints from the residents about hazardous conditions, barriers for mobility impaired residents, security issues, removal of community gathering space and a general deterioration in the quality of living conditions.
They have refused to allow the on-site building manager to have meaningful communication with the tenants.
In a recent meeting of some of the residents, Peni Hall, who has lived at Redwood Gardens for 30 years, describes their situation. “We have out-of-town landlords who are very erratic and run the place like real estate and don’t care much about the residents.”
Unfortunately, this is not unusual for many such government-sponsored projects. The tenants have no power to make demands on the owners. If they complain too much, they are threatened with eviction and for them, eviction leaves no alternative housing.
Miriam Berg, a member of the Residents’ Council, recently held a meeting with a group of residents to “discuss the current situation … because we have no house manager and no maintenance manager and no idea when we’re going to get one.” In the course of their discussion, a number of other issues came up — and not for the first time!
Peni Hall talked about the management problems. “We’ve had four managers, one of which really cared, but could not do what she wanted to because CSI kept sitting on her and holding her back. Then we had one that was straight out of the army, like ‘your job is to pay your rent and follow the rules.’
“And the last person we had lived in HUD housing and understood tenants’ problems and cared about us and wanted to do right by us.” But she left under pressure from the CSI supervisor.
Since then, the office manager’s job has been added to the fiscal manager’s workload.
“They are really making conditions hard for anybody to be successful working here,” Peni Hall said. “On top of that, we have the maintenance manager, only six months and he’s wonderful, we love him! But all of a sudden, we hear he’s leaving and we don’t know and we worry.”
They have ample reason to worry. A 168-unit facility is housing a population of older people, many with physical disabilities, and residents with minimal financial resources are at the mercy of an uncaring operator 400 miles away. Having such drastically limited on-site management is not just inconvenient, it can be dangerous.
Redwood Gardens consists of two three-story buildings with a central courtyard. There is one elevator in each building. One of the elevators has not functioned for more than a month.
“When you have people who can hardly walk,” Miriam Berg says, “to go across the courtyard to the other elevator, up the elevator and then go all the way around that building to get to your apartment… There are people with all kinds of mobility impairments — and there are no stairs from the second floor to here (and) no information when it will be fixed.”
This is hardly just an inconvenience. It is a serious safety issue. The extreme difficulty of egress from the buildings is a clear threat to people’s lives. A recent emergency call to the fire department disclosed difficulties with accessibility for fire department personnel and an inoperable fire escape. Earthquakes and other natural disasters and now the rash of arson-caused fires are a real possibility.
At the meeting, people described the loss of a sense of community since CSI took over. Chairs in the lobby where they could sit and socialize while waiting for visitors were removed. A longtime resident spoke of the “loss of phone lists of all the residents and their phone numbers — that was very helpful to keep in touch with each other. We used to get death notices, a list of birthdays, and we used to have parties.”
Opportunities to be part of a community are vitally important features of retirement homes and senior residences. This basically requires some designated spaces for people to gather and accessible means of communication that make it easier for all the residents to be in touch with each other. It appears that without any explanation, CSI has taken away a valuable element of their lives.
A newer resident, having looked at the record and hearing about all the complaints, observed, “Sounds like a list of abuses — senior abuses, threats, insolence and lack of consideration and improper and incompetent management on the part of CSI … health and safety issues that are violated.”
An ongoing issue has been management’s refusal to have any meaningful communication with the residents. A resident commented, “We’ve seen one arbitrary thing after another.” Berg concurred, adding, “The most urgent problem is that we’re without a house manager. The second problem is they refuse to consult with the residents about decisions involving everybody’s lives.
The Residents Council continues to appeal to HUD for relief. They tell their story to the press, meet with the Grey Panthers and have joined the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) and participate in their annual meetings.
In concluding the meeting, Miriam Berg declared, “Once again we ask that HUD intervene and either remove CSI from managing this place or bring them to heel!”