After more than three years of struggle against the often squalid and unsafe conditions in their Fruitvale apartment building, the tenants have finally won.
Residents of the Oak Park Apartments at 2618 E. 16th St. will not only receive a cash settlement of nearly $1 million to divide among 45 families, but a nonprofit developer [Affordable Housing Associates] will buy the rundown building, gut it, and completely renovate it.
"Right now, I feel freedom," said Tith Chan, who has lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife and three children since 1987 and plans to stay.
All of the families in the tight community comprised mainly of Latino and Cambodian immigrants will get more than $20,000 in cash. Emergency repairs of leaking roofs, broken stair railings and extermination of pests will begin immediately.
The settlement, which was approved by United States Bankruptcy Court Judge Leslie J. Tchaikovsky Monday, was a complex process that involved a small army of lawyers.
More than 200 tenants sued in May 1998, seeking damages for having to live with raw sewage floods, leaky roofs, vermin infestations and mold.
By spring of 1999, the city, began an aggressive campaign to force the owner to clean it up, declaring the property a public nuisance and hitting the owner $1,000-a-day fines.
The federally-chartered mortgage broker Fannie Mae stepped in when it was discovered that owner, David Choo had violated the terms of his loan. But no sooner had a trustee been appointed to make repairs, than Choo filed for bankruptcy.
More than a year of negotiating led to the agreement that attorney Jay Koslofsky, who represented the tenants, called the best he has seen in 20 years of handling similar cases.
"It’s really rare," he said. "Usually, if there is a cash settlement, the tenants still have to leave because the building is sold. Only once before have I has a case where the tenants stayed, and the settlement wasnÕt as large."
The unusual outcome was due in part to the strong tenant organization, led by tenants Russell Jeung and Dan Schmitz, and the advocacy by Council President Ignacio De La Fuente’s office.
De La Fuente (San Antonio-Fruitvalle) pushed for a $2.2 million loan from the city so that nonprofit Affordable Housing Associates could buy the building. The group will join with the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation to secure financing to completely renovate the building.
The mostly one-bedroom units will be turned into two-and three Ðbedroom apartments, to better fit the needs of the large families at Oak Park. Rents, which are now $400 to $500, will be kept low. The 56 units will be cut down to 30, and a community room will be added.
Of the original 45 families in the lawsuit, only 23 remain in the building. They will get first-dibs on the new apartments, which will be ready by November of 2002, and the families that moved out as the litigation as the litigation dragged on will be offered the chance to return.
"Over the next few years, you will see this building transformed into safe, decent, affordable housing," said Libby Schaaf, a legislative aide to De La Fuente who has worked on the case since spring of 1999.
That’s a relief to tenants like Caoun Norn, whose son has suffered allergies from the mold in their apartment, and to Carlos and Rosana Martinez, who have battled with mice and whose children always seem to have flu symptoms and rashes.
Sophy Sun, who has lived there with his wife and five children for five years, says he plans to stay.
"We are glad. We will be here for a long time," Sun said. "It is a safe place for my kids."
Schaaf encourage anyone who is living in unsafe or unsanitary conditions to call the city’s code compliance division at 238-3381.
"There is so much substandard housing in the bay Area, and most tenants don’t have a remedy." Koslofsky said. "We are starting to see (Oakland) take a much more aggressive approach."