Tenants displaced by Berkeley fire discuss possible legal action against landlord

Taryn Erhardt/Senior Staff
Kriss Worthington speaks to a meeting of tenants displaced by the fire at the corner of Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue.

Temperamental elevators, mold, dangerous electrical wiring, no heat or hot water and damaged fire escapes are among the complaints of Berkeley residents displaced by a fire that destroyed their apartment building. Many tenants, who met Monday night with city and campus officials and legal representatives, are now looking to a possible settlement they may be able to seek due to suspected landlord negligence.

On Nov. 18, the city’s largest fire since 1991 displaced 68 tenants from the Sequoia Apartments at 2441 Haste St. as well as tenants from 2435 Haste St. next door, which has been temporarily evacuated while the fire-ravaged five-story structure awaits partial demolition after being deemed structurally unsound.

“Far too often, even in Berkeley, too many tenants get ripped off,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the building, at the meeting. “This fire did not happen all by itself … given the track record of the city dealing with this landlord, I think there is serious evidence for negligence.”

Former roommates in the Sequoia Apartments Milad Yazdanpanah and Hooman Shahrokhi — both graduates of UC Berkeley who had been living in the building for 13 and six years, respectively — organized the meeting before the two met with Mayor Tom Bates Tuesday so that tenants could hear advice from city and campus representatives as well as legal counsel.

Yazdanpanah said during the meeting Monday night that there are three critical points of possible landlord negligence that the tenants believe need to be investigated by the city: the elevator that broke down on several occasions, a smaller fire that occurred in the building in February this year and the circumstances surrounding the Nov. 18 fire.

“The most important thing you can do right now as a resident of either building is to provide your contact information,” said Yazdanpanah, who along with Shahrokhi has been compiling phone numbers and email addresses to create a website database for tenants, at the beginning of the meeting.

The tenants agreed upon a list of several demands which Yazdanpanah and Shahrokhi said they planned to give to Bates Tuesday. The list includes requests that the city initiate an investigation of the cause of the fire immediately, as well as a town hall meeting with the tenants and city officials.

Another demand that many tenants vocally supported was that a city representative be on site during the partial demolition, due to concerns that evidence could be tampered with.

Worthington explained that the demolition approved by the city and that began Tuesday is a “Make Safe” demolition, which demolishes a small part of the building in order to make it safe for the fire department to enter and further investigate the cause.

According to an email Berkeley Fire Department Fire Marshal John Fitch sent to the property owners, the demolition must not affect the area within a 25-foot radius around the elevator mechanical room, where the fire is suspected to have originated.

Tenants at the meeting complained that building owners Kenneth and Gregory Ent have been unresponsive to tenants since the fire, telling them to direct all questions about security deposits and November’s rent to the building manager. Reports of negligence before the fire have led many tenants to suspect that the destruction could have been prevented.

Attorney Marc Janowitz from the East Bay Community Law Center — a nonprofit law firm that assists low-income individuals — spoke to the tenants about their current legal options. Tenants said they have contacted the center and several other lawyers to seek legal counsel.

“The most important thing we can all do from this point on is to gather information and educate ourselves about the legal situation,” Janowitz said at the meeting. “The time between now and a possible payday is a long time, so that shouldn’t even be on your mind.”

Janowitz told tenants to write down all of the items they lost in the fire, as well as any cases of negligence they had encountered with the building owner in the past. He also said there are many legal pathways and resources available to the tenants.

“You have a lot of rights. The extent of your rights depends on the extent of the wrongs (on the part of the owner),” he said.

Adelyn Baxter covers city government.