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Berkeley’s housing empire built on fraud and sexual slavery

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FEBRUARY 28, 2019

I began paying rent to Everest Properties in 2017. My roommate had chanced upon an available apartment after weeks of dead ends, and we snatched it up in time for the fall semester — a stroke of luck in Berkeley’s frustrating housing market. While it was a blessing to have a roof over my head, knowing that I entered into a contract with that company causes my stomach to turn.

The apartment itself was far from ideal. At one point, rain leaked through our ceiling onto the kitchen floor. When we requested repairs, the management had a crew fix the surface of the roof — but they never came into our apartment to address the cracked, waterlogged and sagging ceiling. When we had a leaky sink or problems with the (useless) heater, the man in charge of maintenance might show up to make a “repair,” only for the same problem to crop up again days later. The stairwell leading up to our door reeked of urine and harbored a perpetual swarm of flies, and the building didn’t have a laundry facility. When I went into the company’s office on Shattuck Avenue or called with a question about the unit, I was met with cold and sour responses. I might have been able to swallow all of this, had we not been paying almost $2,400 a month for this dive. After months of living in a leaky, smelly, cold apartment and dealing with unpleasant management, my roommate and I were ready to get out.

Luckily for us, we were able to end our contract at the end of the spring semester and find a new place to live. I breathed a sigh of relief and put it behind me, remembering that I had been fortunate enough to secure housing close to campus — and thinking that rude management and poor living conditions were just part of the college student experience.

Maybe they are, but that’s not where this story ends. While browsing some Yelp reviews for Everest Properties, I came across many one-star ratings complaining of problems similar to those I had experienced and worse. Unsurprised and feeling vindicated, I read further. Then I saw the words “sex trafficking.”

Some reviewers had included links to the Wikipedia page about the property owner, Lakireddy Bali Reddy. According to the October 2007 Human Trafficking in California report, he was “sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison for smuggling teenage girls from India in a sex and labor exploitation ring spanning 15 years and operating in India and California. He repeatedly raped and sexually abused his victims and forced them to work in his businesses.”

Oh, and the reason he got caught? One victim died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an apartment he owned. In November 1999, Berkeley resident Marcia Poole saw some men carrying a large bundle down the stairs of an apartment building and loading it into a van — the body of a barely conscious young woman who was identified at the time as Lalitha Vemireddy. Poole intervened, leading to the discovery of a body at the foot of the stairs: Lalitha’s 17-year-old sister, whose real name was Chanti Prattipati. An autopsy showed she was pregnant when she died.

After being convicted of two counts of transportation of minors for illegal sexual activity, among other charges, Reddy spent only eight years in prison.

As of 2013, he still owned Everest Properties, and as of 2017 members of his family owned Raj Properties. Everest alone advertises more than 100 properties available in Berkeley and surrounding areas on its website, which means Reddy collects millions of dollars of rent every year. The website boasts, “We know what tenants are looking for out of available rental properties. … Security, comfort and affordability are our top priorities, and our tenants appreciate our commitment to quality and maintenance.”

People in Berkeley are desperate for those “available rental properties” and are often willing to settle for mediocre living situations. But when I signed my lease a year and a half ago, I wasn’t looking to contribute to the income of this registered sex offender who has never publicly apologized to his victims. And if security and comfort are truly Everest Properties’ top priorities, then Reddy’s thousands of tenants in Berkeley deserve to know who their landlord is.

Contact Grace Newsom at [email protected] .

MARCH 05, 2019