Tenants call for support October 29 on Dwight Appeal

Tenants from the building on Dwight partly destroyed by fire are asking for support on October 29. Renters and friends from 2227 Dwight, owned by Lakireddy Bali Reddy, the famous Berkeley landlord who plead guilty to federal charges about immigration fraud, transporting a minor for sex and tax evasion, are appealing the Zoning Board ruling that allows the owner to rebuild without paying mitigation fees. At issue is whether the owner was at fault for the extent of the fire because the smoke alarms may have been disconnected.

This is from BTU member Luis Amezcua:

The tenants of 2227 Dwight Way, on March 8, 2013, lost most, if not all, their personal possessions due to the fire that happened that night. The Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) approved a use permit to reconstruct the building, but there are some uncertainties that need to be addressed before the reconstruction can begin. For clarification, the appeal does not object to the reconstruction to the building, since it would remove a blight from the neighborhood and provide needed housing.

The ZAB was not fully informed of 2227 Dwight, and were unsure as to whether the fee and other mitigations applied. Even with the testimony of one tenant about the fire and the owner’s negligence, Staff determined that, because the fire was not arson, it was accidental. Staff failed to fully analyze the issue of fault, and restricted themselves between two possibilities (either arson or accidental) when making their determination; however, there is evidence that suggests that the landlord is fault due to negligence. The fire report states that “the building’s fire alarm system was not sounding when fire units arrived at the scene and was not heard sounding by firefighters at any point during the incident”, and that “the full circumstances surrounding the failure of the fire alarm system are still under investigation”. Tenants testify that the landlord disabled the fire alarm system due to false alarms, and it is a factor that needs to be considered when determining fault. Furthermore, there is still pending litigation between some of the former tenants and the property owner, with the question of who’s at fault being key. A few of the former tenants received settlement payments from the property owners – something that wouldn’t happen if this was an open and shut case where the property owner clearly was not at fault.

The ZAB’s decision on 2227 Dwight Way encourages owners of older housing to not adequately maintain their properties by creating unsafe housing which result in fire incidents. When a building is burned down, the owner can put the new units at market rate, lowering the amount of affordable housing in Berkeley, and allowing owners to avoid the Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee. All we ask is that the Council either require affordable housing to be built on site, an in-lieu payment be made to the Housing Trust Fund, or staff thoroughly investigate the issue of fault and remand this project back to the Zoning Adjustments Board with sufficient information so that they can make the proper findings (including the determination of fault).

City Council hears the appeal on October 29 and the tenants are asking for support at the meeting.