California Hotel tenants fight for their human right to housing

Community elders tell many stories about parties held at the once lavish landmark, the California Hotel, which is now affordable housing for 72 residents. The property owner stopped renting out new units last year and is now trying to intimidate those remaining into abandoning their homes even though no other affordable housing can be found in Oakland.

by Reginald James

Holding signs saying “Protect our right to stay” and chanting “Housing is a human right,” residents of Oakland’s California Hotel, the stately old five-story brick landmark at 3501 San Pablo Ave., demonstrated July 14 against being unlawfully kicked out of their homes. The owners attempted to intimidate the 72 remaining residents of the 150-unit building into moving by having property manager the John Stewart Co. threaten to stop paying the property’s utilities and security bills.

However, last Friday, an Alameda County Superior Court judge granted a temporary restraining order requiring the owners, Oakland Community Housing Inc. (OCHI), to keep the gas, water and electricity on, according to attorney John Murcko.

“When we are removed by what is called urban renewal, we call it what it really is: gentrification.”

Oakland Nation of Islam Minister Keith Muhammad

“The tenants want to stay here,” said Murcko, who also represented the tenants in two previous lawsuits over deplorable conditions at the property. “A lot of them have been here over a decade. Most have no place else to go.”

Murcko stated that OCHI is under contract requiring them to manage the property as affordable housing to very low-income tenants. That is a stipulation of the low-cost 30-year government loans OCHI used to buy and maintain the hotel.

Residents initially received a letter June 18 stating, “The John Stewart Company will no longer be the management agent for your community effective July 15, 2008.” As if to add confusion and insult to injury, the letter continues, “It has been a pleasure working with you and we wish you the best.”

A follow-up letter dated June 20 states, “Cahon Associates, Inc., the owner of the building, cannot afford to hire another management company to operate the California Hotel or subsidize the operating deficit that exists at the property. In addition, local and state law require onsite management for buildings the size of the California Hotel. If the owner does not replace the onsite manager, the building will be out of compliance with local and state law.” Cahon Associates is a subsidiary of OCHI.

The letter continues, “As a result, the building may close down shortly after July 15. Tenants should begin to look for another place to live and plan to vacate the building on or before July 15th. Eden Information & Referral (Eden I&R) will be available to provide some tenant assistance to help in your search for new housing.”

The City Council approved a little over $893,000 for relocation assistance for residents of properties owned by OCHI. However, as reported in the materials presented to the Council, the scarcity of affordable housing stock has contributed to the difficulty of tenants relocating.

“The closing of seven affordable rental properties will have significant negative impacts,” according to the June 17 City Council agenda materials. “Foremost is the tremendous negative impact on the 215 current residents who will have to relocate in a rental market that is already tight.”

Residents of the California Hotel, supported by Just Cause Oakland members, rallied Monday against the unlawful attempt by the owner, Oakland Community Housing Inc., to empty the historic building as part of a larger plan to gentrify West Oakland. The hotel has been home to Billy Johnson, seated in the center, for 20 years.

“There’s nothing available,” California Hotel tenant Robin Menefee said. “There’s nowhere to go.” Menefee will stay after the John Stewart Co. abandons the property.

OCHI subsidiary Cahon Associates claims it is broke. “They own 13 buildings probably worth $130 million,” said Murcko. “This is a fraud on the city and a fraud on the people of Oakland.”

Since informing the city, OCHI has received a $1.5 million subsidy to cover management and other operating costs for their numerous properties in Oakland, with most going to the California Hotel, according to the Oakland Tribune. But residents don’t feel the money was invested in improving their living conditions. There were many complaints of infestation. Even a major lobby window on the ground floor on San Pablo was broken and boarded up.

The company received $5.1 million from the City of Oakland in the ‘80s to buy the property and has since received tens of millions in state and federal monies.

The Oakland Tribune reported that Sean Rogan, deputy director of the city’s department of Housing and Economic Development, attributes the failure of tenants relocating to bad advice from outside agitators. “It’s unfortunate and counterproductive that other organizations are urging the tenants to not sign anything and don’t take the tenant relocation assistance,” he said.

However, residents attribute their determination to stay to the lack of available housing and their resentment at being forced to move out of their homes. Although they’ve consistently paid rent, they’ve never reaped the improvements they’ve been promised.

“They want me to get the hell out,” said Lee Jenkins, a 60-year-old resident who has lived in the building for 16 years. “I don’t want to go nowhere. They haven’t given me an eviction notice, so I’m going to fight it.”

Jenkins, like many of the elderly or disabled living in the building, who are either low income or no-income, has nowhere else to turn.

Exile in Cuba could not silence the voice of Assata Shakur, whose words encouraged California Hotel residents resisting the homelessness that could be their fate if they are forced out. Assata said: “It is our duty for fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Oakland Nation of Islam Minister Keith Muhammad, who spoke at the rally, put the events in context of the larger land grab taking place in Oakland:

“When we are removed by what is called urban renewal, we call it what it really is: gentrification,” said Muhammad. “They want to turn West Oakland into East San Francisco.”

The minister also saw a relationship between the removal of tenants and the recent so-called “Nutcracker” sting in June, which resulted in 50 arrests. Muhammad suggests the raids, resulting in the seizure of 40 weapons but no arrests of any actual weapon suppliers is “managed mayhem” that will allow the plan to force low-income people, especially African-Americans, from their homes to escalate and intensify.

“When this property hits the open market, no one who lives here now will likely be able to live here again, because we will not be able to afford it,” Muhammad added.

When asked by television reporters, “What happens if property management leaves,” Murcko responded, “The tenants will step up.” And they have.

On IndyBay.org in an update, Lynda Carson reported that “George Stringer, a long-time tenant of the California Hotel … stated that the John Stewart Company packed up and moved today, shut down the front desk and left by around 5-6 p.m.

“‘The John Stewart Company packed up to go, and left behind a security guard to keep an eye on the place, and the rest of us that are holding out are doing just fine, so far,’ said Stringer. ‘These people tried to force us out as though we do not have any rights as tenants in Oakland or California, and we’re staying as long as we can. The rents are too high for us to try and move anywhere else at this point, and we are better off staying put and exerting our rights as tenants.’”

Stringer, born in Monroe, Louisiana, and raised in Oakland, knows the rules. He managed the Exodus House in Oakland until he moved to the California Hotel three years ago. There he pays $400 a month for a single room with bath and shares a kitchen with other tenants on his floor.

“The California Hotel is just the first building,” said Robbie Clark, an organizer with Just Cause Oakland, who led the chants and rallying cry with tenants and supporters Monday. “There will more than likely be others. We have to come together as a community and prevent the displacement of residents.”

Cahon Associates also owns six other affordable housing developments in Oakland, including Marin Way, San Antonio Terraces, James Lock Court and Slim Jenkins Court. One property, Drasnin Manor, is facing foreclosure by Washington Mutual. Foreclosure would possibly eliminate any affordable housing restrictions, according to City documents.

All six are scheduled to be closed down and turned into transitional housing with the eviction of the residents in the future after the California Hotel is shut down.

A June 5 report from the Redevelopment Agency and the City of Oakland warns that at least 537 tenants in 11 out of 14 properties owned by OCHI are at risk of losing their housing. OCHI owns about 638 units of affordable housing and all of their tenants are at risk of losing their homes in the coming months, according to the report.

OCHI did not respond to requests for comment but will have to face tenants in court July 30 at 2:30 p.m. at the Hayward Hall of Justice, Department 510, 24405 Amador St. in Hayward. For more information, contact Robbie Clark at Just Cause Oakland, (510) 763-5877, email Robbie@justcauseoakland.org or visit www.justcauseoakland.org.

Reginald James is editor-in-chief of the Laney Tower newspaper at Laney College in Oakland. Email him at reggiegeneral@yahoo.com. Housing rights advocate Lynda Carson contributed to the story. She may be reached at tenantsrule@yahoo.com or (510) 763-1085.

This story is published as part of SFBV’s Bay View Archive project, made possible by the San Francisco Foundation. For more information, click here.