Housing Project Threatens to Evict Seniors for Speaking Out

The lawyer for Redwood Gardens warned the senior and disabled tenants to “cease and desist” any and all criticism of management. Must the residents surrender their freedom of speech and right to privacy while living in the senior housing project? Noncompliance can result in “termination of tenancy.”

by Lydia Gans

The residents at Redwood Gardens, the HUD project on Derby Street in Berkeley for low-income seniors and people with disabilities, are again being reminded that they have little power to control their living conditions.

Their lives are in the hands of the management, and they’ve found that expressing opposition to the actions or policies of management can have serious consequences.

The building owners recently hired a new on-site property manager and her relations with the residents got off to a bad start and have not improved.

When she came to the project, the members of the Residents’ Council were interested in getting acquainted and suggested inviting her to their next meeting. Council Co-chairs Eleanor Walden and Gary Hicks sent her an invitation.

Walden reported to the members on the response: “The newly hired Acting Property Manager, Liana Bates-Hall, just paid me a visit. In response to our invitation to come to the Residents’ Council meeting she categorically refused. She said she had no responsibility to meet with us as ‘we don’t sign her pay check.’ She defined her job solely as carrying out the rules of those who do sign her paycheck.

“I told her that her responsibility was greater than that in that she was under the direction of the HUD contract as held by CSI and that the residents were part of the conglomerate of participants with whom she needed to work. Her manner was surprisingly adversarial and conveyed an attitude of disrespect for the Residents’ Council as having no authority. She said we are ‘tenants’ and have only one duty and that is to ‘pay our rent and obey the rules.’”

Walden said that the residents wanted to see her resume. Not surprisingly, Bates-Hall refused. Walden writes, “Although I admit to being a bit heavy handed by asking for her resume, I don’t think it is outrageous. If someone asked for my resume I would be glad to provide it. She is already employed, so it will not be held against her and we will know what we have to work with. I hear through my grapevine that she has a military background. And that is exactly how she has come on. Her behavior was a good example of bullying, in my opinion.”

In the two months the new property manager has been at Redwood Gardens, tenants have been increasingly frustrated at seeing new rules and changes made with no warning, and with what feels like no concern for their peace of mind and quality of life. People have mentioned various issues, among them a two-day notice of mandatory apartment inspection, increases in deposits and fees for various community amenities and replacement of garden furniture without regard to users’ comfort.

Though the tenants might voice complaints, they have little power to affect management practices. Management, on the other hand, can seriously affect the quality of their lives. And management is threatening to do just that.

Five of the tenants have received letters from a law firm, Kimball, Tirey & St. John in Walnut Creek, accusing them of harassing the manager, Ms. Bates-Hall, and warning them that they could be evicted.

Eviction from the project means losing access to low-income housing, and being reduced to homelessness. For those who are elderly or disabled, it would be devastating.

Each of the five targeted people received somewhat different letters making various charges, but basically with the same intent. The five-page letter addressed to the co-chair of the Residents’ Council, Gary Hicks, is one example.

It begins with the charge that the “tenant organization … has been engaging in conduct which is tantamount to harassment.”

The term “harassment” seems to be rather open to interpretation. Some of the tenants have described their encounters with Bates-Hall as harassment.

Senior tenants are facing threats from management. From left, Peni Hall, Gary Hicks and Eleanor Walden. Avram Gur Arye photo

Senior tenants are facing threats from management. From left, Peni Hall, Gary Hicks and Eleanor Walden. Avram Gur Arye photo

 

The management’s lawyer charged that Gary Hicks, “through your affiliation as a member of the Redwood Gardens Residents’ Council, have continually, frequently and on a consistent basis harassed her … as well as instigated other residents to do the same, including, but not limited to requesting evidence of her qualifications for her employment position … name-calling her to other residents including but not limited to calling her a bully and making false accusations against her, such as that she was hired by a company with a suspended license.” As a matter of fact, this last item came from an article by reporter Lynda Carson in Bay Area Independent Media (Indy Bay), certainly not from Hicks.

The lawyer’s letter refers to the Lease Agreement stating that a tenant can be evicted for noncompliance which includes “repeated minor violations of this Agreement which disrupt the livability of the project, adversely affect the health or safety of any person or the right of any tenant to the quiet enjoyment of the lease premises and related project facilities…”

People might recall the actions of the management last year when they engaged in a massive remodeling process requiring tenants to move their belongings, stay away from their units in some cases for an extended period of time, and in general creating an extremely stressful situation. Regarding project facilities, they moved a laundry to an inconvenient location and closed off the popular community room for over a year.

It seems that it was acceptable for management to “disrupt the livability or the quiet enjoyment of the lease premises.”

Furthermore, addressing the Residents’ Council, the lawyer writes that the fact that some residents disagree with the “disparaging views or actions espoused by your organization … disrupts the livability of the project … (and) disturbs the peace and quiet of other residents …”

Several paragraphs are devoted to discussing Ms. Bates-Hall’s refusal to attend meetings of the Residents’ Council. “Her refusal is not grounds to make or express false negative inferences to act as manager of the community and you must cease any and all communications of such views expressed to other residents.”

The management’s lawyer appears to be denying the First Amendment right to freedom of speech for the tenants. They have been warned that they are not allowed to express an opinion about the management, and are not allowed to speak out about the policies that affect their daily lives. It is difficult to believe that this suppression of First Amendment rights is occurring in Berkeley.

There are other references to conversations about management among residents. Does this mean that people must surrender the freedom of speech and their right to privacy when moving into the project?

Basically, the charges and accusations made in the letter are easily challenged and the residents do have some access to legal aid. But the underlying message is the reminder that they have no power over their circumstances. They have no choice but to “pay the rent and obey the rules.” Noncompliance can result in “termination of tenancy.”

And the final kick is in the last paragraph, in bold print, headed with the warning to CEASE AND DESIST.

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