Tenants Seek Fair Treatment at Berkeley’s Redwood Gardens

“I’ve been saying the seniors are the next civil rights movement because we are the largest growing segment of society,” said Eleanor Walden. “So housing for seniors, especially if it’s guaranteed by the federal government, is a good ‘investment.’ It’s not done for any humanitarian reasons. It’s a monetary cash cow.”

ViMcFall's kitchen with her art work and objects that all have to be packed and moved during the renovation Lydia Gans photo

by Lydia Gans

Availability of housing for people with low incomes is extremely limited and even more so for seniors and the disabled. They are lucky when they find housing — any kind of housing — and usually only after a long wait. They are particularly fortunate if they are able to live in a pleasant setting and convenient Berkeley location.

Redwood Gardens, located at 2951 Derby Street in Berkeley, is a complex of buildings with 169 apartments, gardens and community facilities for seniors and people with disabilities. It is subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). And there is an AC Transit bus stop right at the entrance.

Redwood Gardens was established as a co-op 28 years ago by Cooperative Services Inc (CSI). Currently it is managed by CSI Support and Development, which operates a number of co-ops in California. Redwood Gardens is the only development that now is not a co-op. (There is some history behind the change which is not necessary to go into here.)

The CSI Support and Development website outlines the principles of cooperatives. “Living in a co-op means living in a building that is controlled by the resident members. The resident members vote on all major operating decisions, including writing the annual budget…. Becoming part of a CSI co-op allows you to enjoy the benefits of apartment living while retaining control of your environment.”

Although this ideal existed in Redwood Gardens in the past, it is far from the way things are now. The residents have no control over management decisions and even opportunities for expressing their concerns, and having those concerns heard, are being denied. And there are some very serious concerns.

Residents are afraid that much of what the project’s management has been doing, and its plans for the future, will have negative impacts on the quality of their lives.

The residents have been getting increasingly upset with the management. Complaints, questions and requests are often simply ignored. CSI is planning to do major renovations, and they have already begun making changes while not accepting any input from the residents.

An attempt to block the conversion of a pleasant sun room next to residents’ apartments into a laundry was ignored by management, and construction of the laundry is proceeding. Management has taken over the community room for the construction workers. They are making unwanted changes in the garden and other community spaces.

In the words of Gary Hicks, co-chair with Eleanor Walden of the Residents’ Council, “There is increasing enmity between the residents and management. This is much worse than all the other issues.”

Tenant Mary Berg wrote a letter to property manager Mary Kirk expressing her objection to a number of management’s actions and ending with, “I have always considered Redwood Gardens to be ‘top of the line’ in senior housing … but with CSI’s management it now has fallen to near the bottom, because CSI (apparently) refuses to consult with the residents and disregards the expressed wishes of the residents.”

She never received a reply.

Arlene Merryman has lived at Redwood Gardens for 21 years. “I’m really upset,” she says. Her voice is shaking as she declares, “All of what’s happening around here makes me so angry I can hardly talk.”

Another resident, afraid of reprisal if her name is made public, is concerned about the lack of communication between residents and management. “I moved here a year ago, gave up my Section 8. So this is where I have to live for the rest of my life. I’ve been happy living in Berkeley being here at Redwood Gardens until recently with all that (has) happened.”

With a zero-interest loan from HUD, CSI is planning to carry out major renovations. The process will be extremely stressful for many residents. The management or Redwood Gardens explained that they will renovate one apartment at a time, spending just one day on each unit. They expect to make major changes, remodeling kitchens and bathrooms, cabinets and shelves, possibly floors, etc. – completing it all in one working day.

The main entrance to Redwood Gardens, a housing complex for seniors located on Derby Street in Berkeley. Lydia Gans photo

 

And the residents must move their belongings out and store them temporarily (it’s not clear where) for the day. There was no discussion held about the matter. A resident described how it all went down.

“Each person had a 15-minute interview. During that, they gave each of us a piece of green paper with all the details on it about what’s going to happen. One of the things that is particularly disturbing is that we have to provide for our own help to pack. We either have to pay $100 for labor that they would identify or we have to have friends to help.”

Vi McFall was on the waiting list for quite a few years before she was able to get in over four years ago. She is an artist and some of her paintings are hanging in the halls of the complex. (There are a number of artists among the residents displaying some exciting works in the halls.)

“I was happy here till a year ago,” she says. “But it seems like the whole vibe of the place has changed.” Pointing to all her artwork and supplies, McFall says she’s very worried about packing it all and storing it out of the way during the renovation. She’s sure there is no way she could mange it all by herself.

The management plans to begin the process in November. Taking into account weekends and holidays, completing the work on 169 units will take a very long time. Doing the math, it works out to almost eight months. For two-thirds of the year the residents will be living with the stress of not knowing exactly when their turn will come and having to cope with the state of confusion all around them.

Peni Hall has been living in Redwood Gardens since the co-op was first organized 28 years ago. She describes the residents. With a population of close to 200 people it is not surprising to find a diversity of opinions and attitudes among them. There are some people who live their lives paying no attention or simply accepting what is happening.

“Some people are intimidated and are afraid to speak out,” Hall said. “Some are calling HUD, some calling an attorney, some talking with other media — reaching out trying to get help.”

Also, there is a segment of Chinese residents who have limited English and there is no interpreter among them. But for everyone, the threat of eviction and becoming homeless for incurring the disapproval of management always hangs over their heads. Being seniors or disabled individuals with limited incomes, alternative housing options are extremely scarce.

Eleanor Walden is one of the people who has been reaching out. She expresses her outrage. “We give up our rights as human beings by living in a place that will not consult with us, that does not represent us in any way,” she said. “It’s demeaning and disrespectful.”

Walden goes back to the days of the civil rights and anti-war movements. “There comes a time,” she begins to quote Mario Savio.

When residents decided to sit in the sun room to protest the management replacing it with a laundry, she called their action a sit-in and got the attention of the media. “Now my strategy is to go to our representatives” she says, “to inundate the people who are supposed to represent us.”

Walden points out that it’s not just “asking for management to be more respectful…. This is greater than Redwood Gardens in little Berkeley, California.”

What is happening here is happening in public housing projects all over the country. And there is a lesson.

“I’ve been saying the seniors are the next civil rights movement because we are the largest growing segment of society,” Walden said. “We’re the baby boomers. And so housing for seniors, especially if it’s guaranteed by the federal government, is a good ‘investment.’ It’s not done for any humanitarian reasons. It’s a monetary cash cow.”

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