Judge orders improvements to SRO in Oakland’s Chinatown

The SRO building on the edge of Chinatown and Old Oakland is now tightly locked to keep outsiders from visiting. Photo by Tian Chenwei

The SRO building on the edge of Chinatown and Old Oakland is now tightly locked to keep outsiders from visiting. Photo by Tian Chenwei

Tenants in a 39-unit Single Room Occupancy (SRO) on the edge of Oakland Chinatown are expecting better living conditions after an Alameda County Superior Court judge ordered the owners to improve it by October 7.

This June, 14 of the tenants and the City of Oakland filed a lawsuit against hotel owner James Kilpatrick, hotel manager JaEvon Marshall, and several companies managed by Kilpatrick or in which he holds shares, including Green Group LP, which owns the building. The suit identifies nearly half of the tenants as senior citizens. The tenants are represented by two organizations: Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, a legal and civil rights organization serving low-income Asian Pacific American communities, and the housing and civil rights law firm Sundeen, Salinas & Pyle.

According to the lawsuit, the owners were allegedly making living conditions unbearable in an effort to force tenants out. The residents’ attorneys said the owners demolished a communal bathroom and kitchen in February. According to the text of the suit, the owners also installed cameras with audio in the remaining kitchen and the hallways.

The suit also references a San Francisco Business Times article that states that Kilpatrick had plans to renovate the building and more than double the rent. According to the article, Kilpatrick said he planned for a modern apartment building with “a smartphone-connected entry system, free WiFi, Nest thermostats” and other amenities. The article also states that Kilpatrick planned to increase the average monthly rent from $368 for the SRO units to $850 for remodeled studios.

According to the lawsuit, on January 1, 2016, the tenants were asked to sign a new renter’s agreement, written in English, although the tenants primarily speak Chinese. On January 13, the suit alleges, the defendants issued a notice written in English that called for the demolition of a communal kitchen and bathroom. Demolition began by February 8, the suit states.

The suit alleges this caused “loss of use of property” and “damages” to the tenants’ living spaces, demolishing more than half of the communal bathrooms and the larger one of the only two kitchens, leaving only three toilets and two showers for 25 households to share and one kitchen for 34 households to compete to use.

For a normal renter, said tenants’ attorney Robert Salinas, “You’re in your home and [you have] a bathroom facility available to you when nature calls.” But at the hotel, Salinas said, “There is a toilet, but there would be eight people waiting in line, and you know there’s just not enough time for them to wait.”

“At least one plaintiff was forced to defecate into a bucket in his room,” the suit states.

On August 30, an Alameda County Superior Court judge granted a preliminary motion ordering Kilpatrick, Marshall and Green Group LP to make changes.

The court order requires the larger kitchen to be reinstalled. The judge also ordered video cameras installed at the property be limited to one on the exterior and one that covers the entry staircase near the front door, according to Salinas.

Repairs are currently in progress. “There is construction work currently being done on the communal bathrooms and kitchen,” said tenants’ attorney Katherine Chu.

Kilpatrick, one of the largest real estate brokers in the East Bay and president of NAI Northern California and Highview Property Management, could not be reached by phone or email. According to the website of the State of California’s Bureau of Real Estate, the broker’s license for a James Kilpatrick whose office address matches that of both NAI Northern California and Highview Property Management been suspended twice, in 2009 and 2012.

When reached by phone, both Marshall and Kilpatrick’s attorney, Katherine Morrow, declined to comment.

Joseph Tobener, a Bay Area tenants’ rights attorney, said that tenants living in SRO properties, who usually come from low-income backgrounds, are vulnerable in the housing market. “Most of them are tightly bound to the unit, because they are under the protection of rent control,” he said. “If they leave the units, they just can’t find another affordable place.”

Rent control means that as long as a qualified tenant is on a continuous lease, the landlord can only raise the rent once a year by a rate limited by the city government. But that hasn’t stopped some landlords from influencing tenants to leave their contracts. “We see that a lot in the Bay Area,” Tobener said. “Landlords make repairs and drive tenants out to get rid of rent control.”

According to “Downtown Oakland’s Residential Hotels,” a report by the City of Oakland Housing and Community Development Department in 2015, the average rent at an Oakland SRO was $642 last year. According to the report, there were 2,285 downtown Oakland SRO units in 2004, but by the end of 2015 there were 1,311.

Unlike San Francisco, Oakland does not have any laws to prohibit the demolition and conversion of residential hotel units for commercial or other use. The 2015 report also states, “Property owners wishing to demolish such [Oakland] units or convert them to nonresidential uses must apply for a conditional use permit.”

According to Tobener, in recent years, Oakland’s SRO buildings have turned—or are turning into—commercial buildings. “It’s getting harder and harder for low-income groups to find a unit here,” he said. “Local governments should refuse to grant real estate speculators permits to convert affordable rental housing into commercial spaces and luxury condos.”

Salinas said he hopes the court’s orders are a step in the right direction. “I hope it improves living conditions of tenants at the building,” he said.

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