Tiffany Tate and her boyfriend, James Jones, have lived at the Booker Emery Apartments near West Oakland BART for more than three years. At a hearing before the Oakland Rent Adjustment Board on January 27, Tate complained of black mold in her apartment that made her so sick she missed work and lost wages. “[Mold] got so bad it’s making a hole in my ceiling,” she said. When she complained to the landlord, Ramdas Darke, he sent a handyman to paint over it rather than fixing the underlying problem.
Tate had so many bedbugs in her unit that “you could put your finger at the edge of the bed” and come away with the tiny black insects, she told the hearing officer. Jones added that, “before this petition, since we’ve been staying there,” the landlord had never sprayed for bedbugs or the cockroaches that infest the building.
As if to illustrate the severity of the building’s bed bug infestation, another resident found several bed bugs on her clothes and cane as she sat in the hearing room.
When confronted with these issues, tenants say, the landlord, Ramdas Darke, told them to fix the problems themselves. Many people have moved out, according to tenants, but many stay at the 44-unit building because it offers something that is increasingly rare in Oakland’s bubbling real estate market: rent under $700.
The hearing turned dramatic when the attorney for the Darke family, Stephen Kennedy, asked Tate and Jones if they were aware that Ramdas Darke had mental health problems (he has recently been placed in an institution by his family).
Looking across the table at Ramdas Darke’s wife, Mangal, who has his power of attorney and has taken over management of the building, and his adult son, Ranjit, Tate asked, “You want me to put it on the record?” as her voice rose with feeling. “I didn’t get at Darke like that because Darke wants to touch on me. I didn’t look at Darke like that because he wanted to f—k on me,” she said, on the record.
Complaints of sexual harassment against Ramdas Darke were repeated by other female tenants. “Some of the girls, they don’t have money,” Maggie Larios told Oakland Local, referring to the landlord’s offers to trade rent reductions for sex. She added that some of the tenants just wanted to avoid going back to the shelters, so “they do what they can.”
Larios moved to the building last July. The $685 rent was “the only thing I could afford,” she recalled, as she had just left a domestic violence situation and needed a new home for herself and her two children.
She has already seen her family’s health deteriorate. She spoke with a raspy, hoarse voice due, she said, to an allergic reaction to mold: “The mold comes from everywhere.”
“I had to throw my bed away” because of bedbugs, Larios added. Now, she hopes for a ruling from the Rent Adjustment Board that will give her the money she needs to find a new place. “All I want is out,” she said, noting that she won’t be able to take any of her personal possessions with her because of the bedbug infestation.
Leon Smith, who used to work as a property manager, has fewer complaints than some. “I do all my own repairs,” he said. “I have made major improvements to my apartment.” Smith lives on disability and pays $625 in rent.
When a pipe under his sink leaked, flooding his kitchen floor, Smith bought the parts to fix it himself. He needed the landlord to shut the building water off so he could make the repair but failed to get cooperation and remains without cold water. After his grandchildren suffered bedbug bites while staying with him, “they don’t come over no more,” he said.
Flordeliza Luzon has shared her $625 apartment with a roommate for three years. She complains of bedbug bites, mold, ventilation issues and a non-working heater. She has been to court twice with the landlord and won both times. “I hope she will listen to the tenant needs,” she said of Mangal Darke. “That’s what I want to tell her.”
View a video of tenant Janell Wilson talking about her unit here.
The journey that lead these tenants to come together in a Rent Adjustment Board hearing room crowded with advocates and press in January 2014 started in July of 2013, when one of the tenants saw a flyer for the East Bay Solidarity Network (EBSOL), a volunteer organization that helps tenants and workers assert their rights.
“We went to the building the next day and knocked on the doors and over half the tenants agreed that there was a problem with the building,” recalled EBSOL organizer Rio Scharf. Rocket, another EBSOL member, said they found only one or two units that said they didn’t have bedbugs. “There’s tons in the units that are proven to have them,” she added.
“We had no intention of bringing this to a city agency,” recalled Scharf. “Every tenant we’ve spoken to is purely concerned with maintaining decent, affordable housing.” For the tenants, he said, “These situations are intimidating.” Unfortunately, according to Scharf, “The landlord had no interest in sitting down and talking.”
Many tenants didn’t realize the problems in the building were so widespread until they starting speaking to each other. With support from tenant advocacy nonprofit Causa Justa, EBSOL helped residents file petitions against the landlord, which were delivered as a group to the Oakland Rent Adjustment Board. “The second they had the impression that there could be effective action taken collectively, there was a surge of confidence,” said Scharf. “Standing up did not just mean being yelled at by that landlord.”
Tenant organizing appears to be bringing results. The Rent Adjustment Board will issue a decision in February. In the meantime, according to Kennedy, “There is a major ongoing effort to remediate problems in all areas.”
“The historic residents of this city should get to define the changes that come and that they should have the option to stay in the neighborhood they helped build,” according to Scharf. “Personally, when I arrived in West Oakland [18 months ago], I quickly began to see the implications of my presence in the neighborhood,” he said. “I’m still not entirely confident that there’s a very harmless role for me to play in that neighborhood. Living there in some ways contributes to a higher rental market, and frankly, my presence there invites more cultural and demographic changes in that neighborhood.”
Rocket, who grew up in Oakland, said, “I’ve literally seen it change. I’m watching my neighbors get displaced.”
“I think in some ways working with EBSOL has made me feel like we as a neighborhood and a city have more agency,” Julia Sebastian, another EBSOL organizer working with the Booker Emery tenants, said in an email. “Despite the obscene amount of displacement going on across the Bay, I have hope that we are in a moment of resistance and there is power in striving together. There is something about being able to interact with neighbors not just on the level of supporting each other around everyday needs, but also in the bigger struggle to keep long-time Oakland residents in their homes and in the community.”