Buena Vista tenants mobilize to keep rent low - September 4, 1987

Buena Vista tenants mobilize to keep rent low

By Rachel Gordon
Staff Writer

ALAMEDA – More than 300 worried tenants, facing a possible rent hike at the city’s largest subsidized housing project, came looking for answers Tuesday night at a packed community meeting.

What they found was a bevy of options – transferring ownership of the project to the city or the tenants, imposing rent control, instituting a sliding rent scale or negotiating with the owner to keep rents down – that left the residents optimistic but ready for a fight.

The owner, Los Angeles based Gersten Management Co., has made no public statement on its intentions.

“We're gathering our forces together,” said Clayton Guyton, chairperson of the Buena Vista Community Association, the tenants’ organization for the 615-unit Buena Vista Park Apartments complex. “The residents and the city have got to come up with some creative solutions to stave off a rent increase.”

The residents are relying on city officials and volunteer attorneys to find ways to keep the West End project for low- and moderate-income residents. Tenants are now paying rents that are as low as 50 percent less than the cost of renting a comparable apartment in Alameda at market rate.

Gersten Management gave notice to the federal government earlier this week that it was going to pay off its federally subsidized mortgage on the property – a move that frees the owner from a cap on rents.

When the development was built between 1964 and 1966, construction was financed with a 40-year direct federal loan. In return, the owner was obligated to rent only to qualified low- and moderate-income residents for the first 30 years, or until the nearly $9 million mortgage was paid off. Mortgages are coming due or being paid off nearly all over the country, pulling thousands of apartments for low-income tenants off the market.

“If they have the guts, the city can do a number of things to keep the low-income housing project in Alameda,” Polly Marhall, a public-interest housing attorney, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

Marshall, whose San Francisco law firm, Goldgarb and Lipman, is working on legislation to save low-income housing, said the city of Alameda could try the innovative approach of imposing rent control on conversions of subsidized housing. In the past, however, the city has maintained a strong stance against rent control.

“We’re looking into all the options, and we’ll certainly consider the idea of a special rent control,” said Assistant City Manager Rob Wonder, who attended the hastily called outdoor meeting with Councilmembers Barbara Thomas, Rita Haugner, Joe Camicia and Mayor Chuck Corica.

Marshall said the city and tenants could also follow the lead of other communities to try to buy the property from the owner and designate it as a project for low-income tenants.

“This is a real opportunity for the city to show whether it really cares about its low-income residents,” Marshall said.

The city’s Housing Authority estimates that 40 percent of the residents at the apartments are considered low-income.

The council members did not commit to any one plan but said they will study all the alternatives.

Although the tenants were pressing for immediate action, Thomas said they may have some time.

“Many of the residents are on record for having complained about habitability issues,” said Thomas, referring to complaints of rodent and roach infestation, broken elevators and unsanitary garbage bins. “If the owner tries to evict them or raises their rent, that could be considered a retaliatory eviction. They have some time before anything can happen to them.”

Many of the tenants, fearing the worse, said Tuesday that a big rent increase would be catastrophic.

“I’d be forced to split up my family. I’d have no other option, “said Patricia Meyers, a disabled mother of three who has lived at the complex for nine years.

Meyers, who supports her family on $623 a month in welfare, now pays a monthly rent of $341 for a three-bedroom apartment. Doubling that amount would leave her in the red.

“I’d have to put my children in foster homes and go find a little sleeping room for myself somewhere,” Meyers said. She said she has no relatives who could help raise her children.

Yvonne Keel, a 14-year resident at the complex, said she is in a similar situation. Retired and living on a $639-a-month pension, Keel said a rent hike would force her out of Alameda.

“I’d be driven out of the city,” she sai. “I’ve got nowhere to go. I’d end up on the streets or in a grave.”

Source: Gordon, Rachel. “Buena Vista tenants mobilize to keep rent low.” Alameda Times Star. 3 September, 1987:1.