When a fire tore through 2449 Dwight Way the Sunday before Thanksgiving, about 30 tenants were displaced and the property owner was saddled with around $1 million in damages. The Nov. 22 disaster has brought to light what can happen in Berkeley in the aftermath of a destructive fire.
The displaced tenants describe two weeks dominated by confusion and uncertainty. After fleeing the building, which is known as the Chandler, the residents scattered, finding refuge in friends’ homes and at the Durant Hotel. The Red Cross provided some immediate financial assistance.
“Things were happening in a whirlwind,” said tenant Owen Hill. “Many of us went to a hotel because we expected it to be covered. We didn’t get solid information because we were in a panic.”
The tenants say they received conflicting information from the Rent Board about what kind of assistance they were entitled to immediately and in the long run, causing uncertainty about what kind of housing to seek. (A crowd-funding campaign set up to help the displaced has so far raised just $65.)
“I think they were trying to make an honest attempt to put the threads together,” Hill said. “But between the city and the Rent Board, we were kind of left hanging. Meanwhile we’re going back to this $150 a night hotel, not quite knowing where we stand.”
At issue was Berkeley’s Relocation Ordinance, written in 2011 and designed to support tenants who are temporarily forced out of their rental units. It applies most often to planned renovations that displace tenants — as well as to relocation due to fire or code enforcement, except in the case of an earthquake or other natural disaster. Under the ordinance, tenants are entitled to “relocation payments from the property owner to mitigate the costs associated with a temporary move,” until they can move back into the unit.
Initially unsure of the interpretation of the ordinance in the case of the fire at the Chandler building, the Rent Board conferred with the city and eventually determined that the tenants are entitled to a per diem payment — $120 or more depending on the size of the household — minus their December rent cost, for up to 29 days after the fire. Once they find permanent housing, they are entitled to a rent differential up to a determined rent ceiling. The current rent ceiling, which is based on the average price of rent-controlled units from the previous year is $1,218.80 for a studio and $1,627.17 for a one-bedroom. (The Chandler has almost exclusively one-bedroom units.) Tenants are also entitled to coverage of moving expenses and storage costs.
Chandler owner Greg Hoff paid each tenant household $700 shortly after the fire, covering a “dislocation allowance” and moving costs, though residents can submit receipts to get reimbursed for additional expenses. He later made $1,200 payments to each household, covering the first ten per diem payments.
The tenants said they have had trouble finding apartments that cost anywhere close to the city’s rent ceiling.
“Part of the reason why it’s so low is [the average is based on] rent controlled units, but a good chunk of what’s available is new construction,” said Jay Kelekian, director of the Rent Board. “The other reason is rents have gone up at least 20% in 2015.” New data released in January will boost the rent ceiling, he said.
The relocation benefits are coming out of pocket from Hoff, who bought the Chandler in 2002 from Barbara Moscowitz, the co-founder of Moe’s Books up the block on Telegraph.
“It turns out that this ordinance is so unique that we do not have insurance coverage,” said Hoff, who had been unaware that the ordinance would apply in a case like this, where he was not responsible for damage to his property. He estimates he will have to pay between $100,000-$250,000 depending on the tenants’ new rents, the rent ceiling hike in January, and storage costs.
Hoff said the relocation payments feel like a “bad luck tax,” but he is prepared to comply.
“We want to stay in business in Berkeley so we’re going to do it,” Hoff said. He declined to say how many properties his Oakland-based Evans Property Company owns, but said, “We operate hundreds of units in Berkeley.”
If a landlord fails to make the relocation payments, the ordinance says the city can take over the payments and put a lien on the property. Kelekian said that has never happened.
Even with the relocation assistance, many tenants, who have spent the past two weeks dashing to open houses and combing through Craigslist, worry they won’t be able to afford what they find.
“The ceiling is unrealistic, and there’s no disaster clause for people who are being thrown onto a rent market that is insane,” Hill said.
“Once you start looking, you realize you’re priced completely out of Berkeley, priced out of Oakland, priced out of Emeryville,” said tenant Kayce Davis.
If the fire had happened in a different city, however, it is likely the tenants wouldn’t get any financial assistance. In San Francisco, for example, tenants have the right to return to their units after repairs are done, but the landlord has no responsibility to help them relocate in the interim, said Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee.
“We haven’t done any analysis on the differences or similarities between our ordinance and that of other cities,” said Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko in an email.
Displaced tenants have received relocation payments after other fires in Berkeley, but it took time to interpret the ordinance after the Chandler incident because fires are handled on a case by case basis, Kelekian said. When a fire is so destructive that a building has to be demolished — as was the case four years ago at the neighboring Sequoia building at 2441 Haste St. — residents are not entitled to relocation benefits.
“One of the things we’ve found in these fires is the ordinance can certainly be clarified,” he said.
Building damaged in fire was a “bohemian enclave”
For some tenants of 2449 Dwight, “relocation” means living somewhere other than the Chandler for the first time in twenty years. The property was built in the 1920s and has since housed many artists and writers. Tenant Liz Leger, artist and professor at California College of the Arts, calls the building “a bohemian enclave.”
“I think it’s safe to say that people who live in the Chandler don’t have loads of money,” she said.
Three of the current tenants, including Hill, work at Moe’s Books, and two at Amoeba Records. Hill’s 2002 mystery novel, The Chandler Apartments, was written in the titular building.
“So many people in the building, their lives have been on Telegraph,” Davis said.
The fire has strengthened the Chandler community, as tenants try to support one another. In the days following the disaster, they exchanged a flurry of emails, at first simply sharing advice for washing clothing after a fire. Some tenants took the lead on contacting the city.
“We’re learning who has what expertise,” said tenant John Howard.
Some tenants have missed days of work in order to apartment-hunt. Others have taken advantage of friends’ generosity. Davis has moved four times — along with his infant, Leo. After spending a year accumulating “baby stuff,” he watched it all get destroyed in one evening. Generous friends have donated clothing and toys, but there is nowhere to store it.
“Everything is in giant limbo,” Davis said. But the friendship he has built with the other tenants in the aftermath of the fire has been the silver lining. “I want Leo to grow up around these people,” he said.
Repairs could take more than a year
The fire at the Chandler was one of two in Berkeley that night. Twelve minutes after the 2449 Dwight fire was called in, the Berkeley Fire Department responded to a fire at 811 Carleton St. at a complex of workspaces. Later that week, there was an oven fire in a residential building and two separate fires at the Mandarin Garden restaurant at 2025 Shattuck Ave.
The department currently has only one investigator and he has been busy, said interim Fire Chief Avery Webb. The department has not determined the exact cause of the fire in the Chandler building, but it appears to have been accidental. It started in an apartment on the fourth floor and spread to the attic.
One person had to be carried out of the burning building and treated at a hospital, but was released later Sunday evening. Two cats died in the fire.
The storefront level of the Chandler building along Telegraph houses Bleecker Bistro, Gifts of Tara, Reprint Mint, and the Lhasa Karnak Herb Company, all of which have reopened.
Tenants may not be able to move back in for over a year, Hoff said. He said there have been obstacles to getting tenants access to clear out their belongings and to moving forward with repairs. He said it is unclear how long it will take to bring the building up to code and how involved the city will be with oversight.
“We’re trying our best to get the tenants in there,” he said. “Ultimately we’re both going to get new electricity. The building will be modern, it will have fire sprinklers. At our expense we’re probably going to update the heating and plumbing.”
From now on, Hoff said, he will strongly encourage his tenants to buy renters insurance.
A fundraising campaign to help the displaced Chandler Way tenants can be found on You Caring.
The footage below shot from above the Chandler building shows some of the damage caused by the fire and the firefighters who contained it:
[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that the city staff member who handles relocation was out of the office immediately after the fire. The story has been updated to include additional information about relocation payments.]
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