Displaced tenants, pictured here  in front of the Chandler building, and their landlord are asking Berkeley to require rebuilt fire-damaged buildings to be brought up to safety code. From left: John Howard, Kimn Neilson and Owen Hill. Photo, taken this week, by Natalie Orenstein
Displaced tenants, pictured here  in front of the Chandler building, and their landlord are asking Berkeley to require rebuilt fire-damaged buildings to be brought up to safety code. From left: John Howard, Kimn Neilson and Owen Hill. Photo, taken this week, by Natalie Orenstein

If the couple enjoying the sunset on the roof had not seen smoke shooting out of a vent, the fire in the Chandler building in Berkeley in 2015 could have been a bigger tragedy.

The blaze began in a top unit of the four-story building at 2449 Dwight Way at Telegraph Avenue, and went up through the ceiling to the attic. Pressurized smoke apparently quickly spread through the attic and traveled down through the walls before some tenants realized what was happening.

Two years later, smoke damage is still visible all the way down to second-floor apartments on the opposite side of the building from the burned unit.

Nowadays, new buildings don’t have those open attics, and walls have “fire blocking” that prevents smoke from traveling between floors, said Greg Hoff, the property owner. As he embarks on rebuilding the 1940s-era Chandler building, Hoff would like to bring it up to modern fire safety standards, in hopes of preventing a repeat of the devastating event. He assumed he would have no issue doing so. He has $2 million in code compliance insurance for that exact purpose.

But Berkeley does not have the policies that would allow Hoff to access that $2 million. The city law does not always require buildings that are damaged, but not destroyed, by a fire to make code-compliant safety upgrades. The law only requires the buildings to be repaired to their previous state.

Since the upgrades are not required, Hoff’s insurance company will not release the $2 million, a catch Hoff and his former tenants find frustrating.

“I could rebuild a really nice, safe building, and have the money to do it,” but only if city policy requires the insurance to pay up, Hoff said.  “Who wouldn’t be in favor of an insurance company investing money in Berkeley?”

Streaks of water damage, from firefighter hoses, on smoke-stained walls inside the Chandler building in Berkeley. Photo, taken this week, by Natalie Orenstein

Many other cities, including Oakland, have passed ordinances requiring property owners to bring fire-damaged portions of buildings up to code, or to do upgrades on the whole structure if a certain percentage of units are damaged.

Hoff and his displaced tenants have formed an unusual alliance to advocate for a similar ordinance in Berkeley. Their city councilman, Kriss Worthington, whose district has experienced multiple residential fires in recent years, including the massive one that destroyed the Sequoia Apartments, has worked closely with the group and brought the issue to the council this fall.

“In light of the recent disasters in the North Bay, and the growing threat of climate-induced wildfires, it is prudent that Berkeley follow the lead of our fellow cities to protect building occupants and Berkeley residents from hazard,” Worthington wrote in the Nov. 14 item. It passed on the consent calendar.

Now the Chandler group is imploring the city to act quickly. Worthington said the effort is underway.

Units far away from the blaze also sustained damage because pressurized smoke was able to travel through the walls and seep out. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“I’m very frustrated that it’s taken so long, but I’m going to focus on the positive,” the councilman said. He has begun working with Berkeley’s new Acting Fire Chief Dave Brannigan, he said, who has “already put more time and energy into looking at it… that makes me optimistic.” Brannigan did not respond to a request for comment.

When the item came up at the council meeting, no council members indicated that they had any objections to a new ordinance. Part of the process, Worthington said, is determining whether a new policy would have to go through the Planning Department or if it could simply be added to the fire code.

There could be concerns that a code compliance ordinance could prolong an already-arduous rebuilding process, or that landlords would have to pay out of pocket. Worthington said he has encountered other property owners in the same position as Hoff, however.

“We’ve heard from other landlords that their insurance policies cover a whole bunch of money, way beyond what they end up getting out,” he said.

Hoff said he has an unusually large code compliance policy, but suggested an ordinance could require upgrades only if they are covered.

Hoff said he will not personally benefit from the upgrades, as the building is rent-controlled. But he predicts stronger fire safety features — like connected smoke alarm systems and sprinklers — will eventually be required in all buildings. He would rather give the bill to the insurance company right now than wait until he has to pay himself.

Earlier this week, Hoff walked through the Chandler building, pointing a flashlight at spots where smoke had seeped out of the walls and settled onto now pitch-black floors and in crawlspaces. Due the to extent of the damage, everything will have to be stripped, which will turn the whole building into a hazardous site, since an inspection turned up asbestos in the insulation.

The timeline of those repairs will depend in large part on when Han’s Bistro, on the ground floor of the Chandler, shutters. Hoff is currently working out legal issues with the restaurant. The other commercial tenants have either moved or closed.

Meanwhile, people have repeatedly found ways to enter the boarded-up building and squat in the smoke-damaged units, leaving clothing and books, along with piles of syringes and empty beer cans, scattered around.

Squatters have settled into some units and have returned after getting kicked out, according to the owner. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Smoke that came in through the walls settled onto the floors of some units, as thick as black paint. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For Hoff, whose Evans Property Company owns hundreds of units in Berkeley, the fire “was eye-opening — the amount of damage that can happen. That’s why I’ve been on this crusade.”

He said he is trying to do right by his tenants.

“I have to sleep at night,” he said. “If you think about it, I have a building full of people in Berkeley who’ve lived there 30 years. People moving into the Parker, they get to live in a fully safe building. You guys are actually favoring gentrifiers — I never thought I’d be able to tell the Berkeley City Council that.”

Besides, he has no interest in another brush with tragedy.

“I really want to impress upon people how close we came to somebody dying,” Hoff said.

The Chandler has a long history on “the Ave”

Early in the evening of Nov. 22, 2015, a few days before Thanksgiving, an electrical fire started in the apartment of a Chandler tenant who had physical disabilities. It caught onto his books and shot up to the attic.

Meanwhile, two other tenants were on the roof, breaking building rules to watch the sunset.

Eventually, they “saw smoke pouring out of an attic vent,” said Hoff, recounting what he heard about the events of that night. They knew their neighbor had disabilities, so they rushed down to help him, and found him struggling to get out of the burning apartment, where his walker had gotten stuck in the doorway. He was carried out just in time and taken to the hospital. The other 30 or so tenants, including an infant, ended up safe as well. But they lost two cats, cherished possessions and, temporarily at least, the place some had called home for decades.

Formerly owned by the late co-founder of Moe’s Books, Barbara Moscowitz, the Chandler has long housed artists, writers and other creatives, including multiple current Moe’s and Amoeba employees. Many tenants whose whole lives have taken place on Telegraph (or “the Ave”) could not imagine living anywhere else.

“Sometimes you call it ‘the Chandler’ and sometimes you just call it ‘the building,’” said tenant Kimn Neilson. “We really had this incredible community.”

Neilson had lived at the Chandler since 1996, but had friends in the building even before that. She recalled how a big bench in the lobby had functioned as a meeting spot and a place to drop off, or pick up, unwanted items. It was sort of a free “flea market” Hoff said, and even he took advantage of it once or twice. Neilson relocated to another building owned by Hoff’s company after the fire.

The Chandler at 2449 Dwight Way at Telegraph: Owner Hoff says he will not need to change the exterior of the building when he renovates. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The Chandler at 2449 Dwight Way at Telegraph: Owner Hoff says he will not need to change the exterior of the building when he renovates. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“There’s a solid core of people,” agreed tenant Owen Hill, a Moe’s employee who has moved to Piedmont. But it wasn’t only long-timers and Berkeley bohemians living in the Chandler.

“The flow of grad students was really fun. It was affordable housing for grad students,” Hill said.

In some ways, the Chandler community has grown even stronger since the fire. In 2015, some tenants talked to Berkeleyside about how they had bonded while advocating for themselves amid confusion over what kind of relocation assistance they were entitled to. Now they all keep in touch through a Google group and the occasional group picnic. They have been there for each other as they cope with loss.

“It was a full-time job for almost a year,” Hill said. “There’s apartment-hunting, there’s our own insurance, there’s ‘Where I am going to store this stuff?’ I would get home from the bookstore and catalog the books that had burned, for insurance.”

Many tenants are eager to move back, and for some, it is not only a question of whether they are able to return to the Chandler, but whether they will be displaced again.

“We’re all kind of hanging on by our toes, trying to stay in the Bay Area,” said John Howard, a Chandler tenant and the building’s manager. The tenants are all receiving monthly rental assistance from Hoff, but only the differential between their old rent and the city’s rental ceiling, which is based on rent-controlled rates and does not cover much of what’s on the market.

In the unit where the fire started, landlord Greg Hoff points to the attic, where the flames shot up. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

When fires tore through the North Bay and Southern California this year, wiping out whole neighborhoods, Chandler tenants were transported back to the trauma of 2015. Hill said he took out the cat carriers just in case.

“With high density, places can just go,” he said. “There is a real argument for rebuilding with a lot of safety features.”

Neilson unscrewed the screens on her windows as soon as she moved into her new place. She said she understands the real possibility of fire and the importance of prevention.

“It’s about people dying or not. It’s not bureaucracy or something boring,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...