Dora Quintero, 97, in her first-floor apartment at Redwood Gardens senior housing in Berkeley. The apartment flooded in August, and Quintero hasn’t back since. Submitted photo Credit: Kate Rauch

It’s been a rough couple of months for Dora Quintero, a 97-year old resident of Redwood Gardens, a low-income senior housing complex in Berkeley.

In August, the sink and toilet of her first-floor apartment overflowed, flooding her bedroom — and not for the first time. Redwood Gardens, located on UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr campus, has a history of intermittent, recurring plumbing problems, mainly affecting the first floor, several residents said. The flooding happens even when residents are out of town.  

Residents, whose rents are subsidized, are grateful for landing a coveted spot in a quiet campus setting, and some are hesitant to speak out. But the surprise of sink back-ups and slick puddles is part of the territory in some units, they said, describing whack-a-mole management fixes through the years.

Quintero’s daughter Patty Casetta, who helps manage her mother’s affairs, says she’s had enough. 

Her mother’s one-bedroom unit has flooded three previous times in recent years, said Casetta, who lives in El Sobrante. This time, she said, working with Redwood Gardens’ management company, FPI, which took over at the start of the year, has been a stressful obstacle course.

Quintero, who suffers from depression and early dementia, hasn’t been home since the August flooding, and is staying with her daughter.

After months of letters, faxes, calls and emails with Redwood Gardens management, Casetta said she was told last week her mother can move to a new unit at the complex — something the family has pushed for. But the apartment offered is also on the first floor, the level prone to plumbing problems, which Casetta said isn’t acceptable. It’s also next door to a problem tenant with a history of disturbing residents, according to Casetta and other residents. 

“My mother has lived in Redwood Gardens for nearly 20 years and she has never experienced the kind of mistreatment she is currently experiencing from the new management,” Casetta said.

Casetta has filed complaints against Redwood Gardens with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the city of Berkeley. She’s also consulting a lawyer. 

Protected senior housing

Redwood Gardens, a low-income senior housing complex on UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr campus. Credit: Kate Darby Rauch Credit: Kate Rauch

A Spanish-style stucco complex located at 2951 Derby St., the 169-unit Redwood Gardens offers HUD-subsidized affordable housing for seniors ages 62 and over and people with disabilities.

Built in 1922, with additions and renovations since, the tile-roofed Mediterranean complex was once part of the California School for Deaf and Blind, along with most of the Clark Kerr Campus. When the school moved to Fremont in 1980, the campus became part of the university in a 1982 court settlement with the city, which also wanted the land. Clark Kerr is on the National Register of Historic Places

As part of the settlement agreement, the site must offer low-income senior housing.

Redwood Gardens, which operated for years as a nonprofit co-op, has had a few ownership changes since then. Most recently, in January, it was purchased by a private developer, Pennant Housing Group, and a nonprofit partner, Foundation Housing.

By partnering with a nonprofit, Pennant qualifies for federal tax credits under HUD. In exchange, the owners operate the facility as low-income housing, with the federal government kicking in to subsidize rents.

To oversee Redwood Gardens, the new owners partnered with FPI, a Folsom-based multi-unit management company with a portfolio of over 150,000 units in 16 states. 

Patty Casetta is trying to get her mother, Dora Quintero, 97, home to a Redwood Gardens apartment that’s not prone to plumbing problems. Submitted photo Credit: Kate Rauch

Casetta said after her mother’s apartment flooded, she brought Quintero to stay with her. They met with Redwood Gardens resident manager, Dominique Robinson-Ward, to plan her mom’s return.

Thus began weeks of correspondence between Quintero’s family and Redwood Gardens management to get Casetta’s mother home. Much of the correspondence was shared with Berkeleyside. 

It’s a tale of forms and more forms. Confusing instructions. HUD regulations. Miscommunication and frustration. With time passing all the while. 

The family asked for a few things of Redwood Gardens, including moving Quintero to a unit that wasn’t prone to flooding, prorated rent based on the actual days she was able to live at Redwood Gardens, and reimbursement for items damaged by the flooding. 

Robinson-Ward was initially amenable to these requests, Casetta said. She told the family that a third-floor unit was available, which she would show them. But that offer never materialized, and Quintero learned she was denied a “management initiated transfer.” 

At one point, Quintero was asked to move the furniture in her apartment so a maintenance crew could do repairs. Casetta started the process, but stopped. Since her mother hadn’t caused the damage, she felt she shouldn’t be responsible for moving furniture for repairs.

She was also told that repairing her mom’s damaged apartment was a lengthy process, with replacement of flooring and carpets.

Casetta was advised by Robinson-Ward that the only way her mother could get moved was by filing a HUD “reasonable accommodation” request. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, landlords must offer reasonable accommodation to residents with disabilities, which is defined as a unit that allows them “equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

HUD is required to adhere to federal nondiscrimination laws, which define a person with a disability as anyone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, anyone with a record of such impairment or anyone who is regarded as having such an impairment.

Subsidized senior affordable housing in Berkeley, like most places, has long waiting lists, and follows a first-come, first-served basis. Tenants eligible for reasonable accommodation can get priority.

Quintero’s first reasonable accommodation form was completed incorrectly. A third-party disability verification form was requested. The first of these was returned incorrectly. The second was emailed from Quintero’s UCSF doctor to Redwood Gardens, but reportedly never received. It was emailed again, and not received. It was faxed to a number provided by Redwood Gardens, which turned out not to work. Management provided a new fax number, and this time the form went through. 

On Oct. 16 the reasonable accommodation was approved. But Casetta is still waiting for word that her mom can move into an apartment not prone to problems, she said.

We do not hear of anything right away. It has always been a week or more before they respond to any communication,” she said. “That has been the pattern.”

In a Sept. 15 email to Casetta, however, Robinson-Ward said, “I completely understand your frustration and concern and my intention has always been to help to the best of my ability …” She went on to say it was up to Quintero to submit required documentation.

Berkeleyside has left Robinson-Ward several voice messages, but hasn’t heard back. 

Berkeleyside reached out to FPI Management. Kyle Lehman, reputation and social media manager for the company said, “Ownership is committed to providing decent, safe, and sanitary housing to the community.”

Lehman wouldn’t provide any further comments.

According to Ed Cabrera, San Francisco-based HUD public affairs officer, Redwood Gardens has a history of complaints, but he couldn’t provide details. He also said:

“All units in the property are currently habitable, but if any of the above hypothetical situations you pose [flooding] happened the tenant would be temporarily relocated until the unit was made habitable or another habitable unit was provided.”

Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board, which oversees the city’s rent control laws, doesn’t have jurisdiction over HUD properties, according to Leah Simon-Weisberg, chair of the board and a housing attorney.

History of flooding

Several residents of Redwood Gardens shared their experiences with plumbing problems in their apartments, going back around 10 years. They described overflowing kitchen and bathroom sinks, as well as toilets, in first-floor apartments. Floors coated in water, including running under doors. 

Incidents happened without warning, every few years, and sometimes in a cluster. Not all units are affected.

Management would clean and dry units afterwards, sometimes needing more pushing than other times, residents said. They’ve been told some of the problems are linked to plumbing use on upper floors, including of garbage disposals. 

“I had four floods, on the first floor,” said Teresa Baca, 73, an 8-year resident of Redwood Gardens. They occurred between roughly 2015 and 2018, she said.

“The third time was really bad,” Baca said, saying it caused mold in her closet. She said she called the city, which told her to tell Redwood Gardens management they needed to use equipment to soak up moisture.

“That’s when they put the dehumidifier in – it caught like 4-5 gallons of water,” Baca said. “They did replace the carpet and painted stuff that’s supposed to kill mold in the closet. A couple of months later they sent someone to check for mold; they said it was all clear.”

Earlier this year her sinks backed up but didn’t overflow, she said, and maintenance workers snaked the pipes clear.

Audrey Hansen, 100, a first-floor resident said she had sewage backups a few times, the last one six or seven years ago. “It was kind of a mess but they cleaned it up,” she said. She believes some of the building’s plumbing issues have been fixed, but, still, Hansen said, “we sort of hold our breath when we leave and hope that nothing happens.”

While a couple of Redwood Gardens residents were willing to use their names for this story, others weren’t. Some said they did not want to come across as complainers; others feared losing their place at the complex.

All the residents contacted said they feel lucky to have a place at Redwood Gardens, which they consider one of the nicest senior affordable housing options in Berkeley.This is probably the best,” Hansen said. “It’s in a nice neighborhood. Back from the street. Close to the bus.”

They don’t like living with the threat of flood, but they would hate to go back to the drawing board, they said.  

Tenant activism is part of Redwood Gardens history, which some residents said makes them proud. In the early 1990s, a complex renovation stirred tenant complaints.

“It’s not easy to get into Redwood Gardens,” said one resident, who asked for anonymity.  “Once they open the waiting list, they have a huge number of applicants, and they have a raffle. I was lucky. The only time I’ve been lucky in my life.”

She has endured plumbing problems, she said.

“We have an issue here. My sink gets clogged quite often, it’s happened 6-7 times, perhaps more. It gets clogged and starts flooding.” When the kitchen sink floods, so does the bathroom sink, she said, explaining they share pipes. She said a maintenance person told her there was a problem with the plumbing’s design. “This is what I was told,” she said.

The fix isn’t minor, she said, which makes her worry about future tenant displacement for major repairs. “It’s not cosmetic. It’s not about changing the paint on the walls or the carpet.”

New management brings concerns

Redwood Gardens was purchased by a private developer, Pennant Housing Group, and a nonprofit partner, Foundation Housing, in January. The management company FPI was hired to oversee the home. Credit: Kate Darby Rauch

Most of the residents said they are concerned about the new team running their home — Pennant, Foundation and FPI. The team has reduced management staff, ending weekend front desk hours, and is telling residents not to disturb staff on weekends except for emergencies, residents said.

“They’re really cutting everybody off,” Baca said. We’re always getting leaflets and things around what we’re not supposed to do.”

But Simon-Weisberg, the rent board chair, said that what residents are reporting isn’t surprising, given that the corporate owners and managers have a track record of running lean. “In the old days [senior affordable housing] was run by mission-driven organizations and now we are seeing all of these private actors and there is no one there who cares anymore,” she said. 

Private housing corporations are purchasing senior affordable housing with an eye on profits, Simon-Weisberg said. “There is a big move for corporate actors to look at senior housing as a place to invest because it’s stable rent, people die and the rents can go up,” she said. 

In most HUD subsidized affordable housing properties, rent is 30% of a tenant’s monthly adjusted income. HUD pays owners for the remainder of their unit’s fair market rent. 

An internet search of FPI Management finds numerous lawsuits against the company by tenants and employees. 

In May of this year, for example, HUD reached a voluntary compliance agreement with FPI management over claims of “national origin discrimination.” The management company was charged with violating fair housing and civil rights laws at a Sacramento affordable housing complex by not providing translation for Vietnamese speaking tenants, and retaliating against an employee who spoke out.

Yelp reviews of the company average two stars, with comments from tenants in FPI properties complaining about maintenance, cleanliness and paperwork.

Quintero’s situation may be a test for Redwood Garden’s new owners and managers in Berkeley. The ownership group recently took over Harriet Tubman Terrace subsidized senior housing on Adeline Street. FPI manages four other apartment complexes in Berkeley according to its website, including one other low-income property. Redwood Gardens is its only subsidized housing for seniors and people with disabilities.

In limbo for two months, her mom is emotionally fragile, Casetta said. 

Casetta just wants Redwood Gardens to move her mother into an apartment that’s not prone to problems — a place that feels like home. “We are still waiting,” she said.

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...