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“They treat us badly because we are seniors … because we are poor?” said Sylvia Pinkston, a Harriet Tubman Terrace resident who is partially blind. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Tenants at South Berkeley’s Harriet Tubman Terrace apartments have had their living conditions upended after ownership of the building changed, and a host of renovations began in the fall of 2021.

The six-story, 90-unit affordable senior housing at 2870 Adeline St. is owned by the Maryland-based nonprofit Foundation Housing and managed by Stockton-based FPI Management.

Foundation Housing purchased the apartments in October 2021 and hired the new management company before beginning extensive renovations of kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. The elderly tenants, who have lived there for over a decade, say the renovations were low quality and poorly designed, caused drafts and heating issues during a frigid winter, displaced some residents from ADA-accessible units, and, at worst, exposed them to asbestos and allergens.

The residents organized through an existing tenant counsel group and have met over a dozen times in the past year to advocate for changes.

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Tenants at Harriet Tubman Terrace in South Berkeley gather to talk about their living situation on Nov. 18, 2022. The neighbors, who say they have been mistreated by the building’s new management, have organized over a dozen tenants meetings and have talked in front of the City Council. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
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Elaine Williams-Bloom, 80, visits the apartment of a neighbor who is unhappy with the renovations done to his apartment. Williams Bloom, a Harriet Tubman resident for over a decade, started organizing her neighbors in the spring of 2022 to demand answers from management. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Elaine Williams-Bloom, 80, is still sifting through mountains of paperwork to push for changes at the apartment where she’s lived for 13 years. She said the building was “wonderful” before the current ownership and management change, though it’s been through several transitions over the last decade.

“I’ve put up with a lot because I want to be here. I don’t want to move,” Williams-Bloom said. “We always try to have that gallows humor — where we say, ‘What else can they do to us?'” 

She moved out of her apartment into a “hospitality suite” when her one-bedroom was renovated over the winter. She said the management company damaged her antique furniture, and her apartment was worse when she returned.

A doorknob fell off in her hand, her oven was installed with dimensions too small for the space and she wakes up with a stuffy nose daily because of dust and bits of her popcorn ceiling falling. She’s disabled and is especially concerned about sturdiness because she has to lean on things in her home.

“I have a couple of friends who are still here, the location is good, the weather is Berkeley and we have a few friends that we can call up and say, ‘Can you believe we have this gallows humor?'” Williams-Bloom said.

Her son has asked her if she wants to move out, but she said she and others in the building, a range of low-income tenants from different ethnic backgrounds, many with disabilities, are “survivors.”

The tenants spoke jointly at a City Council meeting in November, where the city allocated $100,000 for a tenant advocate at the property. Tenants also created a video showing the subpar renovations at various units in the building.

Darinxoso “Dar” Oyamasela (lower right corner), president of the Harriet Tubman Terrace tenants union, speaks about the issues at a City Council meeting on Nov. 3, 2022. Credit: Screenshot from City Council meeting streaming.

Darinxoso “Dar” Oyamasela, president of the Harriet Tubman tenants union who addressed the council, said the renovations violated “reasonable accommodations” required by state law under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes things like appropriate shower handles and allowing tenants to stay in an accessible unit.

“This is elder abuse, and the trauma from this abuse has affected all the tenants in the building,” Oyamasela said. “We have been made ill through this process — physically, psychologically and emotionally.”

Oyamasela said one of the tenants’ goals is to be compensated for the endless hours of advocacy and “abuse” due to poor living conditions. The problems began with renovations and built up over time, he said. Tenants have had to push for maintenance like a backed-up trash chute fodder for rats and fecal matter coming through sewage pipes.

At the council meeting, Housing Advisory Commission Chair Libby Lee-Egan said the tenant counselor would help the residents fill out forms and be a neutral intermediary between management. She said this model could also support residents at other senior homes in Berkeley. 

“Because the population at Harriet Tubman Terrace is overwhelmingly elderly, low-income and many are disabled, they are not as tech-savvy as some other tenants and are not very well-supported in the grievance process that the management has in place,” Lee-Egan said.

James Chang, chief of staff for South Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who visited tenants with Mayor Jesse Arreguín last summer, said the city hasn’t been able to hire someone for the position due to an extreme staffing backlog citywide.

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Maxine Donaldson talks with Sylvia Pinkston and Elaine Williams-Bloom in her apartment shortly after moving back in after renovations on Nov. 22, 2022. Donaldson returned to her studio apartment to find that her bathtub leaked sewer water after flushing the toilet. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
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Maxine Donaldson opens the door to her electric oven to warm her apartment. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Chang has been in extensive talks with the management company, especially regarding heating issues this winter, where radiators in dozens of units wouldn’t hit temperatures above 70 degrees. Tenants said Councilmember Kate Harrison has also been a key advocate in their support.

At the meeting, Bartlett said throughout his six-year tenure on the council, the Harriet Tubman Terrace has been an issue, including the firing of two management companies and a forced sale to Foundation Housing so the building wouldn’t become market rate.

“I was so hopeful that when this large organization came in with all their resources, that they would be different from previous owners and managers,” Bartlett said. “I remain hopeful, but I’m losing my hopefulness every time I hear more of these stories.”

FPI management declined to comment on this story, and Foundation Housing didn’t respond to a request for comment. In emails with Chang and the tenants, representatives with FPI and Foundation Housing maintain that their renovations have been up to code and that they’ve provided tenants with fire-safe space heaters to offset any ongoing issues with the built-in radiators.

At the tenants’ request through the city’s Housing Advisory Commission, a city inspection last fall also confirmed that the renovations were up to code.

Cassandra Palanza, a Foundation Housing representative who visited Harriet Tubman Terrace from Maryland in February, reviewed the 50-year-old lobby heater and found it was “well beyond its useful life” and Foundation Housing would be replacing it. The management company and owner urged residents to submit complaints through appropriate channels with FPI.

At the Nov. 3 meeting, Palanza responded to questioning from Bartlett and Harrison and said that the company made several changes after tenants announced their grievances last summer, including pest control and changing their tenant relocation company during renovations.

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The Harriet Tubman Terrace Apartments at 2870 Adeline Street, a 90-unit affordable senior housing building in South Berkeley, was bought for $34 million in October 2021. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“Doing in-place renovations on a 100% project-based, Section-8, tax credit-allocated, bond-issued deal can be very difficult. This is not the first time we’ve had difficulties with relocation and tenants,” Palanza said, explaining that she’s committed to visiting Berkeley every month to oversee changes.

She said that construction would be completed by the end of December 2022, but as of March, renovations are ongoing. Tenants said major work like flooring “is not even close to finished.”

Foundation Housing also owns Redwood Gardens senior housing on the Clark Kerr campus, which it purchased shortly before Harriet Tubman Terrace in January 2021. Residents there also spoke out about flooding, building problems after the ownership change and a lack of agency regarding building changes.

Harriet Tubman Terrace and Redwood Gardens are affordable senior properties supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rather than city programs like the Housing Trust Fund. That means they’re subject to federal law and oversight, and the city’s primary method of advocating for tenants is through inspections and additional funding.

FPI Management owns and manages thousands of properties around the Bay Area and the country, including a 110-unit property in Oakland that flooded during the New Year storms. In February, the city of Oakland agreed to pay up to $2 million for ongoing hotel costs to support Coliseum Connections residents after they complained about management’s handling and lack of support from the building’s owner, UrbanCore Development. 

FPI has also been named in ongoing lawsuits alleging the country’s largest rental companies of gouging prices.

At Harriet Tubman Terrace, many residents are entering March unpacking and moving back into their apartments after leaving for renovations.

As they push through the process, they say having a voice is critical, as is being compensated for the time they’ve spent organizing documents, drafting emails and grievance forms and arranging ongoing meetings to make sure tenant information and resources aren’t lost between owners, especially with a building that has changed hands twice in the last five years.

“They promised us from the beginning that we would have a say. We’ve never had a say in anything,” Oyamasela said.

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“‘What is the big deal?'” Sylvia Pinkston, a Harriet Tubman tenant, said management told her after she complained about not having counter space in her new kitchen to prepare food. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
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Pinkston sits in her studio apartment at Harriet Tubman Terrace, Nov. 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Correction: FPI Management does not own Coliseum Connections, it manages the building. The owner is UrbanCore Development.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...