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Oakland Residents Displaced From Building Under Renovation File Lawsuit

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- With its lofts and turn of the century Victorians, West Oakland has become home to many Bay Area artists and musicians. But as gentrification transforms the neighborhood, those residents are getting pushed out.

"It's kind of a quintessentially West Oakland kind of space," said resident Tim Teichgraeber. He says just last year, the huge warehouse across the street used to be a vibrant place, filled with artists and musicians.

Now it sits empty. "What the city wound up doing was coming in, red tagging it, and evicting 100-plus people," said Teichgraeber.

ALSO READ: Oakland Building Residents Feel Pressured To Move Amid Renovation

One of them was Gregg Hart, a theater soundman who rented a spacious live-work space in the building. "We were never given clear information, just a notice on the door," he said.

The notice was posted in early 2015, about a new management company - called 1919 Bayside - run by Danny Haber. Hart says tenants soon found out about Haber's reputation: In San Francisco he's taken over dilapidated buildings and turned them into co-ops for young professionals. "He was what the neighbor referred to as a rental hit man," said Hart.

Hart fears the same thing will happen at 1919 Market Street. The property is less than a mile from Uber's planned new downtown Oakland office building, a selling point for new tech workers. But it needs a lot of work.

A tenant's YouTube video shows a leaking roof, unsafe wiring and unsanitary conditions. Tenants have now filed a lawsuit, claiming Haber's management company, the prior management company and the owner intentionally refused to make repairs as a way to get the tenants out.

"They certainly would have been faced with a choice: either spend a significant amount of resources in bringing the building up to code or do nothing and rely on the red-tagging process to get everyone out at once," said Hart's attorney Andrew Serros.

Just months after Haber's company took over here, the city gave notice that the building was unsafe to occupy and would be red-tagged, effectively displacing the tenants. "There were areas that were unsafe," said Rachel Flynn, Oakland's Planning and Building Department director. She says red-tagging the building wasn't designed to help the developer get people out.

"I think our inspectors work incredibly hard to protect tenants, and in this case it was a tenant who complained," said Flynn. "Once we know about it, then it becomes part of our responsibility."

Meanwhile, tenants started receiving proposed "agreements" offering money to temporarily move out, with a promise that anyone who signed could come back once the remodel was completed. But Hart noticed something: "The last line was you can't sue anybody if you sign this."

He later learned there was no need to sign anything. An Oakland ordinance requires landlords doing major renovations to provide relocation money to tenants - and a right to return. "I was being led by the nose to sign the agreement that would hold him harmless. Then I realized, I know what it feels like to be a patsy," said Hart.

Haber's attorney Ed Singer wrote up the agreement. "I always encourage my clients to try and get a release whenever they do any transaction. The fact that we are being sued says I probably gave my client good advice," said Singer.

Singer said the agreement offered tenants something extra: a one-year lease at the same rent they were paying before. As for letting conditions get worse to speed up the red-tagging process: "It was never the plan that the building would be red tagged and vacated. At the end of the day this is going to create housing where none legally existed before," said Singer.

Demolition is already underway at 1919 Market Street. "I don't think anyone has done anything for the people who were evicted from that property, and I think it's a lousy outcome," said Teichgraeber.

Sixty-three units at 1919 Market Street will be rented out at market rate once the building is finished. That's almost twice as many units as there were before. The average apartment rent in Oakland is currently just under $3,000.

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