It had been six weeks since Kevin Ellis got the letter telling him to get out, but he was staying put.
Many of his neighbors had already moved along.
Ellis was under the weather. His legs were achy, the after-effect of a decades-old workplace injury. He trudged down the rain-slicked sidewalk outside of Creekview Condominiums Building H and counted the newly-vacant apartments.
“She’s gone. I know the guy with the motorcycle’s gone. The people next to me are gone,” Ellis said.
Ellis and his wife have lived in their two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of Building H since May 2012. Theirs is one of 30 units in the building, which is part of a larger condo complex that sits on the Richmond/El Sobrante border.
The Los Angeles-based real estate developer that owns Creekview has said that Building H needs to be vacated and gutted due to a moisture problem. But Ellis and several others felt blindsided by the order, perplexed by descriptions of the problem and ill prepared to move. They’ve hired a tenants’ rights attorney and hunkered down, setting up a showdown between the company and the low-income tenants.
The only official communication about the situation was a memo issued on Oct. 14 and addressed to all Building H residents. “Water Intrusion,” the subject line read, and a terse paragraph that followed ordered tenants out due to health dangers and the need to do major renovations.
The letter was signed by “The Management” and gave a return address for PMI Management LLC in Beverly Hills.
Though it urged immediate action, it didn’t describe anything more about the moisture issue, the associated health hazard, or which tenants might be at risk. It didn’t go into detail about the type of testing planned, which units would be affected, or whether relocations would be temporary or permanent. It made no acknowledgement of the renters’ leases, many of which would need to be broken.
“All they’re saying is that there’s destructive testing that needs to be done and everyone needs to leave,” said Luke Vanderdrift, an attorney representing Ellis and several of his neighbors. “To require a whole building to vacate is a pretty drastic measure.”
Though at least two tenants in Building H have found mold in their apartments, Ellis has not.
“There’s no reason for him to vacate. There’s no habitability issue with him,” Vanderdrift said.
According to Vanderdrift, a building can only be condemned by a government agency, such as a planning department. A landlord is not at liberty to deem a property uninhabitable.
A Concord-based attorney representing PMI, Kenneth Brans, declined to elaborate on the situation, citing pending litigation.
“[Vanderdrift] has threatened a lawsuit for the three resident units that he represents in a building of 30,” Brans said. “I don’t litigate matters in the public arena. The allegations, many of them that he’s made, are disputed.”
Creekview Condominiums may have slipped through the cracks of building inspectors due to its ambiguous location on El Portal Drive, which begins in the City of Richmond and runs into unincorporated county territory.
Last month, after being alerted to the situation in Building H, Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin issued a statement promising stricter oversight from the city.
“This appears to me to be a situation of discrimination on the part of private property management against low-income working families,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said that Creekview Condominiums falls under Richmond jurisdiction but said that since the property’s owners have always claimed an El Sobrante address, it was never included in Richmond’s rental database.
She vowed to correct the omission and order a code enforcement inspection immediately.
“Attempting to move out these 30 households, many who have long-term leases, is totally unprincipled,” McLaughlin said. “The fact is that the property management should have been keeping the property maintained all along.”
Jimmy Ellis (no relation to Kevin Ellis), a Building H tenant who vacated his apartment last month, said that he complained to management several times over the course of a year about black mold his daughter spotted in their bathroom.
When they finally addressed the problem in September, shortly after Ellis had renewed his lease for a third time, PMI employees placed a heater in his bathroom and sealed the door shut for three weeks, he said.
His 4-year-old granddaughter then developed respiratory problems and began vomiting.
“My grandbaby went to the hospital three times during that time because, all of a sudden, she couldn’t stop coughing,” Ellis said.
Ellis said he requested that a property manager test the mold for potential health threats, but an examination was never performed.
Initially, PMI agents said they would relocate Ellis and his daughter and granddaughter to another unit in the complex while they treated the problem, but the new unit never materialized.
Then, according to Ellis, he was abruptly told his water was going to be shut off and that his apartment would be red-tagged if he didn’t leave. PMI offered him a small sum of money to put towards moving expenses.
Fearful that their belongings would be confiscated, Ellis’ family took their stuff and left. They had to split up so that relatives could accommodate them while they looked for other options.
Ellis hustled to find a new apartment, crashing with his brother, his mother, and his grandmother in the meantime. Finally he found a spot in Pinole.
“I felt so violated,” Ellis said. “I’m paying $200 more for a smaller place, in a place where I don’t want to be. I was pressed for time. I had to find something quick.”
According to Vanderdrift, the tenants that remain in Building H are hamstrung by disability and low incomes.
“It’s the middle of the holiday season. There’s a massive housing crunch. People aren’t in a position to just up and leave,” Vanderdrift said. “The ones who can leave, have.”
Kevin Ellis worries that he can’t afford a higher rent on his fixed income. He also hasn’t been able to do any heavy lifting since a 9,000 lb. slab of black granite crushed his knees nearly 20 years ago.
His ’91 Camaro, in need of replacement, isn’t roomy enough to move big objects. It sits in the Building H’s near empty parking lot.
At the front gate near Building A, BMWs come and go. Ellis speculated that PMI might be trying clear out the tenants in Building H to make way for higher paying renters.
“It’s almost like I stay in a ghost town now,” said Ellis, pointing to an outdoor swimming pool he’d heard is about to undergo a remodel.
“They think ‘oh he’ll get out of here sooner or later,’” Ellis said. “I don’t see why I should get a bum’s rush.”