Donna Dennis and Juanita Carroll Young, like owners of half of the twenty uninhabitable units at the Terraces, are part of Emeryville's affordable-housing initiative known as the Below Market Rate (BMR) program. By law, developers proposing complexes with more than thirty units have to make 20 percent available to low- and moderate-income buyers. "When I visit my unit, I kind of go, 'Wow, this was it! This is the first-ever real estate that I've bought,'" says Young, who is in her early forties. "I finally bought something, and it would be nice to have it back in livable condition."
Some BMR owners wonder why the city hasn't stepped in to help, perhaps by transferring them to equivalent units in Emeryville. City manager Patrick O'Keefe says Emeryville doesn't have the authority to make such a swap. The developer, not the city, bears responsibility for transferring people, says Councilman John Fricke. "It's the developer that signed the agreement with the city, and is not providing these units," he says. "The whole point of the program is to encourage home ownership, but that means these units need to be marketable in case something changes. And they're not, of course. So then these people are stuck. One avenue is that the city could buy them, but that wasn't part of the equation. That's something that has to be ironed out."
Rumors abound as to why so many of the BMR units were defective. They are supposed to be dispersed throughout the building, not clumped together as they are. Residents speculate that corners were cut during construction, hence the leaks. That the finishes weren't comparable with market-rate units rough, patchy concrete ceilings and cheaper appliances in the BMR units, for instance. And while market-rate owners park in a gated cage within the parking garage, BMR owners are assigned spots in a less-secure area.
Wareham lawyers say the company followed all guidelines, and call the correlation between "relocated" residents and BMR units "purely arbitrary." The standard finishes, it says, "were higher-grade finishes than ever previously offered at any other BMR units in Emeryville." When market-rate buyers expressed interest in a finished-plaster ceiling, Wareham says it decided to install them in all market-rate units and pass the cost along to the buyers. Because the company couldn't increase the price set for the BMR units, Wareham "bore the cost to provide a white painted finish to the concrete ceilings in those units."
City planning and building director Charles Bryant says Wareham's parking plan passed muster. "If the BMR spaces are not as desirable as the others, well, that's probably not right, but it's not addressed in our code," he says.
Fricke sees the discrepancies as problematic. "As a policymaker, my goal is for these units to be the same," he says. "Because the city government is putting up its money this is redevelopment agency money and that's going to the developer. I don't expect that the people who live in below-market-rate units will be marginalized."
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