Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Alameda Superior Court Judge: Landlord Acting "Unbelievably Callous" in Chinatown SRO Harassment Case

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Aug 16, 2016 at 6:16 PM

524 8th Street. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • 524 8th Street.
Residents of an Oakland Chinatown SRO won some relief in court today against their landlord who they accuse of engaging in a campaign of harassment to drive them out of their homes.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman ordered the landlord to immediately restore certain services that had been removed, and to quickly repair bathrooms that have been completely demolished and left inoperable for six months.

"This problem is gonna get fixed, and fixed quickly," Seligman told the landlord's attorney about the bathrooms. "It's completely intolerable and unacceptable that the bathrooms have not been operating since last February."

About a dozen of the building's residents, all Chinese immigrants who speak little or no English, sat in the courtroom today watching the proceedings.

"This can't happen. What is in this record is simply not tolerable," Seligman said about the landlord's actions.

The building, a three-story residential hotel located at 524 8th Street, was purchased last year by the Green Group, LP, an investment company. James Kilpatrick, who helped Green Group purchase the building, and who owns a five percent stake in the company, told the San Francisco Business Times that he and his business partners plan to upgrade the 38-unit SRO and rent it out to students and tech workers.

Tenants in the building alleged that Kilpatrick and his colleagues have engaged in a campaign of harassment to drive them out. The tenants sued in June with help from the Oakland City Attorney, the Asian Law Caucus, and attorney Robert Salinas.

According to court records, after purchasing the building, the Green Group issued new rules that barred the building's residents from keeping personal belongings in the kitchen and other common areas, as many had traditionally done. Then on February 8, the beginning of the Chinese New Year Festival, the landlord's property manager went through the building and ripped down scrolls, tangerines, and other decorations tenants had placed in their doorways to celebrate the holiday.

Then the landlord's contractor demolished four shared bathrooms that served many of the building's residents. The contractor also tore out a communal kitchen, leaving only three bathrooms and one kitchen for all of the building's residents. In statements filed with the court, residents said the demolitions have made the building close to uninhabitable.

The landlord also installed surveillance cameras in the kitchen and other common areas within the building.

Salinas told Judge Seligman that it would have been a reasonable security measure to install surveillance cameras at the building's entrance or outside, but the landlord instead placed the cameras inside the building to watch the tenants. Salinas said the residents have a right to privacy in their homes, and they shouldn't have to worry that they're being watched by their landlord while they're in their kitchen, or walking to their bathroom.

The landlord also offered $2,000 to residents if they would waive their rights and move out of the building, according to court records.

Kate Morrow, an attorney representing the Green Group, told the judge that the cameras were not being constantly monitored by the landlord.

She also said the six month-long delay in repairing the demolished bathrooms was the fault of the city's planning and building department, which isn't allowing the landlord to proceed with restoration work.

The judge didn't appear to buy the landlord's arguments. 

"It is unbelievably callous in the court's view that any landlord would have twenty-five units down to one bathroom," said Seligman, who added that he will personally visit the building to ensure the bathrooms and other services are quickly restored.

Another hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday to make a final ruling in the case.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Oakland Privacy Commission Holds Hearing on 'Stingray' Cell Phone Surveillance Devices

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Aug 12, 2016 at 12:59 PM

Oakland's privacy commission held its second ever meeting last night, and on the agenda was a first: a public presentation by a police officer to a civilian oversight body about the use of cell-site simulators.

"Oakland has had a Stingray since 2006 and this is the first time there's been a public presentation about this," said Brian Hofer, the chair of the privacy commission.

In a brief presentation, Oakland Police Deputy Chief Darren Allison told the commissioners about the capabilities and uses of several cell-site simulator devices used by the Alameda County District Attorney and the Oakland police.

Cell site simulators, known commonly as Stingrays, trick cell phones into thinking they're cellular towers. As a result, cell phones send data to the Stingray. This data can include everything from a phone's signal strength to actual text messages and audio of phone calls.

DC Allison said, however, that the Stingrays currently used by OPD haven't had the capability to intercept text messages, phone calls, or other communications content. Instead, according to Allison, OPD's use of cell-site simulators has been restricted to gathering three things: the unique identifying numbers of cell phones in a given area; the signal strength of a phone; and the approximate compass direction of the phone in relation to the Stingray. The Stingray device used by OPD is housed in an unmarked vehicle that can be quickly deployed around the city.

OPD uses Stingrays to track down fugitives, said Allison, but only after getting an arrest warrant. In some cases, the Stingray can be used to track a suspect without a warrant, explained Allison, but there must be exigent circumstances. He added that the Stingray can also be used in settings like a natural disaster to locate people beneath rubble, or to find a kidnapped person.

Matt Cagle of the ACLU Northern California.
  • Matt Cagle of the ACLU Northern California.
Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California was also on hand to talk about potential threats to civil liberties caused by the proliferation of Stingrays among US police agencies. According to Cagle, police forces across the country obtained Stingrays and used them for years in secret. Their existence was only disclosed by attorneys, researchers, and civil rights activists who pried information from local and state governments.

Cagle said one major problem with Stingrays is that they can be used in a dragnet fashion to gather information on the whereabouts and associations of individuals, and that this could be in violation of constitutional rights.

Hofer said that the Stingray currently in use by OPD and the District Attorney was configured by its manufacturer Harris Corporation so that it cannot intercept the content of communications. But several other commissions questioned whether it's possible to verify this.

Commissioner Lou Katz.
  • Commissioner Lou Katz.
Commissioner Lou Katz asked Allison whether the police would be willing to share the device's "specs sheet" with the privacy commission to show exactly what capabilities are built into it.

Allison responded that OPD does not hold these records and can't turn them over because they're the property of Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley. O'Malley's office took the lead on obtaining the newest model cell-site simulator, a Hailstorm, last year.

"It should be noted then that we are unable to verify the actual capabilities," said Commissioner Katz.

The commission is tasked with drafting use policies for the Stingray that will be forwarded to the city council. The item will be taken up again next month by the commission.

Correction: the original version of this story identified Darren Allison's rank as captain. Allson is a deputy chief.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Big Soda Is Spending Big Money Against Oakland Sugary Beverage Tax Proposal

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, Aug 10, 2016 at 3:28 PM

Makers of soda pop, iced tea, energy drinks, and other beverages that medical researchers have linked to diabetes and tooth decay have already spent a massive sum of money in their effort to convince Oakland voters to reject a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. The proposed tax of one cent per fluid ounce will appear on the November ballot and would raise funds for public-health programs.

The American Beverage Association, a business lobbying group representing sugar-sweetened beverage manufacturers such as Coca-Cola and Pepsico, has already shelled out $747,267 on campaign consultants and advertisements against the proposed Oakland tax, according to recently disclosed campaign-finance records.

Supporters of the Oakland tax measure, mostly dentists, doctors and public officials, have only spent $23,297 — a mere 3 percent of what "Big Soda" has put up.

"The sugar-sweetened beverage tax campaign is grassroots," said Oakland Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington, a supporter of the measure. The councilmember said she's confident that, despite already being outspent 32 to 1 by the beverage industry, Oakland voters will approve the tax.

"But what we’re up against is a campaign that’s willing to lie," Campbell Washington said about the industry's massive ad blitz. She explained that the soft-drink industry is "bombarding" Oakland voters with deceptive mail, television, and social-media ads that claim the tax will increase the prices of eggs, bread, and milk. "They’re flat out lying about what this is," said Campbell Washington.

  • Screenshot from a commercial produced by the "No Oakland Grocery Tax" campaign.

One recent commercial by the beverage industry features Temur Kwajha, the owner of the Marwa Market, a halal grocery store in North Oakland. Kwajha tells viewers that "the last thing Oakland needs is a tax on groceries."

In the video, Kwajha scoops walnuts for customers, cooks bread, and points to containers of pistachio nuts — all food items that wouldn't be taxed if the measure passes. The commercial doesn't depict any sugar-sweetened beverages, the actual items that would be taxed.

Another commercial features a worker at the Long Hing Supermarket in Oakland Chinatown. Foods depicted in the ad include fish and fresh vegetables — none of which would be taxed if the measure passes. No sugar-sweetened beverages are shown in the 30-second clip.

All $600,000 raised this year to oppose the Oakland sugar-sweetened beverage tax has been contributed by the American Beverage Association California PAC. According to state records, just five companies are funding the ABA's California PAC: Coca Cola, Pepsico, Dr. Pepper, Red Bull, and Sunny Delight.

"Big Soda" is fighting a similar proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in San Francisco that will be voted on this November. The industry has already spent $631,935 to defeat the tax measure there.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Toxic Vapors Discovered Inside Oakland School

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Aug 5, 2016 at 6:47 AM

Students, faculty, and staff at an Oakland school may have been exposed to a harmful airborne chemical over the past decade.

According to state records, soil and groundwater samples recently collected from underneath the Oakland Charter High School and Oakland Charter Academy campuses, located in the same set of buildings at 345 and 301 12th Street, showed "elevated concentrations" of trichloroethylene (TCE) and other poisonous compounds. Air samples taken inside the school's buildings revealed vapors of TCE at levels exceeding safety limits set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. TCE is known to cause cancer and developmental and neurological problems, according to the EPA.

Officials with the Amethod Charter Schools organization, which runs both the middle school and high school currently located on the site, told the Express they were unaware of the pollution until May of this year. Amethod Charter Schools leases the buildings — former auto repair shops and garages — from the Richard S. Cochran and Susan L. Cochran Family Trust.

Merrill Schwartz, an attorney for the Cochrans, wrote in an email to the Express that his clients were unaware of the airborne toxins until May 8 of this year. In cooperation with state environmental officials, they've taken steps to remove the chemicals from the air inside the buildings.

The presence of TCE in the soil and air was discovered in May when an environmental consultant for The Martin Group, a real estate developer that plans to build hundreds of apartments and retail stores on the site, had soil, soil gas, and groundwater samples collected as part of their due diligence process for purchasing the land and buildings. Air samples taken from inside the buildings showed concentrations of 10 to 200 micrograms per cubic meter of TCE. Exposure to concentrations higher than 2 micrograms over long periods of time can be unsafe, according to the EPA.

TCE is a solvent used in degreasing mechanical parts. It's unclear how it ended up buried in the soil, but it may have been deposited when the buildings housed auto repair shops. DTSC has identified other potential contaminants at the site, including petroleum and toxaphene.

Jorge Moreno, a public information officer with DTSC, said that state officials have taken action to prevent vapors from moving from the subsurface into the school’s buildings. According to Moreno, portable air filtering units were installed in the classrooms and other school areas on May 18. The filters extract toxic compounds from indoor air. Cracks and other openings in the floors and structure that might be pathways for vapors were sealed off. Most recently, on July 11, a soil vapor extraction system was installed in an effort to remove toxic fumes from the shallow subsurface beneath the school's garage. The safety measures have been paid for by the property's current owners, the Cochran trust.

"The owners have spent more than $250,000 in less than 90 days to fix a problem they didn't know they had," Schwartz, the attorney for the Cochran's wrote. "If there's anything we can all agree on, it is ensuring the health and safety of school aged children in Oakland."

A test on May 24 showed that TCE concentrations inside the school had been reduced to safe levels, according to DTSC.

But the buildings have been used for over a decade as a school campus. The site was originally leased by the Lighthouse Community Charter High School in the mid-2000s. According to the 2004 petition establishing the Lighthouse charter school, the former auto repair shop and parking garage was "an ideal setting" for the campus.

Inside the parking garage, part of the same building currently housing the Amethod middle and high schools.
  • Inside the parking garage, part of the same building currently housing the Amethod middle and high schools.
Half of the buildings on the sprawling city block are still operated as a parking garage. Approximately 520 students attended classes at the site between 2005 and 2009 while it was operated as a Lighthouse school, according to records maintained by OUSD. Phone calls and emails to Lighthouse school officials were not immediately returned.

After Lighthouse moved off the site, the Amethod Charter Schools leased the property to house the Oakland Charter High School. In 2011 Amethod opened its Oakland Charter Academy middle school at the site also.

Valerie Goode, a spokesperson for the Oakland Unified School District, told the Express in an email that when a charter school acquires a facility for use as a campus, they must submit a form called a Material Revision Application, which among other things, asks whether there are any issues with toxic contamination.

Amethod records filed in 2011 with the Oakland Unified School District, including a Material Revision Application, described the facilities as being up to state and local building codes and in accordance with the state's education code. Amethod agreed to test the sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers and fire alarms. Charter school records maintained by OUSD do not, however, indicate if the school district or any charter operators ever tested for toxic chemicals in the soil and air at the 12th Street property.

Goode wrote that If a charter school is located on a site owned by the school district, then the site will have already undergone environment review before being used as a school. But for a charter school on a privately owned site, the charter school operator would be responsible for obtaining legal clearance and conducting an environmental review.

DTSC officials told the Express that they think the air in the building doesn’t currently pose a risk now that mitigation systems have been installed. But they said the site may need to be cleaned up if it’s going to be turned into housing.

The Martin Group plans on purchasing the site, demolishing the buildings, and constructing a 272-unit apartment building with ground floor retail. At the Oakland Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday, representatives of The Martin Group sparred with Chinatown activists who are demanding that the developer include more community benefits in their project. One of the requests from neighborhood activists was that the Amethod schools be allowed to stay in the buildings until next year so that the education of several hundred students isn’t disrupted by a move.

Jorge Lopez, the CEO of Amethod Charter Schools, told the planning commission that he doesn’t want to have to move the schools by September, but he hasn’t been able to strike a deal with Cochran for a lease extension yet.

As to whether staying on the campus could pose a danger to students and staff, Lopez told the Express that "DTSC has since mitigated the air quality issues."

"It’s going to continue being active as a school for a while," said Harold Duke, the project manager for DTSC overseeing the site's cleanup. "So we’ll continue to do sampling to verify air concentrations are below levels."

Tom Booze, a toxicologist with the DTSC, told the Express he couldn’t speculate as to whether students who attended the campus in previous years were exposed to unsafe levels of TCE and other contaminants. "We don't know what people might have been exposed to, or for how long, so we can’t speculate," he said.

The Martin Group’s proposal faces opposition also from a group called Oakland Residents for Responsible Development, an unincorporated association of labor unions and neighbors who say they are concerned that construction could expose workers and residents to buried toxins and dangerous vapors. Laura Horton, an attorney representing the association, sent a letter to the planning commission on Tuesday asking that a new environmental study be carried out for The Martin Group's project because of the discovery of the contamination.

"We are really concerned about the high levels of contamination," Horton told the Express. "There hasn’t been enough disclosure about mitigation and cleanup plans and whether this site is even appropriate for residential building."

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Critics Say 'Troubling' New California Bill Would Keep Even More Police Body-Camera Footage Secret

by Nick Miller
Wed, Aug 3, 2016 at 4:25 PM

A proposed new law would prevent the public from seeing any body-camera video footage recorded by an officer who is killed in the line of duty  — unless an immediate family member of the officer approves its release.

If passed, Assembly Bill 2611 would be the first and only body-camera-access law ever.

More …

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Updated: Fearing Displacement, Oakland Chinatown Advocates Demand Community Benefits from Developer

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Aug 2, 2016 at 4:48 PM

The W12 Project's larger building would consist of 339 units of all market-rate housing. - OAKLAND PLANNING COMMISSION
  • Oakland Planning Commission
  • The W12 Project's larger building would consist of 339 units of all market-rate housing.
Oakland is booming, and Chinatown real estate holds premium value due to its proximity to BART, Lake Merritt, and the hot downtown-office market.

But many Chinatown residents are worried about gentrification and displacement. Will the boom drive up rents? Will Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Asian residents — and their small businesses — get pushed out to make room for more affluent newcomers? Or can new development be leveraged to prevent displacement?

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