Fire and Fortune 

A year after a fire killed four people at a San Pablo Avenue building for low-income people, many of the former residents are still suffering. The owners of the building? Not so much.

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If the individual units had kitchen appliances (some had been removed and residents of those units used a common kitchen), they too were from the 1992 rehabilitation. All the faucets in bathroom sinks required replacement and some bathrooms were growing mildew. The inspection found evidence of cockroaches, rats, and mice.

On Sept. 19, 2016, Lowery sent a letter to Keith Kim, Jabari Herbert, and Gibson McElhaney saying he would withhold rent for three months until repairs were made to the building. He wrote that he was concerned about broken windows, doors, tubs, and toilets, among other issues. "To date we have paid $360,000 to your company over the last 36 months and to date you have yet to fix any items listed above," he wrote. He said he had paid $21,600 in upkeep for the building over the previous three years.

click to enlarge After filing for bankruptcy in 2011, building co-owner Keith Kim lived in this 8,000-square-foot house at 622 Highland Ave. in Piedmont. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Photo by Lance Yamamoto
  • After filing for bankruptcy in 2011, building co-owner Keith Kim lived in this 8,000-square-foot house at 622 Highland Ave. in Piedmont.

Residents continued to file complaints with the city, including one who said their unit had no hot water and another who said their sink was missing a drain pipe, leading to mold growth and causing the floor to start caving in from water damage. A city inspector checking on a resident's complaint of no hot water found a smoke alarm was missing.

A month later, on Oct. 21, Dignity Housing West made an offer to purchase the building for $5.5 million. A copy of the proposal was shared with city officials and obtained by the Express through a public records request. It's not clear how Keith Kim responded. But in December, he tried to evict Lowery from the building, starting a fight that would last until it burned.

The night of Dec. 2, 2016, firefighters responded to the massive blaze at the Ghost Ship, a warehouse that had been converted into a living and events space. The cluttered interior made it almost impossible for people upstairs to escape and 36 people who had been attending a concert there that night were trapped inside and killed. It was the deadliest fire in California since The Great 1906 Earthquake.

The fallout from the Ghost Ship tragedy included a heightened focus on substandard living spaces, particularly in artists' warehouses. Mayor Libby Schaaf and other Oakland elected officials struggled to strike a balance of preventing fires and making buildings safer while pledging to prevent widespread evictions. Nonetheless, there were reports of evictions at warehouses throughout the city as property owners became fearful that their neglected building would become the next Ghost Ship.

Later that month, residents at 2551 San Pablo Ave. started receiving notices from Dignity Housing West informing them that the building was under new management and that those who had a lease with Urojas would need to get a new lease.

One of the men putting up the notices was identified as Monsa Nitoto. A woman called the police after she said she was assaulted by Nitoto. A day later, she obtained a temporary restraining order against him.

In her statement to obtain the restraining order, Brenda Corley wrote that five men were in the building passing out the fliers saying that residents should pay their rent to them instead of to Lowery. At one point, Nitoto allegedly told her to move out of the hallway or he would knock her down. He then rammed her into the wall with his shoulder, according to her statement. Corley was taken by ambulance to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland where she was given a knee brace and crutches and treated for a sore neck and shoulder.

Oakland police logs confirm that officers were called to the building for an assault that day but Nitoto was never charged. Nitoto, who also is named in the litigation regarding the fire, did not respond to a request for an interview.

On Jan. 8, 2017, the Oakland Fire Department responded to 2551 San Pablo for a medical issue. Fire Capt. Richard Chew was alarmed by the building's condition and wrote an email to Battalion Chief Geoff Hunter that the department should consider shutting it down. "Walking our probationary members throughout the building revealed open piles of garbage on the third floor," Chew wrote. "We also discovered that the pull station had been activated and not reset (there was no indication of an alarm). We also observed a door to the fire escape padlocked closed."

Oakland fire Capt. Chris Landry returned the next day and found even more violations but was unable to contact a manager or representative of the building.

Meanwhile, Lowery had retained a lawyer, James Cook, from the law offices of Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, to help him fight attempts to evict him from the building. Keith Kim issued a three-day notice for Urojas to pay $118,000 in back rent or vacate the premises on Jan. 14. Cook sent a letter to Keith Kim two days later demanding that he stop trying to undermine Urojas or harass tenants of the building.

By mid-February, city officials had become involved in the increasingly bitter dispute between Keith Kim and Lowery. Gibson McElhaney sought to mediate. Her chief of staff, Zac Wald, had been organizing an ad hoc group called the "2551 San Pablo Project Team" consisting of city and county officials as well as representatives of nonprofits, who were planning a clean-up day for the building. Gibson McElhaney hosted face-to-face meetings with Keith Kim, Lowery, and others. Urojas was in the process of releasing portions of the building back to Keith Kim and moving tenants around to different units.



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