Home, Suite Home 

After buying defective units from Wareham Development, some displaced condo-dwellers have spent nearly three years in an Emeryville hotel. It's no vacation.

When Donna Dennis swung her legs over the side of her bed, planted her feet on the carpet, and took a few steps on New Year's Day 2004 — which just happened to be her birthday — she knew something was dreadfully awry.

Dennis had moved into her Emeryville condo a few months earlier. It was the first home she'd ever owned, and she still couldn't quite believe she'd scored such a sweet place. At just under six hundred square feet, her studio was the smallest unit in the Terraces at EmeryStation, a development adjacent to the Amtrak station. Still, it suited her perfectly, and with the assistance of the city's first-time homebuyer program, she'd managed to afford it. She loved her high ceilings, the deck that stretched beyond her sliding glass door, and the enormous windows that ushered in ample sunlight and sweeping views.

The love affair proved short-lived.

"I thought, 'Why are my feet wet?'" she recalls in an interview last month. "I heard this: Schwwwek! Like stepping on wet mud, or wet grass." It had rained the night before, and she quickly deduced that the water had seeped in beneath her sliding deck door. So Dennis borrowed a rug vacuum and spent her 36th birthday sucking ten gallons of water from a six-by-sixteen-foot patch of carpet.

Within a few days a subcontractor for Wareham Development, which built the complex, came knocking in response to her service request. He cut through a wall, located the leak — he said — and plugged it up. "You can see the caulk there," notes Dennis, pointing to a pasty scar winding up her tawny-hued stucco wall.

Six weeks later, the bad weather returned. "It was wind, rain, just blowing, blowing, blowing," Dennis recalls. She came home from work to find the same area soaked again. When she took a cautious step, water sprung up as though she'd hopped into a puddle: "As I was sucking up the water, again, I'm saying to myself, 'Okay, there's something seriously wrong here.'"

When Dennis bought the brand-new unit the previous July, she hadn't thought to ask about leaks. But she knew damp carpets beget mold, so she sent another, more urgent complaint. This time, help never arrived, and so she dealt with the water herself until the rainy season dwindled. "It was around this time that I began to hear what I would call mutterings that there was something going on," she says.

Something was indeed going on. In the one-bedroom unit overhead, Juanita Carroll Young's family had discovered water dripping down the inside of their bedroom window. A wall heater shorted out. The kitchen sink sprang a leak, and black mold chewed through the particleboard cabinet underneath. They followed protocol and alerted Wareham. Next door to the family, Craig Winsor and Jerry Bannister also complained of leaking windows.

None of these things got fixed. But come spring, various consultants and experts hired by Wareham — and eventually those hired by the building's Home Owners Association, which represents the condo owners — tromped through the building. They quizzed residents, searched for leaks, sampled mold spores, and tried to pinpoint the problem. Wareham paid for some minor fixes, but founder and president Richard Robbins decided it was time to bring in Clarendon, the company's primary insurer. Clarendon determined that 20 of the building's 101 units were uninhabitable.

"There is physical evidence that this building leaked before it was sold, at least in one unit," HOA president Cynthia Truelove says. "And there may be other evidence that demonstrates more broadly that this building leaked, and that there might have been some presumption of some level of repairs that did not hold."

Starting in July 2004, the affected residents were moved into the Woodfin Suites Hotel, a stone's throw across the train tracks from the Terraces. They were told their room and board would be covered, and were assured they'd be home by Thanksgiving. In the meantime, their condos underwent mold remediation. Workers stripped some units down to the metal framing. They hacked away carpet to reveal stretches of concrete. They hung thick plastic sheeting to cordon off potentially toxic areas and donned HAZMAT gear as they tried to locate and eradicate the mold.

By October, the displaced owners were getting antsy to return home when a letter from Clarendon's lawyer landed in their mailboxes back at the Terraces. The cause of the leaks had been determined, it explained, but repairs could not begin until spring 2005. In short, the owners were screwed. They could neither sell their uninhabitable units — who'd buy? — nor move back in.

That was more than two years ago. At one point in spring 2005, the insurer offered to move the Woodfin refugees into the nearby Courtyards at 65th Street apartment complex. There were a few takers, but others stayed put. Moving meant losing the weekly food allowance the insurer was doling out. And some, like Dennis, didn't want to move because they figured it wouldn't be much longer before their condos were fixed.

They were wrong. Renovations have remained mostly at a standstill as the Home Owners Association and insurers do battle over how to fix the building and how much it should cost. Nine Terraces households are still at the Woodfin, according to Wareham's lawyers. Others have scattered to parts unknown — Clarendon has dealt with the owners individually, and neither the HOA nor the other condo owners knew how the arrangements were made, or where their former neighbors ended up. "The way it was presented to us, it was everybody had to move to the Courtyards," Young says. "They didn't tell us we could move into an apartment of our choosing."

As soon as things got sketchy back in the fall of 2004, the HOA hired Jeffrey Cereghino, a lawyer with Berding & Weil, an Alamo firm that specializes in real-estate law and construction defects. A first settlement conference took place in late 2005, followed by two equally fruitless sessions.

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