Raising the Rent at 138 Monte Cresta 

The landlord says he's just trying to recover his costs. The tenants say he's violating the spirit of rent control. Their dispute may affect all of Oakland.

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By mid-December 2007, Kolakowski moved into a quieter environment. "I need to focus on healing and getting my health stabilized and the environment created in the building since Cox took over does not lend itself to peace and restfulness," she said in a January interview. On March 29, she succumbed to her cancer.

Bob Fearman remembers when the average meal along Piedmont Avenue cost five bucks. It was 1987, the year the 59-year-old registered nurse moved into his apartment. Ever since then, Fearman has noticed the slow creep of gentrification in his neighborhood. Mom-and-pop outfits have been priced out by rising rents, he said. "It's getting younger and more up-scale by the looks of Piedmont Avenue," he said. "It's keeping up with the young monied."

Fearman was attracted to 138 Monte Cresta by former property manager Joe Oberg — a man he described as "the salt of the earth." Fearman ran into Oberg while apartment hunting and instantly liked him and his building. Oberg — who traded services for his rent and had to relocate because he can't afford the rent today — was a real people person, Fearman said. He was always on the tenants' side, and would speak his mind to Tony Lufrano when he had to.

While fond of the former property manager, Fearman had nothing but disdain for both of his landlords. "Tony had his arrogant side," he said. "He wanted things the way he wanted them. He was slick and would sidestep issues as long as he didn't have to get too involved." Fearman said Cox is more sophisticated. "He doesn't seem to care about the people side of what he is doing," he said. "It's a business venture for him, to physically improve 138, and the lives in there only seem incidental."

Fearman was shocked by the rent increase for his $812 one-bedroom apartment. But Cox' methods were even worse, he complained. "He hires crews for whatever job he wants done, painting, landscaping — tearing out nearly all the vegetation around the place that has grown in the last thirty to forty years — and has them do whatever he wants," he said. "He doesn't ask for tenant input about what we care, feel, or think about what is done; it's his fiefdom, and he's the lord and master, beholden to no one. It doesn't matter that many of us have lived our lives here for up to 35 or more years."

The landlord's practices encouraged Fearman and other tenants to organize. Last fall and early winter, they held weekly strategy meetings for four months. One started a Yahoo group for building tenants. At the "yard sale," tenants gathered signatures for a petition they submitted to Mayor Ronald Dellums calling for city regulations to prevent such rent increases. They spoke with Councilwoman Jane Brunner, did interviews on KPFA, and sought press coverage in the Tribune. "We were very active," Fearman said.

It is that activism that paved their way to moderate success. Although Fearman said the victory over Cox before the city was "the big one," there were earlier successes as well. "We had inspectors come out during various phases when we thought he was doing work on the cheap," Fearman said. "They made him put up netting during the painting phase when all sorts of crap, suspected of containing lead, was falling on the ground when they scraped the building." Still, Fearman was hesitant to speak of victory. "We've delayed his progress," he said. "We've made it more costly for him. He hasn't gotten the first six months of his rent increase, and may not get any this year."

Still, Fearman admitted with despair that he found it necessary to move to Jack London Square. "I lost my home and community of twenty years to get away from the near-daily disturbances I was experiencing," he said. "I'm living as a stranger in a new environment that is nice but doesn't have that warm, familiar feeling that comes from shaping your environment over the course of years." Fearman is not sure he has made the right decision. "I've told people 'Ask me in two years if I made the right choice'."

He continues to hope the tenants will prevail upon appeal. The struggle is really about one simple thing, he said. "The Oakland rent ordinance is gutless if a new owner can pass on whatever costs he wants to tenants."

Amy Pierre moved into 138 Monte Cresta in 1996, but even after more than a decade, she remained one of the newer tenants. "Some people have been here most of their lives," she noted. Her original attraction to the place was aesthetic. "I liked the fact that it's an older building with old style built-in cabinets and detailing," she said.

Although Pierre he loves 138 Monte Cresta, she hasn't ever had much love for its owners. Lufrano, she said, was "slippery" and did only "the bare minimum of work needed to keep the place going." For instance, she said, "When the apartment above me had a toilet that overflowed and leaked gross toilet water into my closet, ruining some of my things, he didn't want to reimburse me for anything. Actually, he never did." In general, she said, his attention to the business side of things trumped all other concerns. "He seemed condescending and seemed to avoid dealing with us whenever possible."

Still, whatever she felt about Lufrano hardly compares to her outrage toward Cox. "He got an expensive loan that wasn't at fair market value with the intent of passing the cost onto the tenants," Pierre said. "I feel that the debt-service ordinance is questionable in the first place, but he completely abused the idea of it and tried to use it to his advantage."

Although she was ecstatic about the tenants' victory at the rent board, she noted that the rent increase nonetheless scared off a number of tenants. "It has not felt like a home from the minute Cox bought the building, and some people felt that leaving was a better way for them to handle things than staying and fighting for their rights," Pierre said. After all, everyone who stayed and fought will be responsible for $381 a month in unpaid back rent through August 2007 if Cox ultimately prevails.

Like most tenants, Pierre doesn't think their battle is unique to 138 Monte Cresta. "There is an increase of apartment buildings being turned into condos and other instances where tenants are being turned out of their homes due to the debt-service increase." But Pierre doesn't plan to be a pushover: "Although this is a very, very difficult situation I will continue to stand up for my rights as a tenant," she said. "I am not going to give up because I believe what Cox is doing is wrong, and hopefully our efforts will help others in this situation in Oakland."

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