The Tenants' Friend 

ACORN's Tenants United, an effort to help low-income renters stand up for their rights,is fighting with Oakland landlords on a variety of fronts. They aren't subtle, but they get attention.

In early May, Raul Cernas noticed that cockroaches — big ones — were parading along the floorboards of his 26th Avenue Fruitvale apartment. "It was getting out of control," Cernas said. What's more, he discovered that tenants in other apartments owned by the same company suffered not only from a similar infestation of cockroaches, but also a plague of pigeons, mice, and rats. Cernas said they complained, but that on-site managers and the owner of the three buildings were unresponsive to their requests for pest control, maintenance, and increased security.

So Cernas said he felt compelled to organize. So he and his fellow tenants formed a site-specific chapter of the renters' action group Tenants United to collectively confront owner Dan Lieberman and his Horizon Management Group. They demanded that attention be paid to their living environments.

Six months later, the dispute remains unresolved. But the campaign highlights the increasingly high-profile efforts of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to give tenants, particularly undocumented tenants, a way to take action on their housing concerns. ACORN first began taking on causes such as affordable housing, fair wage issues, tenants' rights, and voter registration in Arkansas in 1970. Since then, the organization has swelled to include 350,000 member families organized in more than 850 neighborhood chapters around the Americas. "The goal of ACORN is to win power for low- and moderate-income people to have more control over what happens in their neighborhoods," said local organizer Anthony Panarese.

In Oakland, among many other campaigns, ACORN has formed a renters' association, ACORN Tenants United, which functions something like a union local. "We do a lot of door knocking to see what issues tenants are concerned about," said organizer Bill Chorneau, a long-time ACORN member who was instrumental in launching Tenants United. "What we found was that tenants were very upset about landlords not maintaining property, letting security get lax, infestations, that sort of thing. And in most cases, we found that tenants were either unanswered in their requests for change or were afraid to confront their landlords for fear of retaliatory evictions — especially if they were undocumented."

Seven years later, ACORN Tenants United is embroiled in a multi-front battle with landlords. Among the group's successes, Panarese points to action taken by tenants at Oakland's Peppertree Apartments at 1500 27th Avenue. After a "pretty fierce" struggle that included a media blitz, letter writing, and intervention by the office of Oakland City Attorney John Russo, Panarese said renters were able to pressure owner Adel Ali to make $75,000 in repairs and pay a financial settlement ranging from $4,000 to $11,000 to eleven residents.

Meanwhile, in Cernas' campaign, tenants were able to convince Lieberman to meet with them in August. For his part, the landlord claims he was unaware of the seriousness of the issues, admitting "there were some bad managers." He said he was amenable to the tenants' requests and that he has followed through on everything Cernas and others have requested, providing a part-time security guard, intensive pest control beginning in late August, and greater responsiveness to maintenance requests. When asked if he'd live in these apartments himself, he paused, then said, "Yes, absolutely."

Although Lieberman complained that Tenants United's "us-versus-them" mentality tended to "foster differences rather than cooperation," Chorneau and Cernas said the landlord's prior sluggishness is precisely what made their action necessary. "This is working, but we're not finished yet," Cernas said. Chorneau added, "It gives tenants a chance to negotiate as a group — it gives them the power of a union."

Tenants United faces much greater challenges than those at the apartments owned by Lieberman, who at least made some effort to address his tenants' complaints. For example, the Ambertree Apartments at 2555 Foothill Boulevard.

Tenants there, who organized in January 2006, shortly after owner Liem Le bought the building, demanded that he deal with horrific rodent infestation. Panarese said one tenant reported that a rat crawled over his child while he slept. Elsewhere, Panarese said roaches were nestling into tenants' cabinets and food, and residents caught three to four rats a week in places such as the broilers of their stoves. Mold infestation got so bad that one tenant's daughter was hospitalized for breathing problems, and a dead animal surfaced in the courtyard's seemingly sewage-filled swimming pool. And resident and Tenants United organizer Heraclio Herrera said that aside from a multitude of other maintenance problems — heaters dead by wintertime and rarely if ever repaired in timely fashion, water pouring from one apartment into the one below whenever a tenant flushed his toilet — security on the premises deteriorated as well. Prostitutes and drug dealers did business in the parking lot. Panarese said residents finally contacted ACORN after a man was shot just outside the door of a resident and ACORN member.

Le did not return phone calls for comment, but his reputation clearly precedes him. When a reporter contacted Joe Kelly, Le's former real estate agent, he said, "Why do you want to talk to him? Did he do something illegal again?" According to Bay City News Service, Le is being sued by Oakland for maintaining a public nuisance, violating state health and safety codes, and not complying with the city's municipal code and rent-control ordinance.

After negotiations with Le over the course of an entire year, tenants managed to get Le to sign agreements promising that he would address their demands. "He did nothing to follow through," Panarese said. Now, he added, ACORN also is suing Le, based on a breach of the warranty of habitability at Ambertree.

The confrontation with Le, like most of ACORN's efforts, remains a battle-in-progress. And what constitutes success is clearly relative. Cernas and other organizers say ACORN's tactics are the only way they believe they can get owners' attention. To Lieberman, meanwhile, Tenants United's approach is overly confrontational. Polarization, he said, is not conducive to communication.

But as for Lieberman's Fruitvale apartments on 26th Avenue, ACORN organizer Carlos Uribe says that despite the landlord's compliance in the two weeks immediately following the August meeting, there has been "little or no response" to repair orders recently. "Members are currently discussing to see if another action is necessary," he said.


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