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From Berkeley’s Streets to Oakland’s Slums

An Oakland slumlord is housing a formerly homeless Berkeley resident in a dilapidated building while collecting city and federal subsidies.

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Mike Zint looks up at a basketball-sized water bubble in his ceiling last week.
  • Mike Zint looks up at a basketball-sized water bubble in his ceiling last week.

Mike Zint used to be one of Berkeley’s chronically homeless. He’s also a well-known activist who spent the last half-decade protesting the city of Berkeley’s response to the homelessness crisis. So, in 2017 when Berkeley and its nonprofit homeless navigation center, the Hub, placed Zint in a permanent home, he became a high-profile success story. His transition off the streets into a studio apartment helped demonstrate that Berkeley’s program works.

“We put a lot of pressure on them,” Zint said in an interview. “They housed me.”

But last week, Zint was forced to move out of his apartment after gallons of foul, rust-colored water leaked through his roof during a rainstorm. Zint, who is disabled and has respiratory problems, collected the tainted liquid in buckets and emptied in his toilet before it flooded his kitchen. The air in his studio smelled humid and moldy.

“My tent never leaked for five years,” said Zint about the time he spent living on Berkeley’s streets. “I’m in more danger right now because of this roof leaking and the mold that’s probably in there.”

Zint said that he first noticed water marks on the ceiling indicating leakage in April 2017 when he moved into the deep East Oakland apartment. After a spring rainstorm, he documented water coming in through the roof and asked his landlord and the Hub to fix it.

“A guy came out once, walked on the roof,” said Zint, “but the rainy season was over and getting it fixed kind of vanished.”

In November, it started to leak again, worse this time. Again, he notified his landlord and the Hub, but he didn’t think either was moving fast enough, so Zint protested. He filmed rain dripping into his kitchen and he photographed a basketball-sized water bubble growing under his ceiling’s paint. He sent the pictures and videos to Berkeley city councilmembers and his case workers at the Hub. Zint also began publicly posting videos of the leaking roof to his Facebook page where he provided updates to his followers.

In response, the Hub moved him into a hotel room last Thursday. And his landlord, under pressure from the Hub and city of Berkeley, agreed to repair the roof.

But Zint’s experience raises questions about the quality of housing that formerly homeless people are being placed in as cities like Berkeley rush to address the shelter crisis. The incredible shortage of affordable housing units designed and priced for very low-income populations has forced nonprofit service providers and cities to increasingly rely on private landlords, some with checkered pasts of renting out substandard and dangerous housing.

In Zint’s case, his apartment is in a six-unit building owned by DODG Corporation, which is managed by another company, RentOak, LLC. Behind both companies is one of Oakland’s biggest landlords, the Singhs, a politically connected family that long-held a monopoly on the city’s taxicab industry.

Over the past several decades, Baljit Singh, his wife Surindar Mann, and their sons Harmit Mann and Dharminder Mann have acquired ownership of over 150 homes and apartment buildings throughout Oakland. At the same time, their tenants have complained of almost every imaginable problem. But according to city records, after building inspectors identify health hazards and code violations, the problems persist.

In just the past several years, inspectors have found mountains of trash infested with vermin outside of apartment buildings owned by the Singhs. Other buildings suffer from dangerously exposed wiring, sinking foundations, missing smoke detectors, water leaking through ceilings and walls, broken windows and locks, broken elevators, dangerous stairways with broken handrails, leaking plumbing, and mold and mildew.

At one downtown Oakland property owned by the Singhs, a city inspector verified in 2017 a disturbing list of problems: “Heater is inoperable. There is a hole in the ceiling. Mold throughout the unit. Oven shoots out fire even when it’s not on. Low water pressure. Windows don't function properly,” the inspector wrote in his notes.

At another rental property on 71st Avenue, county inspectors found in 2014 “standing water” under a home that was causing mold. “Health of child impacted,” the county inspectors wrote in a referral sent to city inspectors.

At a Singh-owned apartment building on International Boulevard near 99th Avenue, tenants complained in 2017 of accumulating trash and unsanitary conditions causing a “rodent infestation.” This year, tenants at the same property complained again to the city about “trash in the backyard causing rats and roaches,” as well as inoperable smoke detectors.

According to city records, tenants at about half of the properties owned by the Singhs have complained of unsanitary and substandard conditions over the past decade. City inspectors verified violations in many of the cases.

Water leaks in Zint's kitchen corroded his refrigerator.
  • Water leaks in Zint's kitchen corroded his refrigerator.

In Zint’s building, the roof has been leaking for at least three years. In 2015, tenants complained of dry rot in the ceiling that caused a hole to form, letting in water and pests. City inspectors wrote in reports that the building’s foundation might have shifted causing plumbing problems. In 2017, tenants again complaint of leaky roofs. Another complaint about the roof was lodged with the city in February 2018.

Zint said he complained directly to DODG and RentOak and to the Hub in April and again in November about his studio’s leaking roof. “A mouse fell out of a crack in the ceiling,” Zint said about one of the water-damaged areas that recently ruptured.

Aaron Hancock, an attorney for DODG Corporation, told the Express that the company usually buys distressed real estate that is already in bad shape and then “pours” money into the properties to improve them. DODG also attempts to address problems at their residential properties as soon as they arise or are brought to the attention of management by tenants, he said. DODG also recently hired a professional property manager, Michael Trang, and has made other changes.

Jim Huntley, a spokesperson for the Hub, said his organization does its best to inspect units and ensure landlords keep them up to code and that the Hub also tries to get problems fixed quickly when a tenant complains. “We inspected that unit,” Huntley said about Zint’s studio. “We’re not always able to get up on top of a roof and anticipate something’s going to leak.”

Zint pays the $1,500 a month in rent for his studio using a Shelter Plus Care voucher that is funded through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered by Alameda County with assistance from the Hub and city of Berkeley. The voucher covers $1,374 of the total, and Zint, who earns about $900 in income a month, pays the rest. DODG rents about a dozen other apartments to low-income tenants through the Shelter Plus Care program.

According to Huntley, Berkeley’s Hub was able to house about 63 people in 2016 through this program. Last year, the Hub housed another 93 people, and this year the number housed will be slightly lower. Many of these homeless people are placed in homes in the Central Valley due to the shortage of affordable housing in the East Bay, however. For those who stay in the East Bay, the quality of housing can be poorer due to the tight real estate market, as well as the older housing stock that’s common in cities like Berkeley and Oakland.

Berkeley’s “coordinated entry system” was set up in 2016 to serve about 1,000 homeless people living on the city’s streets with the goal of placing every individual into transitional or longterm homes. But because of the shortage of very-low income affordable housing, usually built and operated by nonprofits, navigation centers like Berkeley’s Hub increasingly have to rely on private landlords to house the homeless. While many landlords participating in these types of programs keep their properties in good shape, some don’t.

Zint insisted on staying near his community in Berkeley, but that meant it was more difficult to find a relatively affordable apartment in good shape. “At first, they tried to get me to move out to Antioch and Stockton,” he said.

“As you well know, we’re up against a difficult housing market where it’s hard to place clients,” Huntley said. “We’re scrambling to find landlords who will take this subsidy, and it places nonprofits such as the Hub in really difficult positions.”

Huntley said that because the Hub is a nonprofit service provider, it doesn’t have the power to compel landlords to fix problems. “If it’s an egregious code violation, it’s ultimately up to the city to enforce the law,” he said.

The city of Oakland has cracked down on the Singhs for several especially egregious cases of housing and building code violations, according to city of Oakland records. But even while Oakland’s Planning and Building Department has cited the Singhs for operating dangerous housing, the Singhs have also benefitted from public grants distributed by another city department.

According to city records, companies owned by the Singh family has received at least $254,000 through Oakland’s “Tenant and Façade Improvement Program” since 2009. In some cases, the Singhs have used this money to pay for renovations of properties where city building inspectors later found serious code violations.

For example, in 2009, the city provided the Singhs with $65,000 in subsidies to fix up one of their buildings located on Foothill Boulevard in Oakland’s Fairfax neighborhood. City records show that there have been five code enforcement cases at the property since 2013, with problems such as broken windows and cracked glass doors, exposed electrical wiring, and trash stored in unapproved bins on the sidewalk for weeks at a time. In September of this year, city inspectors found “holes in the walls, lighting issues, cracks in the stairs,” along with a broken water heater, a dangerous stairway, and no locks on exterior doors.

Oakland’s Tenant and Façade Improvement Program has been the subject of controversy in the past due to grants made to one member of the Singh family. In 2014, Dharminder Mann pleaded no contest to charges of defrauding the city of Oakland of grants made through the program to a company he controlled instead of using it to fix up properties.

There is no evidence that any other members of the Singh family have misappropriated city grants through the program. But since 2015, Dharminder’s brother, Harmit Mann, has applied for at least 5 more Tenant and Façade Improvement Program grants from the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency to pay for construction at properties owned by his family. They include proposed renovations to an airport parking facility on 98th Avenue and an old garage converted into a strip mall on Hegenberger Road.

Even while they apply for city grants, the Singh family continues to be cited by the city’s Planning and Building Department for operating dangerous and illegal housing in the city. In one case from January 2018, a city inspector found an unpermitted living space in the warehouse. The makeshift homes were partially flooded with water that was leaking through the roof. There was no heat in the units, and they smelled of mold.

A month later, the same city inspector returned to the property and noted “several life safety violations,” including no smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, no means of egress from the bedrooms, and carbon monoxide ventilation violations. The problems were so bad that the Oakland Fire Department put the building under watch.

By March, city inspectors observed that “families are still living in the warehouse building,” including young children. In May, Baljit Singh, Harmit Mann, their architect, and lobbyist Ignacio De La Fuente, former longtime city council president — who now runs his own lobbying firm — met with city officials at the Planning and Building Department offices in downtown Oakland.

City officials ordered the Singhs relocate all of the families living in the building, mostly Latino immigrants, by June 11. But according to city records, when building inspectors arrived on the 14th, after they already red-tagged the building, they observed that there were still multiple tenants residing there, including a pregnant woman and a small boy. By July, the building had finally been emptied.

Tenants living in other properties owned by the Singhs have complained of harassment and retaliation when they filed complaints to the city about the poor condition of their homes. In 2017, residents of an apartment complex on 105th Avenue owned by the Singhs filed a complaint with the city about piles of trash around the garbage bins that were attracting vermin.

One resident wrote in an application for a restraining order that the Singh’s employees “screamed” at them about the complaint and that Baljit Singh showed up one day and allegedly threatened to throw away all of their belongings. County health inspector Celina Guerra-Martinez wrote in a report that tenants told her Singh threatened to throw out children’s bicycles “and blamed the tenants for the garbage issues at the property.”

Another health inspector, Bruce Kirkpatrick, visited the apartment complex in June 2017 and observed a pile of trash in the parking lot. “The flies were everywhere and tenants described that the flies were entering apartments,” he wrote. “Raccoons and seagulls have been seen in the area.”

Last Sunday, after three days in a hotel, Zint was able to move back into his apartment which got a new ceiling. “It’s a shame it took it all of this to do it,” he said about his online protest against his landlord and the Hub.

At the same time, Zint said he’s concerned about what other, less vocal homeless people might experience as they search for landlords who will accept homeless program housing vouchers. He fears that some formerly homeless people might be getting off the streets, but they’re possibly being pushed into substandard housing in the East Bay’s tighter-than-ever rental market.
“There’s not enough affordable units,” said Zint. “I get it. They’ve got to go with what’s available and they think that in order to save lives they feel this is the most efficient way to do it.”

Now with winter well underway, Zint is hoping the leaks don’t start up again.

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