By Doug Oakley
Electrical problems, an elevator that occasionally worked and a fire escape to nowhere plagued a Berkeley building before a Nov. 18 fire destroyed the homes of about 70 people, say tenants who met Monday night to consider legal options against the owners.
"This fire did not happen all by itself," Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington told a packed classroom of tenants of 2441 Haste St. during the meeting at UC Berkeley. "We need to make sure the city investigates what caused the fire. I think there is an enormous liability with this landlord. If you all don't stick together and document the problems, you'll probably get next to nothing."
Tuesday morning, the owners of the building began tearing it down but with a signed agreement that they would preserve a 25-foot area around the elevator electrical room where fire officials believe the fire may have started.
Lisa Wang, who lived in the building, said Monday night that when she used her microwave oven or opened her refrigerator door, the lights in her apartment would dim. Same for PJ Hamidi, whose electric tea pot caused lights to go low.
"As soon as I turned it on, the lights would dim, and when the water was done, the lights would go back up," Hamidi said.
When resident Hooman Shahrokhi plugged in his laptop in 2006, sparks flew from the electrical cord, destroyed his computer and burned a hole in his bedspread, leading to a small claims court judgment against the building's owners, Kenneth and Gregory Ent, Shahrokhi said.
And on the night of the fire 11 days ago, Pourya Kahdemi and another tenant used a fire escape they thought would bring them to safety. Instead the fire escape ended on a second floor rooftop with no way to get down. If it hadn't been for employees of the restaurant below who found a long ladder for them to climb down to the ground, Kahdemi said he might not be here today.
"We would have burned up or had to jump," Kahdemi said.
The building manager and the fire department knew about the fire escape to nowhere from a previous fire in the building Feb. 22, but nothing was done, Kahdemi said.
"I personally walked a fireman and the manager to that spot and showed them, and the fireman told the manager 'you need to install a ladder there,' but he didn't do it," Kahdemi said.
Berkeley Deputy Fire Chief Gil Dong said he didn't know anything about the fire escape problem, but the department is researching its records to find out if there were any problems with previous yearly fire inspections. "I don't recall this building being a problem property," Dong said. "But it doesn't mean there were not previous inspection problems."
Dong said there may well have been electrical and other problems in the building that the landlords did not pay attention to, but if tenants did not report it to city officials, there's nothing the city could have done.
"You can't fix a problem if nobody in the city knows about it," Dong said.
Gregory Ent, co-owner of the building, declined to comment Monday.
Berkeley spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said the city's rental housing safety program did not have any records of complaints at the building.
As tenants begin the process of documenting problems in the building and what they lost in order to take legal action against the owners, the fire department will continue its investigation as soon as the owner demolishes the top two floors of the building.
Worthington said the agreement the owners signed to preserve the area of investigation shows the city does not trust the landlord.
"The fire marshal has put more restrictions on this landlord than I have ever seen following a fire," Worthington told the tenants. "The city is actually making him reinforce the building so they can find out what happened. I think this tells you someone in the fire department is thinking we can't leave this up to anyone else."
Marc Janowitz, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, told tenants they have a variety of avenues of legal recourse to consider with the landlords, but their job now is to document previous problems and what they lost from the fire.
"You should think about what you had, what you lost," Janowitz said.
"I've heard about an elevator that didn't work, I heard about someone who sued over an electrical fire and won. You have a lot of rights here, but we can't tell how much because we don't yet know the extent of the wrongs."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.