By Gene Turitz
Backed by friends, neighbors and members of the Berkeley community, Leonard Powell – a 76-year-old African American veteran – won a temporary reprieve in Superior Court this week as he struggles to find a way to stay in the home that is fully paid for and where he has lived for 44 years.
At the Monday morning hearing in Alameda County Superior in Hayward, the court was scheduled to hand the house over to a city- and court-appointed receiver who had run up nearly $700,000 in renovations after the city descended on the house with a building code inspection.
Mr. Powell, who lives at 911 Harmon St. in south Berkeley, and his neighbors were joined by Friends of Adeline, the Probate Court Reform Movement and Berkeley City Councilmember Ben Bartlett
The court decided that receiver Gerard Keena and Mr. Powell’s attorney should meet and come to an agreement about how much is owed. Keena is saying that Mr. Powell owes $600,000 or $700,000.
Mr. Powell’s attorney argued that there has to be a justification for the inflated expenses, such as a $2,000 shower door, granite countertops in both kitchens, new hardwood floors throughout the house, and Italian tile in the two kitchens.
“Obviously, this wasn’t done for my benefit,” said Mr. Powell. “He wants me gone.”
He continued, “How can it cost $35,000 for lead and asbestos abatement? How can it cost $6,000 to take out a fireplace?”
According to Mr. Powell, he felt the reason the judge asked Keena and Mr. Powell’s attorney to come to an agreement was because of the turnout organized by the Friends of Adeline.
The judge also ruled that Mr. Powell could not move back into his own home until this matter is cleared up, perhaps at the next hearing on Jan. 29.
Mr. Powell’s supporters showed up to let the court and the City of Berkeley know that the community cares about this Berkeley resident. They asked: If Mr. Powell has committed no crime, why is the City trying to force him out of his own home?
Keena originally was appointed as a receiver to oversee the correction of the Substandard Conditions on Mr. Powell’s property. The Berkeley City Attorney, sitting with the receiver and his attorney in court, told the judge that the City “doesn’t have a dog in this fight.”
Although the judge did not respond directly to that statement, he did urge the city to do whatever it could to expedite the approval of a no interest $100,000 loan to Mr. Powell (routinely given to low-income seniors for home repairs), which would reduce Mr. Powell’s financial burden.
Community members are raising questions they say need to be answered: Why did the cost go from an estimated $150,000 to $200,000, to correct substandard conditions, to a final cost of about $700,000? Who gave the receiver the authority to completely renovate the house?
Over the years, many rental properties in Berkeley were found to be not earth-quake safe, “Soft-story” buildings, but landlords often took years and years to carry out required repairs.
While leaving many tenants lived in unsafe conditions, the city did not try to take the property from any of these landlords. Receivers were not assigned, and no one lost their property.
Concerned Berkeley residents want the City of Berkeley to end these actions, committed by the city and greedy property owners, which result in removing more African-Americans from the city. They say there must be a right of return for those who have been driven out by gentrification and the unequal application of zoning codes.
Contacted by the Post for a response, Keena said, “My intention is to have Mr. Powell back in the house. It’s a challenging situation. I don’t usually comment on active cases.”
By Post deadline, the Berkeley City Attorney’s Office had not replied.
To contact the Friends of Adeline, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-338-7843.
To contract Probate Court Reform Movement (PCRM), call (510) 287-8200 or (831) 238-0096. The PCRM meets every Wednesday at 6 p.m. at 360 14th St. in downtown Oakland.
Gene Turitz is a member of Friends of Adeline. Oakland Post staff contributed to this article.
Published December 22, 2018, courtesy of the Oakland Post