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History of tenant complaints fuels claims of negligence against landlords

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JANUARY 19, 2012

Piles of debris and a partial facade along Telegraph Avenue are all that remain of the historic building once located at 2441 Haste St.

The 39-unit apartment building burned down in November, leaving nearly 70 tenants homeless and destroying two beloved Telegraph eateries.

Now tenants — many of whom are UC Berkeley students and alumni — are preparing to file individual lawsuits against building owners Gregory and Kenneth Ent, who tenants claim ignored past complaints concerning faulty electrical wiring and fire alarms. Tenants believe these factors may have caused the blaze that consumed their homes, pets and personal belongings.

An investigation by The Daily Californian shows that the building had a history of complaints and incidents related to fire safety.

In a letter from June 2009, the city’s Fire Inspector Stan Fernandez addressed a situation in which fire alarms within the building were being silenced by building management without the mandatory notification of the fire department. According to a report quoted in the letter, residents told fire staff this was a “common occurrence.” The report also said the building had “been written up multiple times with no compliance from building owner.”

“These are major fire safety concerns that must not and cannot go unrecognized any further,” reads the letter.

Berkeley Fire Marshal John Fitch said the incident was resolved later in the year when the building owners updated the alarm system and that there were no further problems after that.

The investigation into the Nov. 18 fire determined that it originated in the basement of the building where the elevator machinery was located. They suspected an electrical fire may have started in the equipment.

According to John Podesta, lawyer for the Ents, the exact cause of the fire — whether it started in or around the machinery, what the nature of the malfunction was and who exactly is to blame — is still under investigation.

“The sad fact is that this was a historic building,” Podesta said. “The reality is that buildings built at that time weren’t built to the same standards as today.”

Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he has heard many complaints over the years concerning the owners of the apartment building.

“There have been multiple incidents with tenants having problems recurring,” Worthington said.

In February last year, a significantly smaller fire broke out in the building’s stairwell leading to the roof. Firefighters determined the cause to be discarded cigarettes, according to Fitch.

Milad Yazdanpanah — a UC Berkeley alumnus who lived in the building for 13 years until its destruction — said there was only one smoke detector in his 750-square-foot apartment and that the batteries in the smoke detector had been changed for the first time in six years only two or three weeks before the November fire.

Yazdanpanah’s roommate, Hooman Shahrokhi, won a small-claims lawsuit against the building owners in 2006 after a small fire started after he plugged the power cord for his laptop into an outlet in his apartment.

Yazdanpanah said that tenants have met several times since the fire to meet with lawyers and discuss filing a lawsuit against the landlords for negligence. Tenants have recently decided to file individual lawsuits against the building owners, he said.

According to Podesta, the Ents are aware of the tenants’ plans and are making an effort to reach out to them through signs placed around the property.

“Right now we are not sure who is to blame,” Podesta said. “We are in the process of seeing how that plays out. The Ents don’t believe they are at fault for this.”

At this point, tenants displaced by the fire have had almost two months to try to piece their lives back together. Yazdanpanah said he felt that the building’s demolition has put to rest much of the remaining frustration and even denial some tenants were holding on to. “I think that with the new year, people are trying to move forward,” Yazdanpanah said.

Adelyn Baxter is the lead city government reporter.

JANUARY 20, 2012