2 Investigates: Mounting problems, complaints at notorious Bay Area hotel

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) Fire damage, broken toilets, missing smoke detectors and uncollected garbage are just some of the problems on a long list of complaints reported by tenants of the Empyrean Towers in downtown Oakland, a KTVU investigation revealed.

The seven-story building on 13th Street, formerly called The Menlo, has come under scrutiny before. In 2011, then-owner Richard Singer went to prison for paying someone to try to burn down the hotel in order to collect on the insurance.

Four years later, tenants and guests say many of the problems that plagued the hotel remain.

2 Investigates checks in

After reading scathing online reviews of the Empyrean Towers on several travel websites, KTVU's Eric Rasmussen booked a room at the hotel in January.

Upon checking in, an employee at the front desk said the elevator was broken.  2 Investigates recorded a number of holes in the walls while going up the stairs.  Rasmussen also found garbage bags in several hallways.

On the seventh floor, a window leading to the fire escape had been nailed shut.  An extension cord in the hallway appeared to be running power to one of the rooms.

After dark, Rasmussen needed a flashlight to navigate one of the stairwells where the lights were out.

A tenant shared cell phone video of a leaking ceiling in the lobby during rainy weather in December.

A last resort

A single mother and her two children say they moved into a room at the Empyrean Towers when they had nowhere else to turn.  The mother, Nicol, says domestic abuse forced them out of their house.

At a rate of $260 a week, the family of three has no stove and must use a shared bathroom and shower in the hallway.

"Came into this room. Came into this hotel... and I cried. I did not know it was as bad as this," said Nicol. "When we first got here, my son took a shower and he said brown stuff was coming out of the water."

The family says heat in their room is intermittent. They say they've witnessed drug use in the hallways and say complaints to management are often ignored.

Nicol's daughter, "Dana," 16, says she's managed to keep straight A's in school, despite the cramped quarters.

"Sometimes when I want privacy, I go in the closet.  I know it's ridiculous, but that's the only place I can go," she said.  "I just hate it.  It's so uncomfortable."

Tenants organizing

The Oakland non-profit Eviction Defense Center helped organize about 50 tenants of the Empyrean Towers to demand changes at the hotel.

At a meeting in January, residents complained about mold, missing smoke detectors and a rat infestation.

"Every floor has absolutely deplorable conditions, from top to bottom," said Eviction Defense attorney Amy Sekany.  "I've heard rats running through the walls in the middle of the day."

Tenants made similar complaints and filed lawsuits in 2010.  Around that time, the owner of the hotel, Richard Singer, hired someone to try to burn down the hotel, but the plan was interrupted by federal authorities and Singer was sentenced to prison for attempted arson.

Questions about ownership

In an email, Singer told KTVU he sold the hotel before going to prison in 2011.  Documents show the property was purchased by a family trust, of which, Alice Tse is a member.

In a recent deposition, Tse denied she was the owner, but said she managed the property.

Tse blamed tenants for some of the damage.  She also said some of the holes in the walls were left behind by firefighters responding to a fire at the hotel in July 2014.

When 2 Investigates tried to speak with Tse and her attorney in January, they declined to answer questions about the conditions at the hotel.

According to a lawsuit filed in 2014, Singer went on the payroll with Tse's realty company soon after he was released from prison.  Singer also declined to speak to KTVU, but in an email, he denied any management or ownership interest in the Empyrean Towers.

Identifying problems

Records show fire inspectors with the City of Oakland have visited the Empyrean Towers at least five times since October 2014.

One inspection report found a long list of problems including those similar to the ones identified by 2 Investigates -- missing smoke detectors, sprinkler heads in need of repair and a blocked fire escape.

A re-inspection in January declared "no violations noted," but advocates for many tenants at the hotel insist more needs to be done.

"They've been crying out for a long time," said Sekany.  "Something absolutely has to get done now."
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