2 Investigates: Tenants complain of bad conditions at non-profit's affordable housing

Some tenants of a well-known non-profit affordable housing developer say they were subjected to conditions that could have put their health at risk. Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA) is facing a lawsuit from a tenant. And in the case of another tenant who called 2 Investigates for help, executives with the non-profit are now accepting responsibility for not fixing problems sooner.

Tenant complaints

Maron Szabo says she and her disabled son, Khalil, had to flee their apartment at the Ashby Lofts in January 2014 when a fire broke out in the unit above them.  Szabo had to carry Khalil, who is quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, to safety.

"When we got back in, there was about a good six inches of water all over.  Everything was completely wet," said Szabo.

She says property managers told her that she and her son could move back into their unit in two weeks, but Szabo says she ended up having to spend the next six months in a room at an extended stay hotel.  During that time, Szabo says her son, who also has a weakened immune system, was hospitalized 12 times.

"If it was just me? I can live out of a hotel for six months, but him? He's already super fragile and easily compromised and [SAHA] knew that," said Szabo.

Szabo is suing SAHA, in part, for failing to provide a safe place for her son during repairs.  The lawsuit also claims apartment managers "insisted" Szabo move back into her unit while it still posed a "life threatening situation" for her son.

Another tenant, Shirlonda Henry, contacted 2 Investigates about dangerous conditions in another SAHA-owned property on Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley.  Henry says a malfunctioning floor furnace started filling her apartment with soot in November.

"You don't feel safe within your own apartment. You don't want to come home," said Henry.

The Berkeley Fire Department found temperatures inside the walls of Henry's apartment were 100 degrees or higher.  The incident report  also reveals that investigators found a smoke detector in the unit was not functioning. 

Despite several code violations from the City of Berkeley and numerous hazard notices from PG&E, the problems had not been fixed when 2 Investigates first met with Henry in May.

"They [property managers] take us as individuals who are low income and that we're nothing. And I don't appreciate that at all," said Henry.  "It's a frustrating situation. It's unsafe! My neighbors are afraid and we're just tired of this situation and something needs to be done about it."

SAHA responds

Managers with SAHA invited 2 Investigates back to Shirlonda Henry's apartment to observe a crew finally making repairs to the unit.  While the City of Berkeley signed off on an earlier attempt to repair the heating system, SAHA later acknowledged it wasn't enough to permanently fix the problem.

"We accept responsibility for what happened and we really regret our resident was frustrated by the process," said SAHA Executive Director Susan Friedland.  "I have to say we could have done a better job communicating with her. I think she lost trust in our ability to correct the situation."

Satellite Affordable Housing Associates operates 60 apartment buildings from Oakland to Concord.  Many of its projects are built with the help of local governments.  A review of statements to the IRS shows SAHA has close to $10 million in net assets and has received millions of dollars in government grants in recent years.

"It is our mission to provide the highest quality service... and when we fall short of that, we really try to take the opportunity to learn about how we can do better," said Friedland.

Friedland says SAHA has since offered a rent credit and additional undisclosed compensation to Henry.

SAHA declined to comment about the case of Maron Szabo and her son, Khalil, citing the ongoing legal action.

Szabo told 2 Investigates that managers moved her into a new unit after she hired a lawyer, but she has not yet been compensated for all that she's lost.

"I don't understand how... they feel that it's ok to just sweep us under the rug," said Szabo.
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