Tenants file lawsuit in deadly West Oakland fire: 2 Investigates

- Attorneys representing 15 former tenants of a West Oakland housing complex devastated by a deadly fire filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking nearly $2 million in damages.

The four-alarm fire broke out March 27 at 2551 San Pablo Ave., where Urojas Community Services was the primary tenant. Four people died in the fire, which claimed the lives of Edwarn Anderson, 64, Cassandra Robertson, 50, Ashantikee Wilson, 41, and Olatunde Adejumobi, 36, according to the Alameda County coroner's bureau.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday demands $125,000 in damages for each of the 15 plaintiffs. It accuses owner Keith Kim and Mead Avenue Housing Associates, as well Urojas, of negligence and breach of contract, among other claims.

The complaint says that the tenants repeatedly notified the owners and management about “defective and dangerous conditions” at the property, but that they failed to make the necessary repairs. And when conditions were fixed, according to the claim, it was performed in “a negligent, unprofessional, and shoddy fashion.”

City records obtained by 2 Investigates show a decade of code compliance issues at the property. Three days before the fire, a city inspector issued eight fire code violations that cited the fire alarm system, fire sprinkler system, emergency lighting and exit signs, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, evacuations maps, extension cords in lieu of electrical outlets, and furniture in the interior area.

2 Investigates also learned that other facilities run by Urojas in Oakland and Stockton also have histories of code enforcement complaints and violations, according to public records.

It’s unclear with whom the responsibility for the substandard conditions at the property will ultimately fall.

According to a lease agreement from 2014, the tenant Urojas Community Services was responsible for maintenance of everything in the building except exterior walls and the roof. However James Cook, the attorney representing the Urojas, told 2 Investigates there have since been subsequent lease agreements that put responsibility back on the owner.

But neither side could provide proof of more recent records.

The attorney for Keith Kim issued the following statement in response to the lawsuit:

“The property located at 2551 San Pablo Avenue in Oakland has been owned by the Mead Ave. Housing Associates LLC for 25 years. Keith Kim is a minority owner of the LLC, which has leased the property to non-profit organizations since the beginning. The initial tenant was the East Bay Community Recovery Project, which operated the building in a responsible manner as master tenant for 20 years without incident. At the conclusion of that tenancy a low-income housing non-profit, Dignity Housing West, Inc. took over as master tenant pursuant to a long term lease.

“Dignity West brought in Urojas Ministries and Pastor Jasper Lowrey, who receive public funds to operate, although it is unknown whether there is any oversight or accountability of the funds. It is my understanding that these funds are intended to be used for the benefit of Urojas’ tenants at the property which would include providing basic maintenance and ensuring a decent and habitable living environment. Whether that was actually done is an open question at this point, but in the months leading up to the fire Mead Ave. had sufficient concerns about the Urojas tenants that it had taken steps with the City of Oakland to remove Urojas from the property and replace it with a city approved non-profit.

“At this point I have not seen the lawsuit yet so I cannot comment on it. I am aware that the Oakland Fire Department is continuing to investigate this fire under the capable direction of lead investigator Javon Smith. I suspect the results of that investigation should yield some insight into the Urojas management of the property and the living conditions it provided the residents.

“Lastly, prior to the arrival of the current master tenants, Mead Ave. LLC had operated the building without incident for 20 years providing a much needed resource to the less fortunate members of our community. Despite this, in the weeks since the fire Mr. Kim has been unfairly criticized in the media for the actions of the current master tenants. This is unfortunate and I am confident that as the facts are brought to light the true responsibility for the operation and management of the building will become clear.”

 

William Kronenberg

 

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