Empyrean Towers in Oakland a step closer to rehab: 2 Investigates

OAKLAND (KTVU) -- More than two years after 2 Investigates first exposed unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the trouble Empyrean Towers hotel in Oakland, the property is now one step closer to being rehabilitated.

The City Council on Tuesday night approved a resolution giving the city authorization to negotiate a deal to have the property deemed a historical site, through the California State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO). That would free up funds as part of the rehabilitation process.

According to the proposal, “the purpose of entering into the Agreement is to minimize, reduce or avoid adverse effects on the historic building” while it is being rehabilitated and eventually sold to a non-profit that plans to turn it into affordable housing.

Last March, a bankruptcy judge approved the potential sale of the property to the Berkeley-based affording housing non-profit group Resources for Community Development (RCD), paving the way for what tenants and their attorneys hope is reform at the hotel.

Part of the court’s decision requires that the building is maintained as affordable housing for at least 55 years.

But the building that some tenants called a “nightmare” is still far from a dream. 2 Investigates visited the Empyrean Towers on Wednesday to find holes in the walls haven’t been fixed, and the elevator is still not functioning.

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Resident Katherine Bergman, 83, says she is forced to climb flights of stairs to her home. And due to faulty plumbing, Bergman says she resorted to bathing with baby wipes during cold snaps.

2 Investigates first exposed dangerous and unsanitary conditions at the Empyrean Towers more than two years ago. Uncover camera footage revealed fire damage, broken toilets, missing smoke detectors, and uncollected garbage among the problems on a long list of complaints reported by tenants.

In March, it already appeared that a major facelift was well underway. At that time, the building had new paint, light fixtures, a heating system and hot water heater.

Nearly two years ago, tenants were forced out of the building by a serious health scare when investigators found coliform bacteria in the water in one of the pipes. Some residents told 2 Investigates by the time it was discovered they already drank the water and had gotten sick.

The City of Oakland filed suit against the owners of Empyrean Towers in April 2015, accusing management of illegal evictions, failing to make repairs and for creating a public nuisance. Inspectors documented dozens of problems including broken windows, faulty plumbing, and an elevator that was frequently out of service.

At that time, owner Alice Tse agreed to a deal that would provide $500,000 for a long list of overdue repairs. But shortly after, Tse had filed for bankruptcy and control of the property was handed over to a Chapter 11 trustee.

Lina Torio is an agent for the trustee overseeing the property while it's in transition.  She says the elevator would cost $3 million to repair and her group is not authorized to spend that money during the bankruptcy.

Torio showed 2 Investigates a new water tank installed for the entire building and other upgrades. She said it’s not the trustee’s job to renovate, but rather keep the property safe until the ownership transfer is finalized. That is expected to happen in March 2017.

KTVU's 2 Investigates team was honored to receive a 2016 Edward R. Murrow Award for continuing coverage of the dangerous and unsanitary conditions at an Empyrean Towers. 

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