Contra Costa Times
By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Times staff writer
Mista Yancey stuffs the holes in his wall with plastic grocery bags to keep rats out of the room he and his wife share. On this oppressively hot, stagnant day, he plucks the pane out of the window and sets it aside. The sashes are so badly rotted, the windows no longer slide up and down.
The room is just large enough to hold a double bed. The sink in the Yanceys' room doesn't work, but they keep a bucket underneath it to catch frequent sewage back-ups. Four or five times a day, they dump the brown water that accumulates in it. They've photographed the rats that congregate at night, but so far they say they haven't been able to persuade their landlord, Inderjit Bal, to fumigate.
"I've been waiting so long for someone to come here and see how we live," Yancey said, waving dismissively at a faceless electrical socket that dangles unbolted along the corridor wall.For more than 10 years, tenants and their advocates have complained about the rodent-infested, decaying building on Richmond's Macdonald Avenue. They describe the single-room-occupancy hotel, or SRO, as not just dismal but dangerous.
A one-time Bhopal, India, police inspector, Bal bought the two-story, 1910-era brick building in 1991. The City Council issued him a use permit in 1993.
For $435 to $600 a month, tenants get a private bedroom and share a common kitchen, dining room and bathrooms. There are 13 units on the second floor, and Bal rents the ground floor to two storefront churches.
"They are not satisfied with the landlord because I make them pay the rent," Bal said of his critics. "And there are people very fond of making complaints. I am a very good father, a very good brother to my tenants. I am their guardian. I am their well-wisher."
Among other acts of kindness, he volunteered free lodging for a time to a pregnant woman and to a family of five with nowhere else to go, he said.
But the tenants see things differently.
Entire sections of wall and floor have rotted away. Years of complaints about rats, leaks, exposed wire and corrosion have produced no improvements, they claim. One man was so fed up with the slow pace of repair and so terrified that a fire could spark from an oven with no door, that he bought an oven himself last week and had it installed in the shared kitchen.
Longtime renters say the furnace hasn't pumped out heat in years. Only one bathroom works. Much of the fire safety equipment required by the use permit, including smoke detectors in every room and up-to-date fire extinguishers, is missing or inoperative. Yet, despite overwhelming problems, Bal conducts business as he has done for years -- with the blessing of those who could force him to rehabilitate this rooming house.
Fire inspectors and City Council members have repeatedly praised Bal's efforts. His defenders say that without him, these tenants would be homeless. For those who live here -- some of whom work at low-paying jobs, others who collect disability or social security -- it's this or nothing.
Tenants and intruders have kicked in doors, stolen laundry coin boxes, disengaged smoke detectors, broken locks and thrown stones through windows, Bal said.
As for the Yanceys, Bal said they plugged up their own sink. He filed papers threatening them with eviction. "Since then they have been behaving very well," he said. "It costs me $500 to file an eviction. I don't get it back. If I talk about my problems, who cares? But if the tenants have problems, I am a bad landlord, and they are being discriminated against."
Despite documentation of numerous problems by use permit inspectors, Bal has made it through three permit revocation hearings, in 1993, 1994 and 1995, two investigative news reports in 1996 and 1998, and a sustained outcry from neighbors in Richmond's Iron Triangle section. The City Council has reversed every attempt by the Planning Commission to revoke Bal's use permit.
He hired the public relations firm of former Mayor George Livingston and Nat Bates, before Bates was a Richmond city councilman, to advise him before one hearing at an approximate cost of $5,000, Bates said.
"We sort of guided him," Bates said. "He was a very decent man."
The council hasn't addressed the matter since 1998, when it turned down a neighborhood request to close the hotel down.
But if Bates sees Bal as "a very decent man," and one who "probably gives more than he gets in return," Bal's management of the hotel has frustrated local police.
"The other SROs do a better job of keeping up the exterior and the hallways, bathrooms and kitchens," said Police Sgt. Ron Berry, who heads up the city's blight abatement team. "He finds ways to get around requirements. He blames problems on other people. I wish he'd try to see what people go through. But he's in this to make a profit."
Bal has proved a tireless litigator, suing tenants for the costs of property damage, back rent and security deposit increases. He has reported his critics to police, accusing them of breaking and entering when they respond to the pleas of tenants to look at conditions firsthand.
"It isn't just Mr. Bal, it's the city who's at fault here," said Iron Triangle resident and reformer Mildred Carlton. "The city is responsible for these deplorable conditions. They have failed to enforce the conditions on this permit."
Bal first applied for a permit in January 1993 and was rejected. A month later, the City Council OK'd his bid with additional conditions, including a management plan and a schedule of code compliance inspections.
County health officials, who have jurisdiction over Richmond since it has no municipal health department, said they could have ordered repairs -- if Richmond officials had notified them of a problem. In 10 years, no one has.
"We could be influential in getting this landlord to clean up his act, but somebody needs to tell us about it," Supervisor John Gioia said. "There is no excuse for not correcting these problems."
For residents of the hotel and the neighborhood, the explanation is simple. "There is an iron curtain around the Iron Triangle," Carlton said.
There are a handful of clean, functional SROs in Richmond. But 514 Macdonald Ave. has escaped the most dogged efforts of reformers.
Someone slashed open the fiberglass mailbox months ago, and it has not been repaired since then. Fearing checks could be stolen, tenants wait outside for the mail to arrive.
The fire escape dangles by a chain. "Even if you could get to the end, what are you going to do then?" resident Armund Johnson said, gesturing toward a drop of several feet onto a debris-strewn concrete lot. The gate that encloses it is padlocked.
The dining room is furnished with a rickety wooden table, no chairs and three sagging, stained couches.
One section of floor has rotted through. Residents barricaded it "so you don't forget and walk on it," one tenant said. "You'd be on the first floor in a hurry."
A box with a board over it serves as a step outside the single functioning shower. Whole sections of tile have fallen away.
And tenants say Bal does nothing to stop petty criminals from setting up shop in the hotel. They also say there are numerous unlocked entries that allow intruders easy access.
One couple, a man with renal failure and his wife, who works in the daytime, say a tenant's alleged prostitution business makes their nights a sleepless hell.
"I'm tired of it," the man said. "Everybody's tired of it."
"What can I do? I am not strong man," Bal said.
He does not call police; they have "more important things to do," he said. Sgt. Berry said he would respond immediately if called.
"I've got to run people out everyday who don't belong here," Mista Yancey said angrily. "I find homeless people in the furnace room. There's people in there having sex. All kinds of people come in to take showers."
If the conditions have raised eyebrows, so has Bal's record of litigation. He has been in court more than 150 times since 1991, mainly to evict tenants.
In one court action, a tenant claimed Bal sued him for two months' rent during a one-month period and refused to return his security deposit as promised.
Those who malign the business practices of Bal have marveled at his ability to escape enforcement.
"People have always said, 'Well, that's a tough neighborhood. Those people need somewhere to live, and this guy's willing to step up to the plate,'" said Councilman Tom Butt, who is urging the city to more aggressively pursue alleged violators. "That sort of perception has gotten him off the hook many times."
Former tenants Mary Brookings and Grace Wilburn say mosquitoes drove away congregants who came to their ground-floor community church, the result of standing water in the basement, a condition confirmed by a PG&E meter reader's report. Carlton said she ventured into the basement once and screamed when she saw electrical cords running from ice cream freezers to outlets under water.
"If you went down into that basement you could see it was just a matter of time until somebody got hurt," Brookings said.
Today, the conditions governing the hotel are mainly those proposed by Bal. His fire safety plan, approved by the city in 1998, ensures that a bucket of water and a bucket of fine sand are kept on hand. If a fire breaks out, those present are advised to "try to control it with all available equipment as soon as possible," and to "shout for help if necessary."
The city's own files bulge with documentation of alleged health and safety violations. A 1995 photo in Planning Department files shows a rat lounging in a sunny spot on a bathroom floor. In another, a stack of torn mattresses rests against an exterior wall. "Fire hazard," a department staffer wrote in longhand, with arrows pointing to various points on the property.
Inspectors found electrical sockets without cover plates, holes in the floors, overflowing Dumpsters, a jammed garbage chute and wiring protruding from walls. The same year, 1995, a report signed by fire inspector Jerry Pando praised Bal and the condition of the property.
"Excellent condition!" it says. "Owner very cooperative in maintaining code compliance." Also in 1995, building inspector Coy Charles sent a memo to then-Planner Natalia Lawrence saying "no building code violations were observed."
The next year, fire inspector Pando praised the hotel's "good overall conditions," and added that Bal was "to be complimented on keeping building in good order."
Lawrence has moved on, but Pando and Charles are still working for the city.
"He was very conscientious about getting things done," Pando said last week[AMC2]. "When I do inspections, I try to educate the people about what they need to do, and once they know they are pretty good about keeping up what they need to do."
As recently as last Friday, the hotel easily passed a fire inspection.
The city's code compliance chief Fred Clement said he "could not say" why the city has not found problems with the use permit.
"People can say this and that, but I have never failed a fire inspection," Bal said.
After each Planning Commission vote to revoke Bal's permit, the City Council has reinstated it on appeal.
"You just can't win with him," Wilburn said. "You think the council is going to help you, but they always rule in his favor."
That infuriates Yancey. Holding up a 2001 fire extinguisher, he said, "It hasn't even been charged."
"I mean, come on now," he said walking by the display board showing Bal's detailed management plan. "All these papers are out of date."
As a councilman, Bates has consistently protested efforts to curtail Bal's operation.
"We've got rooming houses all over the city," Bates said. "If you really want to attack the problem you have to do it citywide. They offer a service nobody else wants to offer. Yes, they should have hot water, they should be sanitary, but if you close it down, where are these people going to go? You can't expect him to provide a high-class place when he probably seldom collects the full rent."
A Contra Costa County inspector scoffs at that reasoning. "That's the fallback argument: Let them live like that, because there's nothing else for them," said senior environmental health inspector Joe Doser.
Bal said his critics do not understand the daunting challenges he faces. He says it's a battle to collect the rent and keep the place in working order.
"I criticize the welfare system for making these poor people useless," he said. "Why should they work? Food is free, clothing is free, they eat better than I can afford to eat at the soup kitchen. If you study the lives of these people you'll see they live better than us hard-working people. You go over to the park across the street, and you have never heard such sounds of happiness and laughter."
A polite, soft-spoken man, Bal is frequently seen at the hotel in coveralls and a baseball cap. He owns several properties in Richmond, most modest tract homes he subdivides into rental units. He also owns a spacious home in Carriage Hills and another in San Ramon.
Managing the property "is trouble, but I have gone through much worse troubles in my life," he said. "What would be trouble to an ordinary man is no trouble to me. I have a great deal of experience dealing with low-grade people. It's a cat-and-mouse game, a game they play." He was awarded the highest humanitarian award in India for his service on the police force, he said.
Former Richmond planning commissioner Susan Geick says it is Bal who plays a cat-and-mouse game -- with the city.
"It makes me ill," she said. "(Bal) has done terrible things to these people and this city has let him get away with it. We've protected this man far better and longer than our citizens who need us."