Tenants of the Courtyards at 65th Apartments in Emeryville packed into the complex’s conference center Thursday evening, Sept. 12. The conference room has seen many holiday parties, study sessions and get-togethers throughout the years.
But this was the first time the room was filled with residents banding together to collectively voice their concerns about the new management.
It had been a month since management switched hands from Alliance Residential Company to Essex Property Trust, who both owns and manages the Courtyards. Residents agreed that Essex had plenty of time, experience and resources to transition smoothly.
Kalimah Priforce and Natasha Middleton, co-organizers of the meeting, had had enough with reports of property and package theft, poor security, growing trash and pest problems. Above all, they were frustrated with the lack of communication and transparency coming from Essex.
“The primary issue is Essex is stretching their staff between three buildings,” said Priforce, a five-year resident at the Courtyards. “Alliance was dedicated to our residence. There’s a shift in the business model, maybe because they’re trying to save money.”
Built in 2004, the four-story apartment complex is one of the largest residential projects in Emeryville. There are a total of 331 units, a percentage of which are Below Market Rate (BMR) units. The complex also offers housing for disabled independent living.
Middleton has been a Courtyards tenant since April. She moved from a single-family residence in Oakland where she lived for nine years. Middleton recently served on Oakland’s Public Safety and Services Violence Prevention Oversight Commission and also ran for Oakland City Council in 2018.
When she arrived to the Courtyards, Essex was already in the process of succeeding Alliance.
“I went from telling people I feel like I’m living in a hotel to I’m living in a dump,” said Middleton. “If the property management company cannot acknowledge even the basic expectations there is definitely a cause for concern.”
Middleton said the need for a residents meeting came from a conversation with Priforce about Priforce’s bike, which was stolen from inside the complex. Their conversation led to further dialogue with other tenants. This then unleashed a seemingly endless stream of complaints.
“What we wanted to address were the most pressing priorities: public health, public safety and privacy,” said Middleton. “It really seems like [Essex] doesn’t care and that’s what bothering people.”
While Middleton is aware that no housing situation could ever be 100 percent secure, she initially believed that there were more safety measures in place.
“They need to make sure the cameras are working and that there’s a security guard,” said Middleton. “Essex needs to pay attention; they need to raise that level of being accommodating and know that people deserve better.”
Same, But Different: Residents Share Their Concerns
Around 50 tenants stood packed in shoulder to shoulder. Some people were backed into corners. Others occupied the next room over. Parents left occasionally to care for their children, but returned again with them in tow.
City Councilmember John Bauters was there along with Sergeant Richard Lee from the Emeryville Police Department.
The residents meeting followed a strict schedule to allow for as many residents, Essex management, Bauters and Sergeant Lee to speak. As the hours passed, it seemed everyone had a story they needed to share.
Stephen DeLong has lived at the Courtyards for nine years. He named security — “Literally, there’s no security” — and public health as what he wants his rent going toward.
He told the group that two of his bikes have been stolen from the Courtyards. DeLong had even gained firsthand knowledge about the condition of the complex’s security cameras. He was shocked to find out that some were dummies.
“I think security is one of the main things for the price that I pay,” said DeLong. “Packages are being stolen on a regular basis. I heard from Alliance that the cameras in every other place aren’t even real — they’re just deterrents.”
Steve, whose last name was not provided to the tenant board, was another longtime resident who spoke at the meeting. He’s logged 11 years as a Courtyards tenant.
“Since I’ve been here, nothing like this has happened before — either the sale of the building or a meeting like this,” he said. “Something I’ve noticed recently is the increase in insects in the building, the absence of maintenance, security and package issues and overall cleanliness.”
“You can’t tell me that within 30 days, you don’t have an idea of how to handle maintenance alone,” said Middleton about the trash. “It’s a public health issue if you do not have a scheduled pickup when you have  apartments throwing compost, garbage and recycling out.”
Joee Yee and her fiancé have lived at the Courtyards for a year. Both had discussed forming a tenants association themselves, before Priforce and Middleton led the efforts to better the overall living environment.
Yee volunteered to be a “Floor Rep” – a resident responsible for monitoring their floor. Along with Priforce and Middleton, these floor reps make up the leadership team of the Courtyards tenant board.
“I at least want to stick it out for a year to see what I can do to change it,” Yee said.
Lynda DeDominicis, a teacher for the Emery Unified School District, has resided at the Courtyards for almost eight years. She took note of how much has changed around her home environment.
“It’s just been a different culture and type of tone,” said DeDominicis. “One thing that I loved about being here was that it just felt like a family. It was warm and welcoming and it just doesn’t feel like that anymore.”
“We are not this big, bad company”: Management responds to frustrated tenants
Essex Regional Manager Nicole Conrad has worked for Essex for more than 11 years. Conrad attended the meeting with a clipboard in hand and stood towards the back of the room with Essex Senior Communications Manager Jerry E. Maple, who has also worked for Essex for 11 years.
After most of the residents voiced their concerns, Conrad reassured everyone that “we absolutely hear you.”
“There’s a lot of things that we could have definitely done different,” said Conrad. “There’s no one on my team that doesn’t want to make this community a community. We want to meet and exceed your expectations.”
Conrad pointed to the “extensive list” that Essex management has and claimed that “a lot of those [solutions] are already in progress.”
“We’ll be doing one communication out with the entire list and potentially estimated timelines and completion dates,” said Conrad. “We’ll be updating that on a weekly basis for the time being. As we begin to meet expectations, that may go to a bi-weekly basis. We’ll have our monthly newsletter coming out early next week.”
Conrad noted that bigger projects such as the security cameras require further approval and would take longer to address.
“I wish it never would have gotten to this point but it’s a very valuable learning experience,” said Conrad. “We are not this big, bad management company — I promise you that.”
Essex Property Trust owns nearly 250 apartment communities on the West Coast consisting of more than 60,000 homes. The company’s Northern California apartments hit 97.4 percent occupancy while rents rose by 2.5 percent year-over-year, according to the SF Business Times.
The publicly traded company owns ten properties in Bay Area cities including Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco and San Jose. In Emeryville alone, it owns EMME and Avenue 64th.
Emeryville City Councilmember John Bauters, told the room that he was a tenant attorney for more than 10 years. He reiterated to the tense crowd that they had his support.
“It’s rare that apartment buildings organize like this — that’s a hard thing because it’s not the first thought for tenants to organize themselves,” said Bauters. “But you really do have a lot of power.”
He informed those in attendance that Emeryville had passed a Residential Landlord and Tenant Relations Ordinance in 2017. It includes a Just Cause Eviction Ordinance protecting renters from being terminated from their housing for reasons unrelated to rent.
Bauters explained that he would follow up by holding a meeting with Emeryville’s chief building official and code enforcement officer, Victor Gonzalez. It will be Gonzalez’s job to investigate any public health or safety issues raised by residents.
“I will be very happy to give [Essex] citations and warnings to get this into order very quickly if they’re not doing that,” said Bauters. “It does not matter that they weren’t the first management company, they took the building subject to all of those conditions.”
Since the meeting, the tenant group have gathered updates in a Google doc, available for the Courtyards community to hold Essex accountable for their promises. The updates include Essex’s plan to update the 24 working cameras (ensured to operate 24 hours a day), improve ADA accommodations and keep a schedule for trash pickup.
Priforce also created a Nextdoor group so residents could continue the conversation.
“There is need for transparency,” said Priforce. “We want to come to a resolution and lasting change.”
“If anything, these other [Essex] properties will see and hear that they’re not alone,” said Middleton. “They can also take it upon themselves to get their folks together to find out common concerns.”