BERKELEY -- Adam Bolt woke up gagging in his smoke-filled third-floor Berkeley apartment around 4 a.m. March 8, 2012. "I didn't wake up to smoke detectors or smoke alarms — but for the grace of God, I woke up," Bolt told the City Council at its meeting this week.
Now a second-year law school student at UC Davis, Bolt, 23, came back to Berkeley, where he had been an undergraduate, to ask the council to keep rents at the six-unit property at 2227 Dwight Way affordable when it is rebuilt, and to hold landlord Lakireddy Bali Reddy at fault for negligence contributing to the fire that almost destroyed the property.
Bolt and about a dozen others, including representatives of the Associated Students of the University of California and Cal Berkeley Democrats, were at the meeting Tuesday appealing a zoning board ruling that the property owner is not required to pay into an affordable housing fund when rebuilding the structure.
Planning staff agreed with the zoning board, saying that because the multiunit property is to be rebuilt just as it was, the owner has no obligation to pay into the affordable housing fund.
Appellants argued that, despite a fire inspector ruling that the blaze was accidental, property owner Reddy contributed to the destruction through negligence, including not having working fire alarms and smoke detectors, and should therefore be required to pay into the housing fund.
After listening to public testimony, the council voted unanimously to uphold and clarify the zoning board decision. The property owner will not be required to pay into the affordable housing fund, but the six rebuilt units will remain under rent control; previous tenants have the right to reoccupy the apartments at the previous rent-controlled rates; and the displaced tenants are eligible for relocation assistance.
The council also voted to make rental housing inspection safety reports on the property over the past five years available to the public.
Rent Board member Asa Dodsworth, speaking for himself, underscored to the council what he called the "negligence" contributing to the fire of "the property owner with a notorious history."
Reddy -- who with his family owns or manages some 1,200 rental units in Berkeley, according to the city rent board staff -- became known to the public when, in 1999, 17-year-old Chanti Prattipati died from carbon monoxide poisoning in one of his apartments. The death was deemed accidental, due to a blocked heater vent.
Prattipati's death, however, led to the discovery that Reddy had brought minors from India to work on his Berkeley properties and serve him sexually. In 2001, he was convicted on charges of transporting a minor for illegal sex, conspiracy to commit immigration fraud, submitting a false tax return and obstruction of justice. He served about seven years in prison.
Reddy representative Andy Cohn addressed the council, saying that most of the tenants at the Dwight Way property had already accepted settlements with the owner, received relocation assistance as part of the settlements and agreed not to move back into the apartments.
Cohn said Reddy agrees with the finding that the rebuilt units will be rent controlled. "But insofar that these tenants have given up ... whatever rights they had, then (Reddy) can re-rent them and Costa Hawkins (Rental Housing Act on vacancy decontrol) provides that he can re-rent them at whatever level he wants to," Cohn said.
Councilman Jesse Arreguin underscored the need in the future to take property owner negligence into account when determining fault in a fire. "We need to look at (new) policy," he said.