Former residents sue landlords over conditions that led to deadly Oakland fire

Flames are seen shooting out of an Oakland apartment building on March, 27, 2017. (KGO-TV)

Several former residents of an Oakland apartment building that was destroyed by fire in March filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the building's owner and master tenants are responsible for the deplorable, slum-like conditions that led to the deadly fire.

At a news conference Wednesday, near an Alameda County courthouse in Oakland, a lawyer for 15 of the former residents said owner Keith Kim and his company, Mead Avenue Housing Associates, knew that the three-story, 43-unit property at 2551 San Pablo Avenue was dangerously dilapidated and yet did little or nothing to properly repair it.

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The March 27 fire erupted in the early morning hours, killing four people, injuring several others and displacing as many as 100 residents.

"It was a fire that was waiting to happen," said the plaintiff's attorney Ken Greenstein. "Keith Kim should have known that a fire like this could have happened."

Greenstein made similar allegations against three non-profit groups, Urojas Community Services, House of Change Inc., and Dignity Housing West Inc., that all allegedly acted as master tenants for several of the property's residents.

All of the defendants are responsible for "the fire and the slum conditions before the fire," Greenstein said.

The building was in such terrible shape before the fire that tenants were forced to endure raw sewage spills, unexpected power outages, intermittent hot water service, rat and insect infestations, exposed wiring, blocked exits and substandard electrical systems, among other problems, according to the complaint.

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Also, the plaintiffs allege that the building's sprinkler system, fire alarm, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers were either nonexistent or not working at the time of the fire.

"If the sprinkler system was functioning properly, this would have been a minor fire," Greenstein said.

Oakland fire officials have said that a candle sparked the accidental blaze and that just three days before the fire, inspectors visited the building and found several safety problems.

Eliza Anderson, one of the plaintiffs, said that she lived with her three children in a three-bedroom apartment on the building's third floor with a sister and two cousins.

On the day of the fire, Anderson's aunt woke them up by kicking down the apartment's door and yelling that a fire had broken out.

Using the light of her cellphone to guide them, Anderson and her children were barely able to make it out of the building via a fire escape, Anderson said.

"All of our neighbors were banging on the walls yelling, 'Fire, fire, fire!" Anderson said. "Me and my kids almost died in that building."

Anderson, who has been living with her children in transitional housing since the fire, said she and other tenants tried unsuccessfully to get the defendants to address the building's many problems.

"We didn't know who was running it," Anderson said. "We didn't know what was really going on."

A lawyer for Keith Kim, William Kronenberg, said in a statement that he had not seen the complaint so couldn't comment on it, but suggested that the Oakland Fire Department's investigation would lead to "some insight into the Urojas management of the property and the living conditions it provided the residents."

Urojas was brought in by one of the other nonprofits named in the suit, Dignity Housing West, and Kim was so concerned about the way Urojas ran its operations that he sought to evict the group, Kronenberg said.

James Cook, a lawyer for Urojas, said his client was not the master tenant and "ultimately had to go to Keith Kim" in order to make any repairs.

The 15 former residents are seeking $125,000 each in actual damages and, from Kim and Mead Avenue Housing, millions of dollars in punitive damages.

They hope that by filing the lawsuit, the defendant's insurance policies will be triggered and the case can head to mediation, Greenstein said.

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