Workers pumped the Coliseum Connections garage on Tues., Jan. 3, after rainwater inundated the structure on New Year's Eve. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Hundreds of people were displaced from an East Oakland apartment complex on New Year’s Day after the parking garage flooded and PG&E cut power.

The residents of Coliseum Connections, a development with half affordable and half market-rate apartments, are now staying at a hotel by the airport for at least several more days. They’re unclear what conditions their homes will be in when they return.

The complex, which consists of 44 townhouses and a 66-unit building, was constructed in 2019 by UrbanCore and the Oakland Economic Development Corporation using prefabricated “modular” units. The city of Oakland and Alameda County both provided funding for the project, which was built on BART land in exchange for the property giving a large chunk of rent profits to the transit agency.

Alex Vila, who lives at the 71st Avenue property with her wife, said the first sign that something was wrong came in an email from the property management company, FPI, the morning of Dec. 31. The email said the underground parking garage was flooded and the elevator was out of service, and that the company was working with the city to clean the storm drains.

“It didn’t make it sound horrible,” said Vila. But a couple hours later, she decided to check on the couple’s Jeep after seeing a neighbor move his beloved motorcycle out of the garage. She found brown mucky water up to her knees, she said, but was able to move the car. 

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The 110-unit complex by the Coliseum BART station consists of an apartment building and rows of townhouses. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

That evening, the couple emerged from their fourth-floor apartment to head to their 6 p.m. New Year’s Eve dinner reservation to find the power was out in much of the building. 

“The halls were pitch dark and the elevators weren’t working,” she said. Residents began accumulating in the lobby, concerned. According to Vila, the townhouses, many housing multi-generational, low-income families, had also lost power and hot water. They hadn’t heard any updates from their on-site property manager or the company. 

Vila said there are many vulnerable residents living at Coliseum Connections so she felt a responsibility to get to the bottom of the situation and make sure they were safe. She said she pleaded with the on-site manager to provide more information. Around the same time, PG&E showed up and cut power for the whole complex, after discovering water in the electrical panel box, according to Vila.

She and her wife forwent their dim sum reservation in Emeryville, and spent the holiday “in the cold, dark, smelly apartment building,” Vila said. 

Residents woke up on New Year’s Day to an email from the property manager telling them to leave. Another email later that morning said they would all be provided rooms at the Courtyard Marriott by the Oakland Airport, Vila said. Residents are receiving a free meal each day at the hotel. Vila said they were told the building is expected to reopen Friday, but another storm is forecasted for this week

Vila lives in one of the market-rate apartments, and said she and her wife have the resources to handle an emergency like this one.

“My biggest concern is that we have families and elderly and disabled people,” she said. According to her, a pregnant resident is expecting any day now. And when the elevator went out of service, a man who uses a wheelchair had to slide down the stairs on his back while someone carried his chair, Vila said.

“The management company didn’t do a wellness check,” she said. “This is the United States of America,” said Vila, an immigrant from South America, incredulously.

It’s unclear what caused the garage to flood so extensively

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Jasmine Braggs watched over the complex Jan. 3, making sure her apartment and her neighbors’ were safe in the dark. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

On Tuesday afternoon, residents were coming in and out of their pitch-black building, grasping flashlights so they could retrieve their belongings and bring them back to the hotel. Workers were pumping the garage, which was still swamped.

“Cars are floating around in there,” said Jasmine Braggs, another resident who’s taken a lead on assisting her neighbors. She was standing watch from her second-floor window, because residents are concerned their empty building will be vulnerable to theft. 

“We are working with the city, the county, and our property management team on this situation, and assisting the residents in every way possible,” said Michael Johnson, president of UrbanCore Development, in an email responding to questions from The Oaklandside. “I have no further comment at this time.”

The Oaklandside has reached out to property manager FPI and the city of Oakland, and we will update this story if we hear back.

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Families staying at the hotel this week returned to their apartments to retrieve belongings. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Since the building opened almost four years ago, around six residents have filed habitability complaints with city code inspectors, complaining of mold, pests, and overflowing garbage, and saying heating systems were left broken for months. 

When the complex opened in 2019, it was celebrated as an investment in a long-neglected neighborhood and a “transit-oriented development” allowing residents to hop on BART right outside their doors. That’s one of the reasons Vila and her wife moved there, since Vila has worked in San Francisco and West Oakland. She also felt at home in a property that’s almost entirely residents of color, she said.

Since moving to the hotel, the displaced residents have been meeting regularly. They’ve come up with a list of demands, including financial reimbursement of their losses in the flood, handling of deferred maintenance needs, and safety protocols for future emergencies.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.