A group of about 15 people, both adults and kids, march in the street with protest signs and a megaphone.
Coliseum Connections tenants and activists march to landlord Michael Johnson's house on July 9. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The Oakland City Council spent another $650,000 on the fallout from the Coliseum Connections flood in East Oakland, as displacement drags on for the hundreds of residents who had to flee the building on New Year’s Day.

The Tuesday night vote came during an unusual meeting where a resident representative spoke directly with councilmembers and staff on the floor of the council chambers, and residents privately met with some members of the city administration and council in a separate room.

“I want to get this right,” said Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who proposed the private meeting after several residents shared harrowing stories about their experiences this year and asked for changes to the proposal that was in front of the council.

“From January 1 until today, people have lived in cramped hotels and it’s unacceptable,” said tenant Damion Scott. “This disaster has been a toll on the minds and bodies of dozens of my neighbors. This financial assistance will help folks like myself move on with our lives.”

Earlier this month, several tenants protested at the home of Michael Johnson, owner and developer of Coliseum Connections.

The Tuesday vote enables tenants of the property’s market-rate units—half of the apartments in the mixed-income complex—to access relocation payments. Until now, only tenants of the affordable units were able to receive those funds, which range from around $8,000 to $15,000 per unit. The money comes from a fund that’s designed for affordable housing.

The vote also extended hotel coverage for residents who choose not to take those payments. 

Tenants protest at landlord’s house

During a New Year’s Eve storm, water came gushing into the underground garage at the 71st Avenue building, drowning the cars parked in it. PG&E cut the power throughout the property to avoid safety hazards, and hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate their homes in the morning. 

Tenants were initially told they could move back within days. That timeline turned into weeks, and then months, with the owner citing supply-chain issues and difficulty finding a contractor. Now Johnson has told residents that the building should reopen in late August. 

“Work on the construction repairs to the building is well underway and is continuing so far with no major issues,” he told tenants in a letter this week.

On Sunday, July 9, several residents marched to Johnson’s house near Piedmont Avenue, alongside organizers from TANC

They chanted and circled up, yelling words to describe the emotions they felt: “Frustrated!” “Unheard!” “Righteousness!” 

“Since the flooding, it’s been really stressful and emotional—heartbreaking,” said 11-year-old Sureneity, one of the displaced residents.

“I feel like I can’t be a kid anymore,” added her sister Sapphire, 9. “We’ve been stuck in the hotel and I can’t do my own personal stuff that I do in my own home.”

At two separate points, Oakland police showed up on the scene, saying residents on the block had called them. They did not attempt to stop the protest, which was held on the street and sidewalk. 

Nobody came out of Johnson’s house that morning, but visible through a window was a hand holding up a cellphone, seemingly filming the protesters. The previous month, a smaller group of tenants came to the house to deliver a letter to Johnson, and had a tense interaction with him and his wife, captured on video.

The Oaklandside reached out to Johnson for comment after Tuesday’s vote. In response, he shared the letter he sent this week to tenants responding to their requests, which included better security at Coliseum Connections, rent reductions, and more communication.

He also asked them to stop protesting at his house: “It is not productive, and is very disturbing to my family.”

Johnson’s company, UrbanCore, does not have a public office location.

Tenants don’t want to choose between hotels and payments

On Tuesday, one sticking point for Coliseum Connections tenants was the requirement to choose between accepting relocation payments and staying in hotels. 

Around April, some of the low-income tenants had accepted the payments because, at the time, they were told they’d be able to move back to their building in June. They used the funds for short-term lodging or crashed with relatives. Now, several people told the council, those situations are ending and they can’t return to either their apartments or the hotels.

Some tenants are squatting in their dark, damp apartments, and others are living in cars, they said Tuesday.

A pregnant tenant told the council she’s giving birth soon, and her short-term housing is ending.

“Please, if you can take care of my kids, I would be so happy for that,” she said.

Other tenants, from market-rate units, said they’ve given up and moved to new apartments already, but want access to relocation payments to help offset their higher rents and moving costs.

City staff said they’re counting on FEMA to reimburse the relocation payments. The particular federal program is designed to support people who would otherwise be homeless without the funding. The administration believes Oakland would jeopardize its chance at reimbursement if they let people both access the payments and stay in a hotel covered by the city.

The council ultimately kept the requirement that tenants choose either the payments or the hotels. But Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who introduced Tuesday’s emergency ordinance along with councilmembers Carroll Fife and Kevin Jenkins, extended the deadline for the residents to make that decision. 

The item passed with seven votes in favor. Councilmember Janani Ramachandran was absent from the vote. 

Who should pay?

Coliseum Connections protest 2
Resident Faviola Abendano leads chants outside Michael Johnson’s house. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Johnson initially covered the costs of the hotel rooms for residents, but he told the council in February that he couldn’t afford to anymore. The city took over, to the tune of $4 million, which staff also expect to be reimbursed by FEMA.

The $650,000 in relocation payments approved on Tuesday is in addition to the $750,000 the council previously approved for low-income residents. The city also covered the $500 immediate payments that each unit was entitled to.

The city and property owner have argued over who’s responsible for many of these payments, according to city reports and letters obtained by The Oaklandside. Johnson has argued that the amount he spent on hotels—reportedly over $1 million—fulfills any obligation he has, and that he’s exempt from certain payments because the flood was a natural disaster out of his control. 

The city has told him that he hasn’t proven a lack of culpability. The city may demand reimbursement from Johnson or place a lien on the property, Tuesday’s report indicates. 

At the meeting, Fife said that, even with the additional funding, there are unresolved issues for tenants of Coliseum Connections. She proposed revisiting the situation in the fall.

Correction: This article previously misstated the total amount of money the city of Oakland has spent on the Coliseum Connections crisis so far. The city has spent at least $5.7 million, not $3.4 million.

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.