Four women hed up the stairs in a modern townhouse.
Coliseum Connections tenant Faviola Abenado-Ramos (in mask) walks visitors into her townhouse, where her unit has been frozen in time since the family was displaced on New Year's Day. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The owner of Coliseum Connections, where hundreds of residents are still displaced months after a New Year’s Eve flood, has filed a legal claim against the city of Oakland, alleging it’s the city’s fault the building was inundated with water.

“Storm and other drainage systems backed up and failed to properly drain water from City streets,” Michael Johnson and his attorney Allison Crane wrote in a claim that was received by the city in July and obtained by The Oaklandside. 

According to Johnson, who’s the developer and owner of the 71st Avenue property, the flood exposed him to litigation by displaced tenants. Court records show that four Coliseum Connections renters have filed lawsuits against Johnson. He says another flood could occur and further harm the property, which includes a large apartment building and several townhouses. Johnson is seeking financial damages from the city in an unspecified amount greater than $10,000.

When the city receives a legal claim, it can either accept responsibility and settle with the person who filed it, or reject the claim and open the door to a lawsuit. The city attorney’s office declined to comment about the status of Johnson’s claim. 

Johnson also declined to comment on whether Oakland has responded to the claim or whether he plans to sue the city.

If the city is deemed responsible for the flood, that may also impact whether or not Johnson is on the hook for paying the tenants’ relocation funds.

So far the city has paid out around $5.7 million on costs associated with the crisis.

While Johnson and the management company at the time, FPI, covered the first few weeks of hotel costs for the displaced residents, they told the city they’d exhausted their funds in February. The city has covered the payments since then, hoping to eventually get reimbursed by FEMA, a federal disaster response agency. 

The city has also covered initial $500 payments to all tenants, a loan to cover the repairs, and $8,000 to $15,000 relocation payments for tenants who choose to take that money instead of staying in hotels. Oakland and Johnson have squabbled over who’s legally responsible for covering the relocation fees.

Tenants reflect on a traumatic eight months

About 20 people of all ages and backgrounds sit on fold-out chairs outside of a building on a sunny day. Some look at a woman who's speaking through a microphone.
Coliseum Connections residents gathered outside the building Wednesday evening, at a meeting they’d hoped their landlord and more officials would attend. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

On Wednesday evening, several tenants—many with babies and children in tow—gathered outside Coliseum Connections for what they’d hoped would be a meeting with Johnson and a who’s-who of elected officials in Oakland and Alameda County.

Of all their invitees, only District 6 Councilmember Kevin Jenkins, who represents the Coliseum area, and District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife attended.

The residents, along with activists from the tenant advocacy group TANC, used the evening to reflect on the hardships of the past eight months, both commiserating and encouraging one another to keep pushing for a resolution. Throughout the year, they’ve pleaded with Johnson, FPI, and local officials for more support and a speedier conclusion to the crisis.

“It’s a lot of trauma, a lot of emotional stress,” said resident Dream Braggs. “Our voices will not be silenced.”

The group also gave guests a short tour of Coliseum Connections, where apartments are eerily frozen in time. Christmas decorations are still up on walls and doors, clothes piled on beds, and kids’ art supplies set up on a desk. A monstera plant wilted in one corner.

One resident opened her freezer to show mold that developed inside after power was abruptly cut to avoid electrical hazards in the flood. Another unit had visible mold on the window shades, which the tenant said predated the crisis. 

A wilted monstera plant in an apartment, where lots of boxes and art supplies are crammed on a desk.
A plant wilts in a townhouse. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Johnson, who told The Oaklandside that repairs will be complete by the end of the month, said mold was only identified in a couple of laundry machines, and that the air was “tested and signed off by the city building department.”

Power has been partially restored in the main building recently. Lights were on in the hallways Wednesday, though elevators are still down.

Tenants said they’re skeptical they’ll be able to move back in a few weeks, because the reopening date has been changed so many times. They’re also concerned about rent hikes that Johnson has said are coming. Half of the 110 units are affordable housing priced at rates set by the government for low-income tenants. The other half are market-rate, and Johnson has more leeway in raising those prices.

Privacy, Internet issues at hotels

Papers labeled with months are stuck to a building. One one labeled "Current," people have written, "fed up," "trying to be patient," and "still displaced."
Tenants filled out a timeline, tracking their emotions and experiences over the course of a tumultuous eight months. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The informal nature of Wednesday evening’s outdoor meeting gave the residents time and space to talk about experiences that don’t fit into the two-minute “public comments” they’re now used to making at City Council meetings. 

They talked about the toll taken on their bodies and minds after living in hotel rooms for months on end, not knowing when to expect a return to normalcy.

“I’ve just been wanting to go back home,” said a boy, who sat on his bicycle while listening to his parents and former neighbors. “I have a comfortable bed there, and a TV that has good shows.” 

Multiple tenants agreed the “Internet sucks” in the hotels, making it impossible at times to get work or school assignments done. Another tenant said it took him ages to replace his car that was submerged in the flood, preventing him from picking up his daughter at school—a rare chance he gets to see her, in a joint-custody agreement. 

One woman recalled the horror of waking up in the middle of the night to U.S. Marshals shouting in the hotel hallway. Looking out the peephole in her door, she saw they had “guns a-blazing” and they’d barricaded her door and the one across from it. It turned out there had been a fugitive holed up in the hotel room that faced hers.

“There are issues with privacy,” added tenant Josue Franco, who once had an entire family walk into his hotel room after they’d been given the wrong information. 

At the hotel, “it’s the same routine over and over,” he said. “You see guests come and go, but you’re still there. It feels like a prison.”

City councilmembers Kevin Jenkins and Carroll Fife sit amongst other people, with serious expressions.
Oakland City Councilmembers Kevin Jenkins and Carroll Fife listen to Coliseum Connections tenants discuss the hardships of the past several months. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Franco began crying while talking with The Oaklanside about his beloved feline companion, who was under 2 years old and doing well before the flood happened. He said the young cat died shortly after he was forced to move her into non-ideal circumstances at a friends’ house, which he expected to be a short-term situation.

“It feels like life cheated me,” he said.

“It’s disconcerting” that Johnson didn’t attend the meeting Wednesday, Franco said. “It’s a slap in the face.” 

Jenkins and Fife addressed the residents briefly, both saying they had to “be careful” about not “saying too much,” apparently alluding to Johnson’s legal claim. 

“Anything you need—even if it’s something the city can’t provide, I’ll fundraise myself,” said Jenkins. 

“You all are taking the right steps by organizing,” Fife said.

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.