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Claiming Neglect, City Towers Tenants and Supporters Organize

City Towers tenants, have been outspoken in their complaints about VPM. In four interviews with tenants and 14 written statements shared with this reporter, 18 City Towers residents claimed mistreatment from the company. A dozen of these tenants complained of mold, 10 of broken appliances, seven of security mistreating residents and/or providing insufficient services, six of mice and/or roach infestations. Six tenants also complained of urine and/or feces in elevators and/or stairways, which they say occurs because security does not stop outsiders from entering their buildings. During onsite visits, this reporter walked through unlocked entrances in all three City Towers high-rises and was not asked by security to check in, or who they were visiting.

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Katie Latimer (left) of The United Front Against Displacement and City Towers' tenant Ali Boutte (right) in Boutte's apartment in West Oakland on May 6. Photo by Zack Haber.
Katie Latimer (left) of The United Front Against Displacement and City Towers' tenant Ali Boutte (right) in Boutte's apartment in West Oakland on May 6. Photo by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

Tenants living in City Towers Apartments, a 231-unit affordable housing project located in three high-rises in West Oakland, are organizing for healthier and more secure living conditions with the help of local supporters. They claim that neglect from VPM Management Inc, the Irvine-based company in charge of providing services to the units, has caused their homes to fall into disrepair and become unsanitary and unsafe.

“I’m scared to live in my unit,” said Elise Jones, who’s lived in City Towers for over 16 years. “I don’t think we should have to suffer in our homes just because we’re in poverty.”

According to Jones, the apartment she shares with her son has maggot and mice infestations and a stove that no longer works. She says she’s put in work orders to Don McShane, VPM’s site manager, who has not yet fixed these issues.

In July of last year when a leak in her apartment came to her attention, Jones says she immediately informed McShane, but he delayed responding to the issue. Her rugs, clothes and furniture were destroyed as the leak grew and her apartment became increasingly damp.

“I knew it was unsafe for me and my son to be there,” Jones said. “But I was told it had to be a real emergency for them to come due to the [COVID-19] shut-downs.”

Jones reports that in September, VPM Management Inc. fixed the leak, but did not address mold that had begun to grow on her floor.

The Oakland Post contacted McShane by phone, who declined an interview request for this story and suggested contacting VPM’s corporate phone number. While The Oakland Post called, no one from VPM returned voicemail messages requesting comment. This reporter also emailed detailed questions to VPM CEO Philip H. McNamee and Regional Manager Rose Palmer but received no response.

City Towers tenants, in turn, have been outspoken in their complaints about VPM. In four interviews with tenants and 14 written statements shared with this reporter, 18 City Towers residents claimed mistreatment from the company. A dozen of these tenants complained of mold, 10 of broken appliances, seven of security mistreating residents and/or providing insufficient services, six of mice and/or roach infestations. Six tenants also complained of urine and/or feces in elevators and/or stairways, which they say occurs because security does not stop outsiders from entering their buildings. During onsite visits, this reporter walked through unlocked entrances in all three City Towers high-rises and was not asked by security to check in, or who they were visiting.

Of the 18 tenants who complained of mistreatment, 11 mentioned that their requests to VPM to fix issues were ignored or not responded to for long periods of time, while two said they were afraid to file complaints for fear of retaliation.

“Everything is broke,” said City Towers tenant Ali Boutte. “It takes four to six months for them to fix something here. That’s ridiculous.”

“I hate this place,” said City Towers tenant Tamara Hubbard, who shared complaints of mold in her apartment that have not been addressed. “I’ve been having a lot of asthma attacks. I wake up coughing in the middle of the night.”

City Towers tenants have begun taking their complaints directly to VPM Management Inc in a unified manner.

“We are tired of mistreatment of low-income tenants and this is only the first step towards uniting people against the day to day injustices,” reads a petition that over 90 City Towers residents signed since March and was delivered to VPM on April 1.

The petition complains of neglect and demands better maintenance and security measures in common areas, as well as relocation of elderly and disabled tenants from floors near the top of the buildings, which residents say pose safety issues in the event of an emergency evacuation.

Such an evacuation was needed when a fire struck one of City Tower’s high-rises during the afternoon of Feb. 15. A report from the Oakland Fire Department shows two City Towers tenants and three firefighters were hospitalized that day.

In a written statement, Melvin Parker, an older City Tower’s resident who lives on the 10th floor, described escaping the fire as “a nightmare,” as “people were bumping into each other,” because “there were no lights in the stairwell so you couldn’t see.”

While the fire put residents in danger, the event garnered attention that helped bring them together with the surrounding community and each other. Katie Latimer, who lives near City Towers and is part of The United Front Against Displacement, an anti-gentrification organization which has recently organized with low income tenants living in Boston, Harlem and San Francisco, said the incident motivated the organization to get involved.

Aware that a fire killed 17 tenants of a Bronx high-rise when a space heater malfunctioned last January, and that residents of that apartment had complained that their landlord had failed to provide central heating shortly before the fire, Latimer and other UFAD members wondered if neglect had played a role in the fire occurring at City Towers, and if residents were facing issues they could organize around.

“We know people in low-income housing are going through a lot of [stuff] that’s not right these days,” said Latimer, “and that it’s easier to organize when there’s a large number of people with the same landlord and similar complaints.”

Five members of the organization started knocking on doors to learn more about residents’ experiences. When they found out that many were facing problems, they started meeting every week with residents to unify tenants and organize responses. The group has been sharing printed information at the high-rises, such as possible continuing onsite fire hazards and information about the companies behind City Towers. Jones, along with fellow City Towers tenant Loucrita Johnson, have joined UFAD’s outreach efforts to bring in more tenants to organize.

“I’ve learned not to be afraid to fight back,” said Johnson. “I want to continue to work on this with other tenants until something gets done about City Towers.”

In April, UFAD and tenants filed complaints to Oakland’s Inspection and Code Enforcement Services which resulted in the city sending KDF City Towers LP, the Newport Beach-based company that owns City Towers and has hired VPM Management Inc, three “notice of violation” letters. The letters accuse KDF of code violations on three units and common areas in two City Towers high-rises including inoperable heaters and electrical outlets, as well as leaks and damage to bathtubs, lights, and cabinets. KDF must now fix the issues, file an appeal, or face fines.

The Oakland Post sent multiple emails requesting comment on this story to co-founders Marquis E Hyatt and Paul Fruchbom of KDF Communities LLC, the company that owns KDF City Towers LP, but did not receive a response.

On April 18, City Towers residents received a note from VPM Management Inc. that stated “Due to the COVID Pandemic, Management has been unable to perform annual unit inspections for over 2 years. Because of this, many of the apartment homes have many maintenance items that need to be addressed.”

The note also said that VPM was hiring a company to help them with repairs that would start on May 2. On May 10, City Towers tenant Ali Boutte told this reporter VPM had recently taken photos of things in his home that needed to be repaired and told him they would soon be worked on.

UFAD has been continuing to meet with tenants and on May 7, they showed films about tenant organizing in an informal gathering in an effort to bring City Towers residents together. Members of the organization and tenants told this reporter that they feel their work has caused a response from VPM Management Inc, but that there is still a lot of work to be done to adequately address all the issues.

“We all have the same stories, and the tenants want change,” said Jones. “I’m not going to stop. I’m going to fight for tenant rights and not be silent.”

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Activism

Calif. Leaders Discuss Foster Care Reform Strategies for Black and Brown Youth

Before becoming a nationally recognized social justice leader and a member of California’s Mandated Reporting Taskforce, Shane Harris spent 13 years as a foster care youth after he lost both of his parents. As President of the national civil rights organization, People’s Association of Justice Advocates (PAJA), he’s aiming to solve some of the toughest challenges Black and Brown children in the foster care system face.

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Shane Harris, PAJA President and member of the California Mandated Reporting Taskforce (center) with Hafsa Kaka, Senior Advisor on Homelessness to Governor Gavin Newsom and Dr. Janet Kelly, Founder & Director of Sanctuary of Hope LA (far right) (Lila Brown CBM)
Shane Harris, PAJA President and member of the California Mandated Reporting Taskforce (center) with Hafsa Kaka, Senior Advisor on Homelessness to Governor Gavin Newsom and Dr. Janet Kelly, Founder & Director of Sanctuary of Hope LA (far right) (Lila Brown CBM)

By Lila Brown, California Black Media  

 Before becoming a nationally recognized social justice leader and a member of California’s Mandated Reporting Taskforce, Shane Harris spent 13 years as a foster care youth after he lost both of his parents. As President of the national civil rights organization, People’s Association of Justice Advocates (PAJA), he’s aiming to solve some of the toughest challenges Black and Brown children in the foster care system face.

During National Foster Care Month in May, Harris visited the Sanctuary of Hope in Los Angeles to host a roundtable meeting with current and former foster youth, many of whom, like Harris, have beat the odds and become successful professionals.

According to the federal government’s Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, there are nearly 370,000 American children and youth in foster care.

Nationally, Black children are overrepresented in foster care. According to datacenter.kidscount.org, Black children represented 14% of the total child population in the United States. However, they represented 23% of all children in foster care. Harris pointed out that one out of every four foster youth go homeless upon exiting foster care in California. Across the state, there are nearly 65,000 children in foster care, he added. Of the 65,000 children in foster care across California, 14,000 of them are Black American.

Harris also announced a new effort already underway to push for the removal of the term “case” in L.A. County when referring to foster youth during the roundtable which featured Hafsa Kaka, Senior Advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Janet Kelly, the Founder and Director of Sanctuary of Hope. The session focused on solving problems foster youth face.

Sharing personal stories, insights, and various visions for policy changes, the participants discussed numerous solutions and addressed specific concerns about ongoing challenges with the foster care system.

One top priority was how to close the foster care to homelessness pipeline for the disproportionate number of Black and Brown children in LA County’s and the state’s foster care system.

“When you see the direct connection between the disproportionate rates of Black children in foster care and the disproportionate rates of Black people in the general homeless population, there is a very clear connection there in which our foster youth are coming out of care,” stated Harris during opening remarks.

Kaka said the governor has been intentional about making sure that foster children are homeless prioritized as the state addresses homelessness.

“This is a critical moment for foster care,” said Kaka. “The systems that are working together are looking at leveraging federal, state and local funds.”

Harris said he has already begun efforts in San Diego County to drop the word “case” when referring to homeless youth.

“We are asking for a 90-day public input period, in which the county CEO and leadership can facilitate discussions with the community on replacement terminology. There’s plenty of ideas,” Harris elaborated.

Kelly said a majority of the youth who go through the Sanctuary of Hope program are young people who have experienced some form of housing instability or housing crisis.

“The goal of the work that we do is really centered around helping young people leave here with leadership skills and other forms of what we call protective factors in order for them to continue on with their stabilization journey and become loving, caring and active citizens in this world,” Kelly said.

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U.S. Rep. Kamlager-Dove Leads Discussion on Improving Black Student Learning, Test Scores

Kamlager-Dove, who represents a district that covers parts of Los Angeles County, hopes that ideas shared at the event can be incorporated into models that can impact other regions across California, where Black students continue to fall behind their peers of other races and ethnicities.

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Congresswoman Kamlager-Dove (CA-37) moderates a panel including Dr. Kortne Edogun-Ticey, Senior Advisor, U.S. Department of Education during Roundtable on Equity in Education for Los Angeles Unified School District (R to L) beside Kamlager-Dove Dr. Robert Whitman, Educational Transformation Officer, Los Angeles USD; Dr. Kortne Edogun-Ticey, Senior Advisor, U.S. Department of Education; Keith Linton, Founder, Boys to Gentlemen, Dr. Pedro Noguera, Distinguished Professor and Dean, University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and LAUSD student Jonathan McGee. Photo by Lila Brown (CBM).
Congresswoman Kamlager-Dove (CA-37) moderates a panel including Dr. Kortne Edogun-Ticey, Senior Advisor, U.S. Department of Education during Roundtable on Equity in Education for Los Angeles Unified School District (R to L) beside Kamlager-Dove Dr. Robert Whitman, Educational Transformation Officer, Los Angeles USD; Dr. Kortne Edogun-Ticey, Senior Advisor, U.S. Department of Education; Keith Linton, Founder, Boys to Gentlemen, Dr. Pedro Noguera, Distinguished Professor and Dean, University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and LAUSD student Jonathan McGee. Photo by Lila Brown (CBM).

By Lila Brown, California Black Media

On April 8, U.S. Congressmember Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA-37) moderated a roundtable focused on Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) strategies to improve Black student performance in classrooms.

Kamlager-Dove, who represents a district that covers parts of Los Angeles County, hopes that ideas shared at the event can be incorporated into models that can impact other regions across California, where Black students continue to fall behind their peers of other races and ethnicities.

Discussions at the event centered on LAUSD’s Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP) and other educational initiatives aimed at enhancing learning and boosting test scores.

“The Black Student Achievement Plan is unique in that it takes a community-centered approach to uplifting Black students,” said Kamlager-Dove during the event held at John Muir Middle School in Los Angeles.

“We must implement culturally responsive education in the classroom to challenge our students academically while giving them a sense of purpose,” she continued.

In 2023, nearly 70% of Black children in California fell below a passing mark on the state standardized English Language Arts exam, and only about 20% of those students were performing at grade level based on their scores on the math assessment test.

A variety of public education experts joined Kamlager on the panel, including Dr. Kortne Edogun-Ticey, Senior Advisor, U.S. Department of Education; Dr. Robert Whitman, Educational Transformation Officer at LAUSD; Dr. Pedro Noguera, Professor and Dean at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education; and Keith Linton, founder of the non-profit Boys to Gentlemen. 

Jonathan McGee, a student who sits on the BSAP Student Advisory Council, also spoke during the panel.

The BSAP was approved by the LAUSD Board of Education in February of the 2020-21 school year. Funds have been earmarked to address the longstanding disparities in educational outcomes between Black students and their non-Black peers. Dating back to the landmark case, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional, positive outcomes for Black students continue to lag behind district and national averages for their non-Black counterparts.

Edogun-Ticey spoke about broader investments the federal government is making in education that directly impact Black students through The White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Black Americans.

‘This administration did not shy away from the idea that we need resources for support which means billions of dollars in investment for HBCUs,” she explained.

BSAP strategies include partnering with Black families and local community; supporting the implementation of culturally and linguistically responsive and anti-racist practices; offering wrap-around support structures; and highlighting experiences that uplift the contributions of the Black community as motivation and models to develop positive Black student identity. Additionally, the BSAP provides increased staffing to support Black students’ academic and social-emotional needs.

“School districts across the country must push back against attacks on marginalized students by implementing programs like the BSAP, which should serve as a model for future initiatives,” Kamlager said.

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Activism

Legislature Advances, Renumbers, Sen. Bradford’s Reparation Freedmen’s Agency Bill

The bill, formerly entitled SB 490, moves on to the Committee on Governmental Organization.  SB 1403 would create a new state agency responsible for the administration and oversight of reparations as determined by the Legislature and Governor. 

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Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Inglewood) and Los Angeles-based attorney Kamilah Moore (right), the chairperson of the task force during its two-year study.
Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Inglewood) and Los Angeles-based attorney Kamilah Moore (right), the chairperson of the task force during its two-year study.

By California Black Media

On April 9, the California Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-1 to advance Sen. Steven Bradford’s reparation legislation, Senate Bill (SB) 1403, or the “California American Freedman Affairs Agency” bill.

The bill, formerly entitled SB 490, moves on to the Committee on Governmental Organization.  SB 1403 would create a new state agency responsible for the administration and oversight of reparations as determined by the Legislature and Governor.

Creation of the agency is one of more than 115  recommendations the nine-member California reparations task force included in its final report. The bill would require the agency to determine how an individual’s status as a descendant of an enslaved person in the United States would be confirmed.

SB 1403 would require proof of an “individual’s descendant status” to be a qualifying criterion for benefits authorized by the state for descendants, as stated in the bill’s language. To reach these goals, SB 1403 would mandate the agency to be comprised of a Genealogy Office and an Office of Legal Affairs.

In 2020, California established the first-in-the-nation task force to study reparations for African Americans.

Los Angeles-based attorney Kamilah Moore, the chairperson of the task force during its two-year study, was at the State Capitol to address the members of the Judiciary Committee as an expert witness. The attorney and scholar said the bill aims to serve individuals based on lineage rather than race.

“Today, I advocate with a sense of urgency and purpose for the passage of SB 1403, a groundbreaking bill poised to establish the California American Freedmen’s Agency,” Moore told the panel. “This agency symbolizes a crucial stride towards reparative justice, particularly for those whose lineages trace back to enslaved ancestors.”

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