Berkeley co-op threatens to call police to stop civil liberties forum

A forum on civil liberties in housing co-ops, condos, and cohousing that I organized and publicized for this Thursday (10 January 2013) was declared “canceled” today by the manager of the senior housing co-op where it was to take place.

Later today, the co-op’s attorney warned in a letter that any guests who might “trespass or attempt to enter the building” for the forum would be dealt with by “law enforcement authorities”. [Update 8 January 2013: There is an answer to this letter.]

These actions were the latest in a two-year-old dispute over the rights of members at Berkeley Town House, a 60-unit building at Dana and Parker Streets in Berkeley. A March 2012 complaint filed by me against 8 co-op officials in Alameda County Superior Court asserts that co-op officials have been denying rights, promised to all members when they bought in, to assemble and speak freely in the building’s common areas, and have been banning meetings when they dislike the opinions that they expect the speakers to express.

A new co-op manager took over in November 2012 and began demanding strict enforcement of his own interpretation of a house rule on the use of common areas. Under his interpretation, not even 2 persons may meet in the common areas at any time for any purpose, unless they have requested permission from the co-op at least 2 weeks in advance, paid a $25 deposit, and waited to get permission, which the co-op could grant or deny as it sees fit. The deposit wouldn’t be returned unless the space where they had met passed a post-meeting inspection. Want to play a game of Trivial Pursuit? Want to talk politics with a friend? Too bad, you’d better plan that meeting well ahead of time and get out your checkbook, or else do it in the privacy of your own apartment.

Is that what the rule really says? Not at all. It is actually written to (in its own words) “enable the membership at large to freely enjoy the Meeting Space without interference.” What the rule requires permission for is “private” events that a member wants to organize “on a reservation basis”. Do I want to hold a private party in a common room only for my invited guests and keep other members out? Then I must ask permission, and the rule says there will be limits on the duration and frequency of such private reserved events. Makes sense.

What a shame. Berkeley Town House has about 2700 square feet of common space on its ground floor, with a huge kitchen, chairs, sofas, dining tables, an antique record collection and phonograph, a piano, and a 45-inch video display system. Under the management’s draconian enforcement of a rule that exists only in its fantasy, all this space is usually empty of all human beings. After all, who even knows 2 weeks in advance how he or she is going to want to spend a spare evening hour?

The significant issue is not what the rule means. It is why people governing a senior housing co-op in Berkeley, of all places, would actually want to monitor and censor their members’ conversations in the common lounge. But they do, and their insistence on doing so has persisted through all attempts at reasoned discussion. As a recent unbeloved U.S. president would have hypothesized, “they hate our freedom”. And this may explain the peculiar ferocity of the management’s efforts to muzzle this civil-liberties forum. If the forum were allowed, co-op members might actually learn about the rights they have and how to defend those rights.

Real estate brokers sometimes call Berkeley Town House “Berkeley’s best-kept secret”. Perhaps an even-better-kept secret is the current management’s obsession with control. Let BTH be a lesson to all who might want to move into a housing community: Decide what kind of governance over your community’s social life you want, and snoop enough to learn what the political culture really is inside those walls, before you commit your cash to a share of the community. The truth may require some digging, but it’s probably worth the effort.

7 Responses to “Berkeley co-op threatens to call police to stop civil liberties forum”

  1. Carrie says:

    You say: “Perhaps an even-better-kept secret is the current management’s obsession with control. Let BTH be a lesson to all who might want to move into a housing community: Decide what kind of governance over your community’s social life you want, and snoop enough to learn what the political culture really is inside those walls, before you commit your cash to a share of the community.”

    I can add my endorsement to this lesson. Unfortunately we did not attend any Board meetings before we purchased our unit. I think we still would have landed here – and after dealings with the property manager, we decided one of us needed to be on the board. My tenure ended after a year, probably because I was in favor of changing property managers but others preferred the status-quo. I don’t understand the mentality in which residents put up with what seems to me to be excessive control.

    Our community room is small – but I can reserve it for the forum if that helps.

    • Thank you for your kind offer. Those who are organizing this meeting are currently planning to hold it in the same place at a later date. We are determining a course of action to allow the attendees to meet without intimidation or harassment. If we change plans, we’ll keep your offer in mind. I’m happy for you that you have a common space free of thought police.

  2. Ranil Abeysekera says:

    I am very disappointed to hear of this, was looking forward to the participation in an active seminar to address this type of mismanagement in a cooperative setting!
    I am sorry to hear that the BTH has no control of its affairs beyond management.
    Sincerely wish you would contest this and change management.
    BTH and similar co-ops should contribute to the spirit of cooperation amongst the community. Let me know how we in the outside should support your efforts.
    in solidarity,.

    • Thank you for your comment. We are certainly contesting this action, both on the ground and in court. See the reply letter in the next entry here.

      Thank you also for your willingness to help. Expressing your opinion right here, as you have done, helps greatly. When we choose a later date to hold this meeting at BTH, your participation in it will also help. Other opportunities will probably arise.

  3. Jai Jai says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about this, Jonathan. I was looking forward to attending. I have had occasion to visit BTH fairly frequently in the past year or two, as I’ve worked on video projects for several of the members. I’ve always been struck by how underused the lower level spaces are, and to be honest, it leaves a rather ghostly, depressing impression. It makes BTH seem more institutional, and less residential. I visited someone at Strawberry Creek and it is a hotbed of friendly vibrancy in comparison.

    The several times the BTH space was used by the East Bay housing cooperative group for potluck get togethers & to hear speakers (other BTH members also attending & enjoying the event), it was lovely. This management issue seems like one that degrades (and does not understand) cooperatives & smacks of suburban-style property management control. That wonderful common area, kitchen and garden could be such a useful hub of socializing & positive interaction, while still not disturbing the privacy, peace & quiet of other residents not in the mood or inclined to participate. As my parents are aging and considering selling their house and moving closer to me here in Berkeley, BTH is one of the places my folks have pulled up to investigate. This management policy would definitely knock it off the short list.

    Jai Jai
    http://www.JaiJai.com

    • Thanks for your tremendously perceptive observations, Jai Jai. There is a lot of new energy at BTH now, with 14 people actively researching and discussing possible improvements in the amenities enjoyed by residents. If we can shift from war to dialog, this place could regain that Strawberry-Creek-like atmosphere of yore and deserve a place on anybody’s short list. But we’re not there yet.

  4. so well written, but would suggest one revision: beloved U.S. President.

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