City Sues Oakland Landlords for Bulldozing Family

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Oakland, California, has sued the two landlords who tore down part of their two-story house while a disabled tenant and his son were living inside.

The city claims in Alameda County Court that property owners Eugene Gorelik and Jessica Sawczuk illegally evicted 65-year-old Jahahara Alkebulan-Ma’at last year from the house where he had lived for 22 years, and told him to be out by Christmas Day.

Alkebulan-Ma’at refused to leave until he found affordable housing elsewhere in Oakland, so Gorelik began demolishing portions of the house, including Alkebulan-Ma’at’s unit, while he was still living there, the city says.

“The owners of this property have demonstrated zero respect for the law, and zero regard for the rights or the well-being of the tenant and his minor son,” Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a statement Tuesday.

Gorelik and Sawczuk, a married couple, wanted to build more rental units on the property, according to the city’s April 26 complaint. The property, which consisted of a two-story main house and a one-story addition in the rear, had three rental units when the couple bought it in May 2016, but Alkebulan-Ma’at and his son were the only ones who lived there.

Alkebulan-Ma’at paid $725 for a bedroom and dining room in the main house and a bathroom and living room in the rear addition.

The eviction notice stated that Alkebulan-Ma’at’s unit was illegal and unpermitted by the city, so it was not covered by the city’s Just Cause Ordinance. But the city says it never inspected the property or made a determination that Alkebulan-Ma’at’s apartment was illegal or exempt from the statute.

Gorelik and Sawczuk filed an eviction lawsuit against Alkebulan-Ma’at in January after he refused to leave, and by March had shut off all of his utilities, including heat and electricity, the city says. Shortly after, they changed the locks on Alkebulan-Ma’at’s apartment, though his belongings and medication for his disability were still inside.

That same day, the city says, Gorelik emailed Alkebulan-Ma’at, telling him that “if you set foot on the premises again without my permission, I will not only call the police to arrest you for trespass but I will defend my property. I repeat, do not set foot on the premises again without my permission or there will be consequences.”

The next day, while Alkebulan-Ma’at was at the hospital getting emergency doses of his medication, a demolition crew began tearing down portions of the roof and walls of the house, including ones belonging to Alkebulan-Ma’at’s apartment, according to the complaint. Gorelik refused to allow Alkebulan-Ma’at into the apartment after Alkebulan-Ma’at called police, but an officer let Alkebulan-Ma’at in through an unlocked window.

Alkebulan-Ma’at slept in the partially razed apartment for two nights, and the city says Gorelick entered the apartment both nights through a demolished portion of the wall, unannounced, and told Alkebulan-Ma’at to leave and that he’d “better not be there in the morning.”

Gorelik then demolished most of the rear addition, where Alkebulan-Ma’at’s bathroom and living room were, and he and his son were forced to vacate. Alkebulan-Ma’at has been homeless ever since, and his son lives with relatives.

“Changing the locks, shutting off utilities and demolishing a tenant’s home in the middle of an unlawful detainer action are of course illegal under Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance,” Parker said. “The owners’ campaign of threats and harassment is especially outrageous in a city that is struggling with a historic housing crisis.”

The city seeks injunction requiring Gorelik and Sawczuk to obtain permits before doing any more construction work on the property, offer Alkebulan-Ma’at an apartment on the property when construction is complete at the same rent he had been paying before leaving, and hire a city-approved property manager to oversee it.

It also wants Gorelik and Sawczuk to reimburse Alkebulan-Ma’at  for his relocation expenses for the next two years, and for Gorelik and Sawczuk to attend anger management counseling.

It sued Gorelik and Sawczuk and the Oakland Redevelopment Group, which they own, for violating Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance and California’s Bane Act.

“Defendants’ systematic campaign of harassment has violated — and continues to violate — state and local laws designed to protect tenants from unjust conduct by abusive landlords,” the lawsuit states. “Therefore, the People of the State of California and the City of Oakland intervene to hold defendants accountable for their illegal actions, to defend the tenant’s rights, and to secure the relief the tenant is entitled to under law.”

Brian Hilliard of the Hilliard Firm in San Ramon, who represented Gorelick and Sawczuk in the eviction lawsuit, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. It was not immediately clear who is representing them in the city’s suit, or if they have retained an attorney.

City Attorney spokesman Andy Katz could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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