The West Oakland building that burned down a year ago, killing four people, housed some of Oakland’s poorest residents. Its operator, Pastor Jasper Lowery, felt he had a divine mission to keep people from being homeless, so he took in those who had nowhere else to go. Some were disabled, recently released from jail, or suffering from mental illness. But he had trouble adequately maintaining the building, which hadn’t been renovated for 25 years.
The building’s owners, aware of issues with maintenance, had been trying to push Lowery out for months before the fire. City records show that there were serious building code and fire safety violations in the building, located at 2551 San Pablo Ave. When it burned on March 27, 2017, four people died and many of the residents were left homeless.
The people killed in the fire were Edwarn Anderson, 64, known as “Deacon Anderson,” who would help with minor repairs and try to keep out anyone who didn’t belong in the building; Cassandra Robertson, 50, the mother of two daughters, including one who was in high school at the time of the fire; Olatunde Adejumobi, 36, a Nigerian who participated in UC Berkeley’s Summer Undergraduate Program in Engineering Research at Berkeley in 2004, but later suffered from mental health problems; and his roommate, 41-year-old Ashantikee Wilson.
Under normal circumstances, the 2551 San Pablo blaze would have been one of the worst tragedies in Oakland in years. But less than four months earlier, the Ghost Ship warehouse erupted in flames, killing 36. It was the deadliest fire in city history and also happened in a highly dangerous building. It was natural to compare the fire at 2551 San Pablo to Ghost Ship.
But in many ways, they were very different fires. While many more people died in Ghost Ship, far more lost their homes in 2551 San Pablo. And while the Ghost Ship warehouse was converted to living space in a highly irresponsible manner, 2551 San Pablo was always intended to be housing and only became dangerous through years of neglect.
It remains an open wound in West Oakland.
Today, 2551 San Pablo looks nearly the same as it did a week after the fire. Its ground floor windows have been boarded up, and a short chain-link fence has been erected around it, but passersby can still peer up through the second- and third-floor windows and the scarred roof to see the sky above.
Many people who lived there are still traumatized and struggling. WookSun Hong, an attorney who represents eight former residents in one of seven lawsuits filed against the building’s owners, Lowery, and the city, said that all but one of his clients were homeless for months after the fire, including a mother of two children. That mother left her kids with their grandmother but couldn’t stay there herself and ended up on the streets. Hong said one client remains homeless and difficult to reach.
Ken Greenstein, an attorney representing 35 people in a separate lawsuit, said some of his clients remain homeless as well. The brutal housing market coupled with a lack of resources made recovering after the fire incredibly difficult for many of the building’s residents, particularly if they didn’t have family in the area. “It obviously was devastating for everybody, but some people are more resourced than others,” Greenstein said.
The Oakland City Council allocated $700,000 in relocation assistance nearly a month after the fire — funds that enabled many former residents to rent a new apartment. But some residents say the money didn’t make it to everyone who lived there.
“A lot of people I know ended up homeless to this day because of the fact that the city couldn’t prove that they lived in the building,” said Eliza Anderson, a resident of the building since 2012 and the mother of three children. “They don’t have nowhere to stay; a lot of those people are living in tents on 23rd and Martin Luther King.”
One former resident, 34-year-old Dominic “Boobie” Jarvis, who provided building security, was living in a homeless camp at 27th Street and Northgate Avenue, less than a half-mile from the building, when he was shot and killed there in September.
But public records reviewed by the Express show that the owners of 2551 San Pablo — two brothers, Keith and Hahn Kim — have fared far better than their tenants. Just two months after the fire, a company controlled by Hahn Kim — DCSI Holdings — purchased a $1.6 million house in Norris Canyon Estates, a gated community near San Ramon. Keith Kim now lists that 5-bedroom, 5,300-square-foot home as his official place of residence, state records show. “Norris Canyon Estates is truly a haven, which is tucked away, exclusive, and peaceful,” the community’s website states. “A place where you feel away from it all yet know that you are just minutes from everything.”
It’s also not the first time that Keith Kim’s address has been an expensive house owned by a company controlled by his brother, records show. Two years before the fire, while his tenants lived in squalor at 2551 San Pablo, Keith Kim resided in an 8,000-square-foot mansion in Piedmont that’s valued at more than $4 million. Later, he moved into a 4,700-square-foot Montclair house, also owned by his brother, valued at $2.9 million. Hahn Kim, meanwhile, resides next door to that Montclair property, in a three-bedroom, 1,670-square-foot home, worth an estimated $1.1 million.
After the first lawsuit was filed following the fire, Keith Kim’s attorney, William Kronenberg, issued a statement blaming Pastor Lowery for the conditions at 2551 San Pablo. But records obtained by the Express show that Keith Kim had commissioned a report of the building in 2015 detailing some of the dangerous conditions in it and had personally led an analyst on a tour of the property.
According to former residents and city records, the building was a disaster waiting to happen: Extension cords ran through the hallways and up the stairs, bringing power to some of the units where it wasn’t working. The building’s 25-year-old carpet was infested with bedbugs; rats, mice and cockroaches scurried across the floors. Leaky pipes damaged walls, floors, and ceilings. And squatters had taken over sections of the building.
Keith Kim did not respond to numerous requests for an interview for this report. Hahn Kim could not be reached. Kronenberg, who also represents DCSI Holdings, did not respond to a request for comment.
After the Ghost Ship fire, Alameda County prosecutors charged the warehouse’s main two tenants with multiple counts of manslaughter for the negligent way they operated and maintained the building. But no charges have been filed against the Kim brothers or anyone else for the deadly blaze at 2551 San Pablo.
Plus, the Kims still owe Oakland taxpayers more than $600,000.
The Great 1906 Earthquake of San Francisco killed at least 3,000 people and left as many as 300,000 residents homeless. Across the bay, Oakland sustained far less damage, but its population swelled quickly in the days after the big quake as it absorbed nearly 50,000 refugees. Many people stayed in makeshift camps erected near Lake Merritt or at the then-Emeryville race track near Shellmound Park.
To deal with the huge influx of newcomers, Oakland embarked on a massive building spree. One of the city’s most prolific developers at that time was plumbing contractor Robert Dalziel, who constructed several new apartment and office buildings in the downtown Oakland area (one of the buildings in City Hall plaza is named after him). One of Dalziel’s buildings was a three-story structure on a plot he owned at 2551 San Pablo Ave.
Over the years, the building had numerous commercial tenants and residents. For a period in the 1960s, it was called The Avenue Hotel. In 1991, the building was purchased by Keith Kim for $507,000.
Keith Kim was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1962, and his brother Hahn, two years later. They emigrated to California with their mother when they were children. Keith Kim earned a degree in economics at Stanford University in 1985 and moved to Sacramento, where he bought his first house, according to a 1997 profile in Stanford Magazine. He moved to Oakland in the late 1980s and over the next few years started buying and developing real estate, including 2551 San Pablo.
Keith Kim began renovations on the building in 1992. Four years later, he leased it to the East Bay Community Recovery Project to run a substance abuse treatment facility. The organization would hold the lease for the next 20 years.
Meanwhile, Keith Kim made a name for himself by purchasing and turning around the ailing potato chip manufacturer Granny Goose, which was closing its Oakland plant after 45 years. He obtained a $2.25 million loan from the city, negotiated a pay cut with the employees’ union, and paid back the city loan the following year. It earned him praise in local newspapers, but the success was short lived: Granny Goose closed its Oakland plant in 2000 and laid off its 170 employees.
A year earlier, in March 1999, the Northern California chapter of the Young Presidents Organization, a group of company presidents under 50 years old, held its annual retreat in Snowmass, Colo. Members of the group, including Keith Kim, were told that the CEO of Meridian Data Inc. would not be able to attend because he was in merger discussions with Quantum Corporation. Everyone in attendance was reminded that they were sworn to secrecy under club rules, according to court records.
Over the next three days, Keith Kim purchased 187,300 shares of Meridian stock on NASDAQ. When Meridian announced the acquisition on May 11, Keith Kim pocketed almost $833,000.
Two years later, the FBI arrested him.
In the late 1990s, tech stocks were soaring, and Keith Kim joined the boom. Two tech companies with which he was closely associated launched in 1999: Brainrush Inc. on Sept. 27 and Dotcomsupport Inc. on Oct. 21. On April 21, 2000, both companies registered to do business in California at the same address: 1714 Franklin St. in Oakland, an office building owned at the time by Hahn Kim. According to court records, Keith Kim was the CEO and majority shareholder of Brainrush.
In 2000, a company associated with Brainrush — the comparison shopping website mySimon.com — was sold to CNET for 11.3 million shares of stock. A business colleague of the Kims, Steven Bookspan, later testified that Brainrush didn’t actually receive any CNET shares in the transaction, and instead, they were all held in an account in Keith Kim’s name and valued at nearly $21.5 million.
On Jan. 29, 2001, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a federal court complaint against Keith Kim, charging him with illegal trading in the Meridian Data transaction. He was also criminally charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for violating securities laws.
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However, in January 2002, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer dismissed three of the criminal counts against Kim, finding that the disclosure of information obtained through his club membership was not criminal — just grounds for being kicked out of the club. But Keith Kim still faced a charge of making a false statement to a federal agency, and a jury found him guilty of that count on May 7. The SEC said that Kim falsely said he didn’t know why the CEO of Meridian didn’t attend the retreat and that he’d purchased the Meridian shares based on a Wall Street Journal article.
In October 2004, Dotcomsupport Inc. changed its name to DCSI Holdings Inc. with Keith Kim’s brother Hahn Kim listed in state records as chairman of the board. Four months later, DCSI Holdings was added as a partner in Mead Avenue Housing Associates, the company that owned 2551 San Pablo Ave. until this year. State records show that Keith Kim still manages Mead Avenue Housing Associates.
In 2009, Keith Kim got into a legal dispute with his own landlord, alleging substandard conditions. He and his wife, Janice Kim, were renting a home at 44 Sierra Ave. in Piedmont from A. Justin Sterling. Court records show that the Kims stopped paying rent on Dec. 1, 2009, which they said was an effort to compel repairs — that the house lacked adequate heating, plumbing, wiring, and waterproofing, and there was inadequate trash pickup. On Feb. 22, 2009, the Kims moved out.
In April 2010, Sterling sued them, arguing they had misrepresented their financial status and in fact were insolvent because they owed $11 million to the California Franchise Tax Board. Keith Kim had also not disclosed his criminal conviction, Sterling said. The Kims countersued over the alleged repair issues.
On Sept. 2, Keith Kim filed for bankruptcy. In court filings, he listed no assets and only $45,559 worth of personal property. His bankruptcy filings make no mention of 2551 San Pablo or any other real estate holdings. He said his self-employment income was only $78,208 in 2010 and $45,757 up to that point in 2011. His debts included $5.6 million in unpaid state income tax from 2000 and 2001, records show.
According to bankruptcy court filings, Keith and Janice Kim were living at 622 Highland Ave. in Piedmont at the time: a seven-bedroom, 8,000-square-foot house with stone steps, a wide front porch with four large pillars supporting a spacious upper balcony. Keith Kim said he was paying $2,000 a month in rent to owner DCSI Holdings, the company controlled by his brother, which had purchased the property in May 2011. Records of satellite photos show the property was overgrown at the time, but over the next two years, it was replaced with meticulous landscaping. The home was listed for sale in 2016 for $4.2 million but as of last week, it was still owned by DCSI Holdings.
In bankruptcy court filings, Keith Kim denied that he had any ownership interest in DCSI Holdings. But he signed a lease in 2012 for the 2551 San Pablo Ave. building on behalf of DCSI Holdings, while bankruptcy proceedings were continuing.
At the end of 2015, he was listed in state records as DCSI’s chief financial officer. By then, he also knew about the hazardous conditions inside 2551 San Pablo.
Like all good preachers, Pastor Jasper Lowery is an engaging public speaker: He looks all around the room as he talks, pointing at his audience and himself, punctuating his sentences with his hands. He keeps a quick tempo but knows when to pause for an “amen.” He often said he was on a mission from God to help the homeless.
Lowery grew up in Oakland and attended Fremont High School. For most of the 1990s, he operated day programs for adults with developmental disabilities. In 1998, he founded Urojas Ministries and started taking in recently released prisoners; over the next 10 years, he helped 1,500 people through a growing community center in West Oakland, according to a 2009 article in the Oakland Post.
(Lowery said he would be interviewed for this report but then stopped responding to emails. He’s also being sued by survivors of the fire.)
In 2008, Lowery created a nonprofit, Urojas Community Services, to expand his outreach. He also joined the street outreach team created by Measure Y, a 2004 Oakland public safety ballot measure that provided funding for outreach workers to intervene in addiction and violence by offering advice about jobs, training, and education.
Lowery became a BART police chaplain in 2011, and in December of that year, he received $25,000 from Alameda County Health Care Services to provide medical and mental health services to at-risk county residents.
In April 2012, he started renting units in 2551 San Pablo. At that point, there was no evidence of dangerous conditions in the building. The Oakland Fire Department inspected it on April 18, 2012 and found no deficiencies.
At the time, the building was still run by the East Bay Community Recovery Project, but the organization was in the process of moving its Project Pride substance abuse program into the Ashasha hotel next door. The organization had once hoped to purchase 2551 San Pablo. “Unfortunately, Mr. Kim’s debt on the building surpassed the appraised value at that time,” Executive Director Marta Rose wrote in an email to the Express. “In the meantime, the Ashasha hotel next door became available and we were able to work with the nonprofit developer to purchase and rehab that site.”
Lowery had arranged to rent space in the building with Jabari Herbert, an Oakland developer. Herbert, in turn, had signed a 55-year lease with DCSI Holdings for his nonprofit organizations, Dignity Housing West Inc. and House of Change Inc. Herbert’s lease called for paying the Kims’ company $28,550 monthly, which would rise to $38,000 over the next five years. Under the lease, the tenant was responsible for maintaining the heat, electrical, plumbing, and doors for the building while the landlord was responsible for the roof, foundation, exterior walls, and common areas. Keith Kim signed on behalf of DCSI Holdings.
Keith Kim’s bankruptcy case finished on Oct. 2, 2012. Two days later, Herbert signed a formal agreement for Lowery to rent space on the second floor to provide housing services at a rate of $250 per person or $10,000 per month, whichever was more.
Problems cropped up at the building not long after Dignity Housing West and Urojas took over. In February 2013, a resident complained to the city of Oakland that there was no heat or hot water in their unit, city records show. But city officials had a difficult time reaching a representative of Keith Kim’s company Mead Avenue Housing Associates. For the phone number and address on file, the voicemail was full and letters were returned. A letter sent regular mail was marked “return to sender” and certified letters were unclaimed, according to city code enforcement records. City officials were unable to reach the owner for five months to address the complaints. Other residents complained to the city over the next couple of months about leaking pipes, according to city records.
Keith Kim signed a lease renting the first two floors to Lowery on Sept. 30, 2014. It was only effective between Nov. 1, 2014, and Oct. 31, 2015, and monthly rent started at $8,000 and would increase to $18,000 over the course of the next year. Lowery was responsible for building maintenance, except for the exterior walls and roof. (The Express reviewed copies of the leases.)
Keith Kim later said that by that point, Dignity Housing had left the building entirely in Lowery’s control. “For clarification sake, Dignity had the Master Lease for the whole building but it placed Urojas into the building and basically walked away,” he wrote in a Feb. 23, 2017 email to Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who was trying to mediate a dispute with Lowery. “I didn’t want to release Dignity from its lease with me but also didn’t want to have Urojas in the building without a lease. The result is the one-year commercial lease with Urojas, which expired in 2015. Urojas doesn’t have another lease or an amendment to this lease.”
Complaints continued in 2015. Residents complained about rodent, bedbug, and cockroach infestations throughout the building and mold and mildew from water leaks, according to interviews and city records. City code enforcement records indicate that the property owner — who was not identified in the records — responded to some of the complaints personally.
Richard Myers moved into the second floor of 2551 San Pablo shortly after getting out of jail in 2014. He recalled in an interview that he bought his own traps and poison to deal with the mice and roaches in his apartment. “There was vicious roaches,” he said. “We went to war.”
The carpeting in the building was full of bedbugs, Myers said. His attorney, Wooksun Hong, who provides legal representation for low-income clients through the Bay Area Legal Incubator, said that before the fire, a resident of the building approached him with a vial of bedbugs.
By December 2015, Keith Kim was officially the secretary and CFO of DCSI Holdings Inc. Around the same time, he hired San Rafael firm BASIS Architecture & Consulting to do a capital needs assessment of 2551 San Pablo.
Keith Kim personally accompanied Matthew Bolado, an analyst with BASIS, on an inspection of the property on Dec. 22, 2015, according to a copy of the final report obtained by the Express.
The assessment recommended $7,800 in immediate repairs and $1.7 million in other repairs. It found much of the building’s infrastructure dated back to Keith Kim’s original rehabilitation in 1992 or earlier, including the exterior paint, windows, heaters, hot water heaters, and plumbing. Water had intruded in an exterior wall next to a drainage pipe, causing extensive damage and likely necessitating structural repairs. While the inspector didn’t open the wall, the report noted that the leak could be growing mold or damaging electrical components and insulation.
If the individual units had kitchen appliances (some had been removed and residents of those units used a common kitchen), they too were from the 1992 rehabilitation. All the faucets in bathroom sinks required replacement and some bathrooms were growing mildew. The inspection found evidence of cockroaches, rats, and mice.
On Sept. 19, 2016, Lowery sent a letter to Keith Kim, Jabari Herbert, and Gibson McElhaney saying he would withhold rent for three months until repairs were made to the building. He wrote that he was concerned about broken windows, doors, tubs, and toilets, among other issues. “To date we have paid $360,000 to your company over the last 36 months and to date you have yet to fix any items listed above,” he wrote. He said he had paid $21,600 in upkeep for the building over the previous three years.
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Residents continued to file complaints with the city, including one who said their unit had no hot water and another who said their sink was missing a drain pipe, leading to mold growth and causing the floor to start caving in from water damage. A city inspector checking on a resident’s complaint of no hot water found a smoke alarm was missing.
A month later, on Oct. 21, Dignity Housing West made an offer to purchase the building for $5.5 million. A copy of the proposal was shared with city officials and obtained by the Express through a public records request. It’s not clear how Keith Kim responded. But in December, he tried to evict Lowery from the building, starting a fight that would last until it burned.
The night of Dec. 2, 2016, firefighters responded to the massive blaze at the Ghost Ship, a warehouse that had been converted into a living and events space. The cluttered interior made it almost impossible for people upstairs to escape and 36 people who had been attending a concert there that night were trapped inside and killed. It was the deadliest fire in California since The Great 1906 Earthquake.
The fallout from the Ghost Ship tragedy included a heightened focus on substandard living spaces, particularly in artists’ warehouses. Mayor Libby Schaaf and other Oakland elected officials struggled to strike a balance of preventing fires and making buildings safer while pledging to prevent widespread evictions. Nonetheless, there were reports of evictions at warehouses throughout the city as property owners became fearful that their neglected building would become the next Ghost Ship.
Later that month, residents at 2551 San Pablo Ave. started receiving notices from Dignity Housing West informing them that the building was under new management and that those who had a lease with Urojas would need to get a new lease.
One of the men putting up the notices was identified as Monsa Nitoto. A woman called the police after she said she was assaulted by Nitoto. A day later, she obtained a temporary restraining order against him.
In her statement to obtain the restraining order, Brenda Corley wrote that five men were in the building passing out the fliers saying that residents should pay their rent to them instead of to Lowery. At one point, Nitoto allegedly told her to move out of the hallway or he would knock her down. He then rammed her into the wall with his shoulder, according to her statement. Corley was taken by ambulance to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland where she was given a knee brace and crutches and treated for a sore neck and shoulder.
Oakland police logs confirm that officers were called to the building for an assault that day but Nitoto was never charged. Nitoto, who also is named in the litigation regarding the fire, did not respond to a request for an interview.
On Jan. 8, 2017, the Oakland Fire Department responded to 2551 San Pablo for a medical issue. Fire Capt. Richard Chew was alarmed by the building’s condition and wrote an email to Battalion Chief Geoff Hunter that the department should consider shutting it down. “Walking our probationary members throughout the building revealed open piles of garbage on the third floor,” Chew wrote. “We also discovered that the pull station had been activated and not reset (there was no indication of an alarm). We also observed a door to the fire escape padlocked closed.
Oakland fire Capt. Chris Landry returned the next day and found even more violations but was unable to contact a manager or representative of the building.
Meanwhile, Lowery had retained a lawyer, James Cook, from the law offices of Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, to help him fight attempts to evict him from the building. Keith Kim issued a three-day notice for Urojas to pay $118,000 in back rent or vacate the premises on Jan. 14. Cook sent a letter to Keith Kim two days later demanding that he stop trying to undermine Urojas or harass tenants of the building.
By mid-February, city officials had become involved in the increasingly bitter dispute between Keith Kim and Lowery. Gibson McElhaney sought to mediate. Her chief of staff, Zac Wald, had been organizing an ad hoc group called the “2551 San Pablo Project Team” consisting of city and county officials as well as representatives of nonprofits, who were planning a clean-up day for the building. Gibson McElhaney hosted face-to-face meetings with Keith Kim, Lowery, and others. Urojas was in the process of releasing portions of the building back to Keith Kim and moving tenants around to different units.
Firefighters responded to the address again for a medical call on Feb. 25, prompting renewed calls for an inspection, but again firefighters were unable to reach an owner or manager. “This address is a known fire hazard,” Lt. Steve Padgett wrote. “There are no fire extinguishers. Storage in the hallways. Faulty or unmaintained smoke detectors. These issues are on the first floor.”
Urojas requested an inspection by the city’s building services department on March 2, alleging deferred maintenance by the landlord. City inspectors met with Lowery and Urojas chief of staff Aurea Lewis the next day, who said that by then Keith Kim had taken back control of half of the first floor. The third floor was partially occupied by squatters by that point, though some residents were renting third-floor units from Lowery. The city inspectors observed electrical violations and plumbing leaks, including a toilet leak in one unit that had damaged the kitchen of the unit below.
Gibson McElhaney wrote in an email on the morning of March 14 that Lowery and Keith Kim had reached an agreement. She said Urojas would vacate no later than April 1 and that Keith Kim would stop eviction actions and forgive an estimated $90,000 owed to him. Urojas would take any clients that they could house in other facilities but the others would arrange leases with Dignity Housing West. For her part, Gibson McElhaney was seeking to move homeless people in nearby camps into the building.
But Lowery wrote back that afternoon, saying no deal had been reached and that Urojas did not owe Keith Kim $90,000. “These lies are just another scam to remove us illegally,” Lowery wrote. “This is very disrespectful to continue being raped from our place of residence as well as discriminatory.”
After Lowery’s email, Gibson McElhaney withdrew any offer of assistance. Keith Kim issued a 30-day eviction notice to Urojas three days later.
The fire department was called to the building yet again on March 18, and Lt. Frank Mui documented extensive safety issues. Extension cords were supplying electricity to different areas in the building, running from the second to the third floor via the central stairwell. There was no hall lighting on the third floor, there was exposed wiring on the first floor, and fire extinguishers that were either missing or long expired. Debris was cluttering the hallways and the exit signs weren’t illuminated.
Fire inspectors were finally able to access the building on March 24, with Nitoto present as a representative of the owner. Inspectors identified numerous other deficiencies: The building lacked a working fire detection system, sprinklers, emergency lighting, exit signs, smoke alarms, and evacuation maps. The fire department gave the owners 30 days to correct the violations.
The building burned three days later.
Elmore Briggs, a 49-year-old resident of the second floor, lit a candle at about 5 a.m. on March 27 because his lights weren’t working. The candle was about the width of a quarter and was sitting on top of a paper plate placed on the television. Briggs left the room to talk to a friend, Dominic “Boobie” Jarvis, who would die in a homeless camp months later, in the hall for about 15 or 20 minutes. Jarvis then walked away but quickly came back, yelling frantically that the bedroom was on fire.Briggs later told police that by the time he opened the door, his floor was covered in flames about 3 feet high and 7 feet across. He tried to pull out his clothes rack but burned his hand in the process. Then he ran from door to door yelling to everyone to get out. He tried to call 911, but the line was busy; he finally got through at 5:41 a.m.
A report by fire investigator Weldon Clemons concluded that the fire was set accidentally.
Mark and Sheila Doleman lived down the hall from where the fire started. They woke up to people yelling, “The building’s on fire! The building’s on fire!”
The Dolemans live on Social Security — Sheila Doleman uses an oxygen tank for her asthma and has lingering difficulties speaking from a stroke she suffered in the 1990s. Mark Doleman has been unable to work for years because of chronic injuries. The couple had moved into the building after their previous home near Fifth Avenue and Foothill Boulevard burned in a previous fire. They lost everything, they recalled in a recent interview, and the Red Cross called Lowery to help.
When Mark Doleman came out of his apartment, the fire was already filling the hall and coming toward the door. He went to the fire escape, but the flames were outside, too, sparking the electrical wires next to his window. The burning bedroom was only two or three windows away, Doleman said. A firefighter carried Sheila Doleman down the fire escape; Mark Doleman carried his dog.
“The flames were coming too quick,” Mark Doleman recalled. “I didn’t even have time to grab my wallet. I had nothing.”
Sheila Doleman was one of three people who went to the hospital. She was treated for smoke inhalation, which had aggravated her asthma.
Eliza Anderson, who lived on the third floor, was woken up by a neighbor she calls her “Auntie” banging on her door. “You got to get out of here!” Auntie yelled. “It’s on fire!”
Anderson’s children — who were 14, 8, and 6 years old at the time — are hard sleepers, so she hit them in the face to wake them up.
She looked into the hall and it was black. To the right, at the end of the hall, she could see a few orange flames, like off a barbecue grill. Anderson dropped to the floor, crawled to the fire escape, and made her way down with her children. Outside, she waited for hours until the Red Cross showed up at 10 a.m. or 11 with snacks and covers, she said. She and her children didn’t have coats while they waited. Some people didn’t have shoes.
Reporters camped outside the building all day waiting for news. The fire burned throughout the morning. It took until the next day to find all the bodies.
Most of the residents who survived stayed in a crowded shelter at the West Oakland Youth Center in the days after the fire. There were 71 people there at first but that number dwindled to 11 a week later. Richard Myers was one of the people who stayed in the shelter until it closed. “From there you went to wherever the hell you could,” he said.
He stayed with his family, and then with his wife in a hotel for seven months before he finally got an apartment with the help of $9,000 in relocation assistance from the city.
The assistance came from a fund Oakland created in 1993 to help tenants displaced due to code compliance repairs. By law, the landlord is required to pay the assistance, but the city has the option to pay the tenants itself and then seek reimbursement from the landlord through the city attorney’s office.
At the time of the fire, the city’s fund had only $118,275 available, so, at the urging of Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, the council voted to allocate the $700,000 necessary to provide assistance to all the eligible tenants. City officials said the city distributed more than $600,000 to 66 families, and Keith Kim has yet to reimburse the city.
In a statement released a week after the fire through public relations specialist Sam Singer, Keith Kim said he had assisted one family — to help pay for funeral expenses. Singer referred questions to Keith Kim’s attorney, William Kronenberg, who did not respond to a request for comment.
While some former residents have been left to live in tents or on couches, the relocation assistance helped some families find housing. Eliza Anderson initially found an apartment for herself and her three kids that was far more than she could afford — $2,275 a month plus a deposit three times the monthly rent — but eventually located a more affordable home in Oakland. “I was just really stressed out,” she said. “I know I can’t pay this rent. Me and my kids were going to be homeless.”
Mark and Sheila Doleman said they initially went to live in another of Lowery’s buildings, at 8801 International Blvd., but that building was infested with rats as well. Eventually, they found an apartment on Foothill Boulevard, but having survived two fires in five years, they’re traumatized. “We lost everything, and we damn near lost our life,” Mark Doleman said. “That was our second time losing everything. It happened two times, and we didn’t have nothing to do with it.”
Meanwhile, seven lawsuits are proceeding in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of 65 former residents and their families. All the lawsuits name Keith Kim, DCSI Holdings, Lowery, and Dignity Housing West as defendants. Some of the plaintiffs have also named the city of Oakland as a defendant, arguing that it failed to act on the well-documented code and fire safety violations in the building.
In December, DCSI Holdings was removed in state records as a partner in 2551 San Pablo Avenue. Keith Kim’s address was listed as the $1.6 million home that DCSI Holdings purchased two months after the fire — in the gated community near San Ramon. DCSI Holdings still owns the Piedmont home that Keith Kim stayed in when he was bankrupt and another property next to Hahn Kim’s private residence in Montclair that Keith Kim listed as his home address in 2015.
In January, Keith Kim sold 2551 San Pablo to WJS Property, a company registered in October by San Leandro dentist William Choi, for $700,000. In the process, Keith Kim loaned Choi $600,000 toward the sale, according to county property records. It has raised concerns among attorneys suing Keith Kim that he may be attempting to hide his assets.
“He certainly couldn’t care less about his tenants …” said attorney Greenstein, who represents dozens of fire survivors. “All he cares about is protecting his assets.”