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Marchers protest the pending sale of East Palo Alto apartments

by Madeline DraceEast Palo Alto Today
August 29th, 2011

A committed group of East Palo Alto residents and supporters marched from East Palo Alto to Palo Alto to protest the possible sale of thousands of East Palo Alto apartments.  The march was led by Youth United for Community Action (YUCA), an East Palo Alto activist group, which was protesting the Wells Fargo Bank’s pending sale of East Palo Alto’s Woodland Park Apartments to Equity Residential, a national company that “owns, develops and operates” apartment complexes throughout the country.

Shouting “Don’t sell to Zell,” the marchers wound their way down University Avenue in East Palo Alto to the Wells Fargo bank on Hamilton Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. In their chant, the protestors were referring to Sam Zell, the owner of Equity Residential, whom the New York Times described as “a classic vulture investor.”

Zell has long been an opponent of rent control, a policy that has made low-income housing possible in East Palo Alto. Zell owns another company called Equity LifeStyle through which he has “sued multiple California cities to invalidate local rent control laws, and funded a statewide ballot measure to end rent control in California,” according to a press release from YUCA member Charisse Domingo.

The predominant fear with Zell’s company is that it will become “Page Mill Part 2,” a recurrence of the same turmoil that resulted when Page Mill Properties bought the Woodland Park Apartments in 2007 and raised rents at the apartments. These rent increases led to a series of lawsuits involving the company and the City of East Palo Alto.

However, as Council Member Ruben Abrica stated, “Page Mill’s greed caught up to them,” and the company defaulted in 2010, leaving the Woodland Park Apartments to come under the control of the Wells Fargo Bank and the Bridge Housing Corporation. Currently, the apartments are up for sale again, with the highest bidder being Equity Residential.

“Wells Fargo has money. They don’t have to sell to the highest bidder,” said Abrica, who also participated in the march. “We pleaded that they not sell the apartments to a company that is just speculating in the market. It’s disappointing that they might sell it to equity people”

“I think this is an issue that goes to the core of the East Palo Alto community,” said Rev. John Liotti, CEO and President of Northern California Urban Development, who was one of the marchers. “The more we lose low-income housing, the more the fabric of the community falls apart.”

Sporting green t-shirts declaring, “We Are Not the Lost Generation,” YUCA members were armed with fliers, banners and a megaphone. They congregated with the other marchers in front of the entrance of the Wells Fargo branch on Hamilton Avenue. After several more rounds of “Don’t sell to Zell” and “Oh HELL no, Wells Fargo,” speakers were invited to take control of the megaphone and address the crowd.

“In the summer of 2007, Page Mill Properties came into town and acquired 1,800 units.After getting those 1,800 units, more than 50% of the rental market in East Palo Alto was under the control of one person,” said Victor Ramirez of Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto. “Page Mill increased the rents for low-income, working families two to three times. Those who were not willing to fight against Page Mill were evicted. We lost four hundred families in just two years in East Palo Alto. We are at risk of losing 1,800 families now.”

“Zell is going to come to East Palo Alto as Page Mill did. They are going to come with their army of attorneys and they are going to start filing lawsuits as Page Mill did. Do we want our limited resources to be spent in court?”

Gaby Gonzalez , a YUCA member and Woodland Park tenant, had a chance to share her experience. “I’m a tenant from Woodland Park,” she said. When Page Mill owned the property, the rents were really high; people couldn’t afford them and were becoming homeless. We did rallies and surveys to get Page Mill out and now we’re doing protests to get Zell out, too.”

YUCA member Anthony Clark, Ramirez, and Liotti entered the bank to present a list of demands from the tenants of the Woodland Park apartments. Before the trio entered the building, Clark read aloud the demands to the group of marchers.

Clark said that the group is demanding that: 1) Wells Fargo and Equity Housing refrain from selling East Palo Alto’s portfolios to Equity Residential,  2) They immediately implement a process that engages public involvement in the bidding of potential buyers, and, 3) They break up the portfolio and sell it to multiple buyers to prevent a fiasco like the one that happened with Page Mill.

“We come here just voicing our concerns as residents of East Palo Alto,” Clark
continued. “We won’t let them take advantage of us.”

Clark, Liotti, and Ramirez remained in the bank for a few minutes, during which
time the crowd went through several rounds of “Don’t Zell out” and “Oh, HELL no, Wells Fargo.” When they exited the building, they did not appear overjoyed, but not disheartened, either.

East Palo Alto Mayor Carlos Romero joined the rally. During the march, he rode his bike alongside the marchers, waving and whistling encouragement. When he was asked whether the march will have any great impact on the fate of the Woodland Park apartments, Romero said that he was unsure.

“It’s certainly a community call,” he said. “Whether Wells Fargo listens, heaven knows. But they did know that they had some reputation-related risk, and they had some warning from the community that there would be opposition to their plans to sell to Zell.”

While future ownership of the Woodland Park apartments might still be in
limbo, there was one defiant and definite action that was accomplished. Marcher Erica Rivera strode into the building and severed all ties she had with the bank.

“I’m sure they didn’t care that much, but I did close my account,” she declared as cheering erupted from the marchers.

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