Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Zell's At It Again!

New Union Allegations Against Sam Zell’s Equity Residential, Funder of
Berkeley Measure R Campaign

The Berkley Daily Planet has been contacted by Metallic Lathers Union Local 46, a New York City construction union that has been engaged in an effort to educate the public about the irresponsible practices of Sam Zell's development company, Equity Residential.

Union member Dave Hancock said that his local has been following the controversial activities of Sam Zell and Equity Residential in Berkeley, including the proposed Acheson Commons development and their involvement in Berkeley’s Measure R.
 At a League of Woman Voters debate on Measure R, served as the arena for dramatic revelations about the financial muscle behind the advisory ballot measure which purports to give citizens the opportunity to endorse their mayor’s “green vision” for downtown development.
As they say in clichéd movies about investigative reporting, all you have to do is “follow the money.” Measure R opponents, including anti-R debaters Councilmember Jesse Arreguin and Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey, showed up clutching the hot-off-the-internet documentation of California Form 460, the Campaign Disclosure Statement.
It revealed that the “Berkeley Alliance for Progress – Yes on Measure R” committee has raised $32,450 so far, of which by far the greatest percentage,$25,000, came from—wait for it—billionaire Sam Zell’s Equity Residential Corporation.

Yes, that Sam Zell. The same one who bought the L.A Times and the Chicago Tribune and sucked them dry, ran them into bankruptcy.

And as luck would have it, the front page of that day's New York Times featured a multi-page expose of how Zell destroyed the Tribune: "At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture".

It’s disgusting reading.

When he’s not destroying newspapers, Zell is the dominant financial interest in Equity Financial, which bought the many downtown Berkeley properties developed by Patrick Kennedy. The company is gradually buying up more and more of downtown Berkeley. Equity’s latest project proposal would cover almost all of a big block at the corner of Shattuck and University.

Berkeley’s campaign finance laws limit individual contributions to candidates, but vague committees with high-flown monikers like “Alliance for Progress” aren’t covered, which is why the Zell group (and other development corporations) can contribute the lion’s share of the budget for ballot measures like R.

It’s all part of a really disturbing trend in campaign financing, capped by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision which says that corporations are just like people when it comes to cash-register politics. Here in Berkeley, they’re even better off than people, allowed by law to make $25,000 contributions (and more) to advance their political goals.

The listed treasurer of the Berkeley Alliance for Progress is Vicky Liu of San Francisco, previously an aide in Mayor Tom Bates’ office, who told the Planet she’s an independent contractor just “volunteering” for this job. Bates himself is a well-known “Developer’s Democrat” who was supposed to speak on the Pro side at the debate, but bailed at the last minute.

How is the committee spending Zell’s cash? Well, at the debate someone was passing out the Alliance’s glossy and expensive tri-fold mailer, heavy with green ink and prominently displaying the name and logo of the Sierra Club, which ought to be ashamed of itself. The League of Women Voters, despite its claim that it was the “nonpartisan” sponsor of the debate, lent its logo to the piece as well, along with several other well-known green-washing outfits like the Downtown Berkeley Association. Needless to say, none of these organizations was listed as financial contributors.

The colorful mailer from the Yes on Measure R campaign was conspicuously designed to look as if it had come from the Sierra Club.

Like Measure R itself, the "Sierra Club" mailer harps on the word “green” numerous times. Of course, there is nothing in the ballot language that guarantees any green (or even rosy) outcome for downtown Berkeley.Measure R, passed by the voters in November, was a "flagrantly greenwashed"  bid to change Berkeley’s downtown plan and zoning to be more developer-friendly. Most of the funding for the Yes on R campaign came from Equity Residential, including an expensive mailer deceptively designed to look like it came from the Sierra Club.

By Justin DeFreitas

Hancock said that “in light of Equity's controversial involvement in Berkeley politics and development issues, I thought you might be interested in taking a look at an informational website that we have put together, This website contains information on Equity's dangerous building and construction practices as well as their long history of violating tenants’ rights.”

Some allegations on the site:

"-- On July 16th, 2010, a three story parking garage collapsed at an Equity-owned building in N.J., leaving more than 300 residents unable to return home. Two months earlier, Equity was warned by a licensed engineer that the building’s parking garage might “catastrophically collapse.” Equity apparently ignored these warnings, putting the safety of its tenants, employees and the general public at risk (See the video here.)

"-- Equity Residential is currently being sued by the Equal Rights Center for engaging in the systematic discrimination of persons with disabilities due to the construction of residential facilities that are alleged to violate the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. "

-- In 2005, Equity Residential was forced to settle with the Maryland Attorney General's Office for more than a quarter of a million dollars in response to allegations that the company charged exorbitant application fees and illegally deducted termination fees from tenants' security deposits. "

- In 2002, residents of Equity Residential buildings in Florida filed a class action lawsuit alleging the company illegally charged tenants thousands of dollars in termination fees. As a result, Equity was forced to discontinue these practices and pay out $1.6 million to tenants."

Below: some more of the entries in the Planet's Sam Zell Cartoon contest:

By Joseph Young

By Gar Smith

If you want to know more, Berkeley Daily Planet historic preservation columnist Daniella Thompson has also posted an excellent analysis of Berkeley Alliance for Progress Yes on R contributors on the Berkeley Architectural Heritage blog.

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