Managing a large apartment complex seems like a thankless job — so many people, so many needs, so many feelings. It’s a wonder anyone does it.
Perhaps that’s why Sebastopol’s two affordable housing communities for seniors — Burbank Heights and Burbank Orchards — have had such a hard time holding on to apartment managers over the years. The apartment complexes, which are tucked on a winding private drive just east of the Burbank Experiment Farm on Bodega Avenue, have had four managers over the last ten years. The newest manager, Valerie Schlafke, who arrived in December 2018, has become a lightning rod for controversy and discontent, some residents say.
Schlafke has a lot to manage: Burbank Heights has 138 one- and two-bedroom apartments scattered over 14 acres of land, while Burbank Orchards has 60 studio apartments in several large buildings on 16 acres of land. The two properties are governed according to a set of house rules and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rules, many of which had been ignored by previous managers.
Following the rules
“She came in with both barrels blasting,” is the way Burbank Heights resident Lauralee Aho describes Schlafke’s entrance into the community. Aho, who has lived in the complex for 10 years, has formed a tenants rights committee to resist what she and several other tenants have described as Schlafke’s autocratic style and demands.
On the face of it, many of Schlafke’s demands seem reasonable — she requested that residents clean off their porches so they could be power-washed. But then she set a limit on the number of items that could be put back on the porch — two plants and a small wall decoration — and announced that nothing would be allowed to be hung from the roof eaves — so, goodbye bird feeders, wind chimes and rainbow flags.
What really set people off, however, was Schlafke’s decision to ask people not to leave chairs outside on their front porches the way they’ve been doing for years. Many residents have chairs in front of their apartments so they can sit outside, enjoy the fresh air and chat with their neighbors. Schlafke said residents could still sit outside, but that when they were done they’d have to move the chairs back inside their apartments, a difficult maneuver for some elders.
Ditto for walkers. Many residents who live in upstairs apartments were accustomed to leaving their walkers at the bottom of the stairs. Schlafke said now they would be required to carry their walkers upstairs with them, which Aho said would be an impossibility for most elderly people who use walkers to get around.
Finally, as spring turned into summer, many residents, especially those in buildings that get direct sun, put up sunshades as they always had to help keep their apartments cool. (Though many of the residents are over 80, not all the apartments have air conditioners.) Word came down from Schlafke that sunshades would no longer be allowed, per the rule about nothing hanging from the eaves.
Then the temperatures began to rise, and according to Aho, desperate residents went over Schlafke’s head and petitioned her employer, the nonprofit Oakland property management company, Christian Church Homes (CCH), to allow them to put the sunshades back up for health reasons. Permission was granted.
Sonoma West contacted Schlafke for a response, but she passed our request onto CCH, which is the management company for both Burbank Heights and Burbank Orchards. They sent the following response:
“At Christian Church Homes, the safety of all of our residents at our communities is our primary concern,” the company responded in a formal statement. “As such, we comply with all HUD regulations and municipal requirements pertaining to health and safety. Any equipment from a resident left in common areas or in this case, at the bottom of the stairs, pose a safety hazard to the rest of the community. The ingress and egress needs to be clear of obstructions 36 to 44 inches, per HUD Housing standards (36 inches) and the Building Code (44 inches).”
“Furthermore, no screens or shades were taken down on those hot days. Previous to those days, a couple of people had taken down their shades at our request. Ultimately, they were allowed to put them back up. Yet, no lease violation notices have gone out for chairs or shades.”
One resident, who asked not to be identified, wondered why if the chairs and screens were such a problem they were never identified as such in the HUD inspections that happen every year.
A question of management style
According to Aho, though, “It’s not just about the loss of the chairs or the shades, it’s how we’ve been bullied by the community manager over the last six months.”
Aho sent Sonoma West copies of several complaints about Schlafke’s management style, in which residents, most of whom declined to be identified for fear of retribution, depicted Schlafke’s style with terms such as harsh, strict, oppressive, bullying, threatening, judgmental, condescending, disrespectful and dictatorial.
“We are educated professionals,” said one resident, a retired dentist who asked not to be identified. “We are not used to being treated this way. We are not used to being ordered around and talked down to. It’s torn the social fabric.”
“We had a lovely community prior to Valerie coming to be ‘the enforcer,’” Aho said.
Schlafke is by no means universally disliked, however. When Aho put out a call for residents to contact Sonoma West with their personal stories, we received only three direct responses, and two of those were from supporters of Schlafke.
Louise Phillips, a resident of Burbank Heights since 2001, wrote, “Until the arrival of Valerie Schlafke, HUD and BHO policies basically had been ignored. I understood that Valerie’s job was to enforce long-neglected regulations, and I appreciate the results of her efforts. However, I am appalled by the vindictive behavior toward Valerie from some of the residents. Perhaps this is a generational issue, but I think people who are fortunate enough to live here should be willing to comply with its rules and regulations.”
This opinion was seconded by resident Virginia Harris, who wrote, “We all signed that we agreed to the rules when we moved in — sadly to say, most don’t read the policies and rules. Yes, when the rules were not being enforced everyone took advantage, me included. I did it knowingly, and when our new manager said the rules and policies would be enforced, I complied. Yes, there was confusion; yes, there has been push back; yes, some cried and thought that might work for them.”
“Valerie is one of the most competent managers I’ve seen in my 13 years living here,” Harris continued. “I, personally have no problem with her style; it too closely resembles my own. Sometimes I think the complainers think they should be the manager. Why anyone would want the job, I can’t imagine.”
In its formal response, CCH declined to comment on the residents’ comments about Schlafke, stating, “With regards to Ms. Schlafke, CCH does not comment on personnel matters.”
Local nonprofit board wrestles with tenant unrest
Burbank Heights and Burbank Orchards are owned by nonprofits formed by two local churches, Sebastopol United Methodist Church and Community Church of Sebastopol. In the 1970s, the churches formed the Sebastopol Area Housing Corporation, which built Burbank Heights with a low-interest loan from HUD. In the 1990s, the churches formed another nonprofit, Burbank Orchards Incorporated, and built Burbank Orchards, which provides Section 8 housing for seniors.
Both nonprofits have the same board, which is made up of three members from each church, plus a resident representative and a member of the larger community. They meet once a month to discuss issues with the housing complexes.
Aho said many letters of complaint have been delivered to both CCH and to the board of the nonprofits that own the buildings.
According to Aho, “We’ve met, emailed, communicated in every way we know to both the board and the CCH upper management, citing many incidents of abuse, to no avail. Getting our shades back was a small victory, but we are still not being heard.”
“Ilá (the resident representative on the board) has carried our pleas to each monthly board meeting, but they continue to say, ‘We’ll talk about it in executive session’ then we never hear back,” she said. “We have never had a reasonable or believable explanation about why the board and CCH are allowing Valerie to run roughshod over our elderly community.”
Paul Schoch, the president of the board of the nonprofits which own the complexes, said the manager is simply enforcing the rules that the tenants agreed to abide by when they moved in.
“We’re trying to resolve those issues,” Schoch said. “We’ve tried to be a little more specific about the house rules, and we try to bend when we can.”
He feels the current unrest was caused by lax management in the past.
“That’s one of the major problems we’ve had,” Schoch said. “The management CCH and their onsite managers have been pretty lax about enforcing the rules in the past, and once you allow stuff to happen it’s tough to go back.”
“The board has walked the entire property,” he said, “and looked at these issues very closely. A large percentage of the residents comply with the rules, but there’s always a few that want to push the envelope and do what they want to do and not what benefits the entire community. With 200 people, there are always going to be some people who disagree with how the property is managed.”
Aho said she has talked to an attorney from Legal Aid, who suggested she put every complaint through the formal grievance procedure set up by CCH. She said she is planning to do so.
“The residents who live here appreciate this community,” Aho said. “They know what they have. It’s a beautiful place to live. But right now, we’re living in an atmosphere of fear and ambient anxiety, and that’s just not fair.”