Page Mill Properties, which owns about 1,700 apartments in East Palo Alto's Woodland Park neighborhood, shut down its management offices and reportedly fired maintenance workers at its East Palo Alto apartment buildings this week, leaving hallways littered with garbage and fire alarms malfunctioning.
Page Mill officials and company spokespeople wouldn't comment on the changes taking place at the Page Mill buildings this week, but tenants and neighbors near the company's apartments reported seeing trucks moving throughout the week and carrying away office equipment from the company's apartment complexes on the west side of the city.
"There were no notices or anything," said Felton Dunn, a tenant at 45 Newell Road. "Some people just started coming here over the week, going to all the different properties and taking things out."
These items included computers, furniture and other bulky items, observers said. One tenant said he saw the equipment unloaded at the company's Palo Alto headquarters on Cowper Street.
Other renters reported that the maintenance services at their buildings have suddenly disappeared. Some reported leaking pipes and malfunctioning elevators that were never fixed. One resident, Marylin Jackson, said she walked into the management office at 5 Newell Court on Monday to submit her paycheck only to see all the maintenance workers gathered at a meeting. The meeting had an air of sadness, she said.
"There was not a dry eye in that office," Jackson said.
On Friday, the company's leasing offices at 55 Newell Road and at 5 Newell Court were both closed and the swimming pools at the various apartment buildings were shut down, by order of Health Officer Lyda Nguyen. The office at 55 Newell Road was largely vacated, except for a few desks standing on end and debris strewn on the floor. The management office at 5 Newell Court was closed and a sign on the door, written in Spanish, beckoned residents to keep the place clean because maintenance workers won't be around to clean up.
Next to the Newell Court management office, the floor of the building's mailroom was covered with fliers, coupons and other discarded paper. The trash can in the mail room was spilling over with unwanted mail while neighbors looked on in confusion and wondered what to do with the rent checks they were planning to submit to the management office.
Inside 5 Newell Court, the ground-floor hallway was shrouded in darkness. All the overhead lights were out. The only light trickling in was a streak of sunlight sneaking in through an open door at the end of the hallway.
Shattered glass covered a portion of the floor next to the wall, just beneath a broken fire-hose compartment. Children scampered against the side of the hallway in the dark to avoid the glass. Two wires were hanging just below the ceiling at the end of the hallway -– the spot where a neon Exit side was previously located.
A tenant named Robert (he declined to give his last name), who lives in the apartment next to the shattered glass, said the hallway has been without lights for at least three days. The building's elevator wasn't working earlier in the week, Robert said. It's now in operation, though the strong smell of urine serves as a deterrent to potential users.
Tenant Adam Benson, a graduate student who moved into his apartment at 45 Newell Road on Wednesday, said no one in the management office warned him about the changes taking place. But he learned the hard way Thursday, when he was forced to miss his classes after his car was towed.
Benson and other neighbors on the block said they've seen people come into the office at 55 Newell to pick up their keys Thursday, only to see the door to the office locked. One woman came in with five children and waited in vain in front of the door for much of the evening, Benson said.
East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica, himself a tenant of Page Mill, learned early Friday that the fire-alarm systems at several buildings haven't been working properly. The problem was discovered after some tenants triggered a fire alarm and noticed that nothing was happening.
The city contacted officials from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, who inspected other fire alarms and confirmed that many of the systems were wired improperly. Abrica said the city directed inspectors and emergency-response officials to be on alert and to spend more time around the properties where the fire alarm systems have malfunctioned.
"They confirmed that the problem is widespread," Abrica said. "This is a very serious situation, regardless of whatever else is going on.
"Something is seriously wrong," he said.
East Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald Davis and several other members of the police department visited 5 Newell Court late Friday afternoon after hearing about the conditions at the building. Police Capt. Carl Estelle, a department spokesman, described the conditions the group encountered as very concerning and "problematic."
"We're concerned about the health and safety of the residents," Estelle said. "After we heard about some these problems, the chief wanted to take a look personally."
Davis said the city's code-enforcement officials will be putting together a report on the health-code violations at the building.
"We can't declare the property abandoned because the residents are there," Davis said. "But as you walk by the office, it looks like the management has abandoned the property."
It wasn't clear Friday whether the office closures and the lack of maintenance had anything to do with recent news, reported Tuesday in the Palo Alto Daily News, that the company had missed a $50 million balloon payment to Wells Fargo and could lose its apartment buildings in East Palo Alto. Page Mill spokesman Adam Alberti told the Weekly Friday afternoon that the company has recently reached an agreement with Wells Fargo that would allow Page Mill to continue to own and manage its properties, at least for the time being.
"The bank will release the money necessary for normal operations for the property," Alberti said.
Alberti said Page Mill will continue to collect rents in the usual fashion and said that the services at the buildings would not be interrupted. Alberti wouldn't comment on whether any maintenance workers were fired this week, or on any of the deficiencies at the apartment complexes, but he said the company's arrangement with Well Fargo would allow Page Mill to preserve the jobs of 45 staff members, many of whom live in East Palo Alto.
He called Page Mill's arrangement with Wells Fargo is an "interim solution," but one that will ensure there will be no disruptions.
"It's a continuing discussion," Alberti said.
Christopher Lund, whose organization EPA Fair Rent Coalition, has been protesting the company's rent increases, said his group is concerned about the possibility of Page Mill leaving the buildings without management.
"After what we've observed this week, the Fair Rent Coalition has serious concerns," Lund said. "If this situation is unwinding, we hope that in comes in for a soft landing."