Maestro Keys — Chapter 4

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FOUR

Elliebeth Williams was a diminutive, elderly black woman who lived most of her life in the Berkeley cottage her father purchased with earnings from his shipbuilding job during World War II. After her husband and only child, a son, died within a year of each other, she spun into delirium. Her brothers, who had long ago moved to Atlanta, put her in an assisted living facility and obtained permission from the court to administer her affairs. The first thing they did was rent her home for twelve hundred dollars a month to the most solvent tenants they could find, a childless, fortyish white couple with jobs in San Francisco.

For two years Elliebeth drifted in and out of lucidity. The brothers, no youngsters either, unhappy with being long-distance landlords, and running out of funds for Elliebeth’s care — or, if you believed the tenants’ lawyer, expecting Elliebeth’s imminent demise and looking to inherit a fortune courtesy of the Bay Area’s hot real estate market — opted to sell her house.

Due to the Berkeley rent law, however, the place was worth less than the brothers thought. The tenants didn’t have to leave until the buyers proved they purchased the house as a principal residence. That could take months, and where would the buyers live in the meantime? If the buyers wanted the house for rental income there would be more problems, because the brothers had neglected to register the house with the rent board and pay the annual fee for operating a rental unit, plus the rent would be set at twelve hundred dollars per month, the amount the tenants were currently paying — far below the buyers’ mortgage, property tax, and maintenance costs. Escrow would drag on for months while the sellers and buyers of Elliebeth’s house got its status straight with the city bureaucracy.

Most of these problems would disappear if the tenants voluntarily moved, but they refused. In a way Arnold couldn’t blame them. Where else were they going to find a whole house for what they were paying? The cheap rent was no doubt helping them save for a house of their own.

He wrote them a letter saying common decency demanded they leave. They didn’t want sweet old Ms. Williams to live on the street, did they? It galled him to make such a toothless appeal, but he had no choice because he had little legal leverage. They’d been model tenants, clean and quiet and civil and prompt with their payments. The husband had even done minor repairs without compensation. If the case went to court, the brothers would lose.

But the brothers wanted the house empty, and if BK&S couldn’t empty it they would take their business to someone who could. Meaning Arnold had to come up with something fast.

He suggested the brothers declare they wanted to live in the house themselves. Occupation by close relatives of the owner was good cause for eviction. But the brothers had no plausible motive to relocate and were obdurately opposed to lying under oath.

“All right then,” Arnold spitballed, “how about we say Elliebeth wants to move back in?”

“She can say whatever she wants. She’s certified senile,” the brothers reminded him.

“So we uncertify her!”

He’d spoken rashly. Certifying Elliebeth as competent would dissolve the brothers’ conservatorship and leave her exposed to all manner of predators. The brothers might complain to the bar that Arnold himself was a predator, not working in the best interests of his client. Arnold could be censured, perhaps even suspended.

But though they realized the risks, the brothers went along. Their sister might be taken advantage of and might even die sooner, but at least she would die in the family home.

They flew to California and on one of her good days asked Elliebeth whether she’d be happier in her house. “What do you think?” she spat, whereupon the brothers told her she’d have to pass a competency hearing, then have the tenants evicted. “You mean you put strangers in my house?” The light came back in her eyes.

She breezed through the hearing and signed a three-day notice to the tenants. They refused to leave. Arnold filed for eviction. The tenants hired a stout, buzz-cut, foul-mouthed attorney named Toni Lefferts, a militant leftist who made the local news a few years earlier for spray-painting Fuck the Patriarchy on Hooters billboards. She and the tenants got the eviction dismissed on the grounds that registration fees hadn’t been paid to the rent board.

To Arnold it was yet another instance of landlords losing on a technicality. If the fees and fines were paid he could file a new eviction and most likely succeed. But to Elliebeth Williams the judge’s dismissal was a declaration of war. She wouldn’t hear of paying fees, no matter how modest in the scheme of things. “They stole my house!” she shouted after the ruling, pointing a bony finger at the abashed couple. “Them and the government, they stole my daddy’s house from me!”

The brothers’ entreaties couldn’t change her mind. She wanted the tenants out and she would not pay that damn money.

Arnold was stuck. His chances of winning on appeal were nil. He couldn’t file a new eviction unless the fees and fines were paid. And he couldn’t back out of the case because taking it this far obligated him to take it all the way unless Elliebeth found a new attorney, which she had no inclination to do.

And then, to his shock and amazement, a miracle happened: Berkeley radicals came to his rescue.

Nearly a hundred of them marched on City Hall and monopolized the city council’s public comment period to rant about the Elliebeth Williams case being another example of gentrification, a reverse great replacement in which whites were supplanting Berkeley’s people of color, especially its venerable black community, in this instance by two upscale hipsters who spent their weekends sampling craft beers and limited-edition wines while denying an elderly black woman the right to live — and die — in her family home.

Reeling from popular outrage, the rent board promptly waived its fees and fines. With that hurdle cleared, Arnold refiled for eviction. Following the time-honored legal dictum that if you’re walking on thin ice you might as well dance, he sent a press release to Bay Area media announcing his client was so desperate she would picket her own house. He had the local property owners’ association recruit bodies, and the next day there were images everywhere (even on YouTube — Rudy showed him) of Elliebeth and her supporters chanting slogans and clutching signs.

Caught off guard, Toni Lefferts obtained an injunction against further picketing. But she was too late. The case stuck in the public mind as an example of privileged white tenants abusing poor black landlords. Nor was Elliebeth about to be deterred by a mere injunction. The day after it was issued she went to her house and smashed the front windows while shouting “thieves out of my house!”

Arnold knew he was getting the upper hand when the police caught her in the act and didn’t arrest her.

The case took three months to come to trial. The night before, Toni Lefferts proposed a settlement. If Elliebeth paid the tenants’ legal fees plus thirty thousand dollars, the tenants would vacate in thirty days.

As required by the lawyers’ code of conduct, Arnold relayed the offer to his client. But he made clear it was a sign of weakness. At this point the tenants were just trying to preserve the integrity of the rent control law — and their dignity. Which meant that before Elliebeth decided whether to accept, she had to consider the implications of a court decision for her fellow Berkeley property owners and for —

“I ain’t payin’ no damn money,” she hushed him.

The trial lasted the most grueling week of Arnold’s career. He put in sixteen-hour days, including the weekend prior, and came home so exhausted he didn’t have the energy to eat, much less conduct. In the middle of the night he’d remember some motion he’d forgotten to prepare and write notes to himself on the pad he kept by the bed for that purpose; then he’d be unable to fall back asleep. Governments collapsed, tornados tore up trailer parks, touring virtuosos earned standing ovations at Symphony Hall and moved on, and Arnold missed it all.

To his credit, Shipler recognized the importance of the trial and temporarily assigned an extra paralegal to Arnold. He also made a research attorney available. Everybody in the firm encouraged Arnold, and a few of his colleagues (including Hayes) offered their help. Haggard as he was, he never took them up. This was his moment, and he wasn’t sharing it with anyone.

That meant if he lost he’d have no one to blame but himself. The jury would go by what it heard in court, not by what was said in the media, and if it thought Toni Lefferts made the more compelling argument his firm would lose business, property rights in the Bay Area would be dealt a blow, and his career would be over. He never liked litigating and didn’t consider himself good at it. Had his best effort been good enough?

He nearly had a heart attack waiting to find out. While the jury deliberated he soaked his shirt in sweat, wrung his hands till they hurt, and scrunched tightly enough to compress vertebrae. A few times he felt light-headed and had to sit down, only to jump up a moment later from a rush of adrenaline.

The verdict sent Arnold higher than he’d ever been. He hugged his wife so passionately she gave a moan of pleasure. He hugged Shipler who, unnerved, broke off at the first chance. He hugged Elliebeth Williams, combing his brain to remember the last time he held a black woman. It was never.

Local news outlets ran stories with a photo of him escorting her into her cottage. As she crossed the threshold he handed her a heart-shaped pillow embroidered with the words Home Sweet Home that Linda crafted for the occasion. “How do you feel, Ms. Williams?” the reporters asked.

“This doesn’t smell like my house. It smells like white people,” she wrinkled her nose.

After everybody but her brothers left, Elliebeth Williams passed out. She was taken to the hospital suffering from dehydration and exhaustion. It would be a few more days before she slept in her own home.

A week after she was released she became even more disoriented than after her son and husband died. There was no way she could live alone in that condition. Her brothers put her back in assisted living and rented out her house for thirty-seven hundred dollars a month. They paid their sister’s legal fees in monthly installments, at first faithfully, then fitfully, and then, apparently, not at all.

And therefore it became the mission of Arnold Keys, who’d done the best work of his life to get her back in her home, to ensure she never breathed beneath its roof again. “I’ll put a lien on the property,” he promised Shipler.

“No,” the managing partner countermanded. “Resolving the lien could take forever.”

“You can write it off as a bad debt.”

“The tax credit is minimal, almost as bad as forgiving the debt altogether. Look Arnold, this is basically an overgrown small claim. The most efficient way to get what’s owed us is to have inside counsel file suit in Superior Court. You can handle a small claim, can’t you?”

“I should hope so.”

“Me too. So get on it.”

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© 2022 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.

Berkeley, California’s City Hall.
Berkeley City Hall. (Photo: Sarah Stierch)

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Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.