A Berkeley family’s $1.1 million city renovation nightmare

It didn’t take long for Leonard Powell to see how a home makeover can spiral out of control.

What started as a five-month construction job at the 79-year-old’s Berkeley home dragged on for more than a year. Budgets were blown on stainless steel appliances, granite countertops and a new front door painted a trendy shade of teal. Then came the permitting hassles to convert the home, where he and his wife, now deceased, raised six kids, back into a duplex.

Except Powell never wanted to gut his home of nearly five decades; he felt powerless as a confusing web of officials forced him to make the updates.

From San Francisco to San Jose, Sacramento to Riverside, lawyers who have fought similar cases say California has seen an increase in little-known “health and safety receiverships.” This legal process allows cities to petition courts to install “receivers,” who then take control of properties that local governments decide are problematic. The homeowner is not only billed for all improvement costs, but also has to pay receivers’ fees and legal costs that in Powell’s case total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It all started for Powell when the city ordered him to fix code violations such as broken windows and unsafe wiring after police reported “substandard conditions” while serving a search warrant. Then a court appointed a receiver at $250-an-hour to manage the work that left Powell with $683,276 in loans and on the brink of losing his home.

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