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Prominent Scientist Loses Berkeley Homes After Prolonged Battle With City

Posted: May 02, 2012

BERKELEY, Calif. – An eminent Bangladeshi American scientist, who helms a nonprofit organization attempting to mitigate the effects of arsenic in Bangladesh’s wells, lost a 12-year battle April 30 with the city of Berkeley to retain ownership of his homes.

Property owned by Rash B. Ghosh – founder of the International Institute of Bengal Basin (IIBB) – was sold in Alameda County Superior Court to developer Robert Richerson, who is associated with the Berkeley-based real estate company, Korman and Ng.

The parcel – two houses on one lot at the corner of Dwight and McGee that Ghosh bought in 1992 – sold for $265,000, far below the market rate of comparable properties in the area priced from $465,000 to $685,000.

Declared a “Public Nuisance” in 2001

Citing numerous code violations, Berkeley housing officials declared the structures a “public nuisance” in 2001 and then seized the parcel in 2009, evicting Ghosh and his tenants. Ghosh was homeless for some months, living on friends’ sofas until he was able to purchase his current home, which also faces imminent seizure by the city.

Ghosh believes he has been unfairly treated by the city of Berkeley in his prolonged battle to keep his homes. “I’ve been defrauded all the way,” he asserted, noting that he paid $160,000 in 2011 to a court-ordered receiver to bring the structures in compliance with the city’s housing codes.

“They made me do all the groundwork; I’ve had to sell so much property in Bangladesh to do that, and still I have lost my lifetime investment,” he said, accusing Berkeley housing officials of selectively enforcing code violations against him.

“This house is stronger than any property in the vicinity,” Ghosh stated, alleging that he spent over half a million dollars to repair and maintain the property in the 20 years he has owned it.

The structure on Dwight Way also served as office space for the IIBB and housed a small multi-denominational temple. IIBB has been relocated to Ghosh’s new home.

Ghosh continued to pay his $5,000 monthly mortgage on the contested property, even after he was evicted. He also continued to pay his property taxes.

Peter Smith, co-founder of the lSan Francisco-based law firm Dhillon and Smith, which specializes in real-estate, explained that people remain the owners of their property – even those in receivership – until a sale goes through. Therefore, Ghosh had to pay his mortgage and property taxes until this week’s sale to avoid foreclosure. The city was also allowed to bill him for repairs until the sale occurred, Smith said.

Nobel Laureate’s Plea Rebuffed

Ghosh's attorney, Michael Sims, filed an 11th-hour application for a stay in the sale of the property, and noted that his client was attempting to comply with the city’s requirements for repairing the structures.

But Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch approved the sale to Richerson, noting that Ghosh has had 12 years to make the required repairs.

“He has done absolutely nothing,” Roesch asserted, as he denied Ghosh’s application for a stay on the sale.

At the hearing, the judge also cut short a declaration from Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, who has supported Ghosh in his struggles against the city. The judge stated that Townes -- age 97 and an inventor of the laser -- was “singularly uninformed” about the case.

Ghosh is widely respected for having accomplished much of the early work on canopy chemistry – the role of trees in offsetting carbon released into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Salford in Manchester on the pollution of Liverpool’s Mersey River is also well regarded.

In his declaration, Townes, who shared the 1964 Nobel Prize for physics, wrote, “I have known Dr. Ghosh for many years and I am thoroughly impressed by his selfless dedication to the remediation of ground and surface waters throughout the world. He is a man of the greatest integrity who has dedicated his life to his cause.”

Townes alleged in his letter that the city of Berkeley was selling the property at “a sixth of its value, with little public notice, to a zoning board member, which may be a conflict of interest.”

No known staff member of the Korman and Ng real estate company sits on Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB). However, Miriam Ng, co-founder of the firm, was appointed to Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in April 2011 by city councilmember David Moore. ZAB and the LPC have frequently collaborated on land-use determination issues in Berkeley.

Richerson subsequently closed escrow and took ownership of the Ghosh properties, but he refused to comment on the sale for publication. Berkeley Deputy City Attorney Laura McKinney also would not comment on Roersch’s ruling.

Ghosh said he now plans to appeal.

“Unattached Stairs and Bootlegged Work”

Superior Court receiver Ben McGrew, who was paid $160,000 by Ghosh for repair work, said in an interview, “This is one of the worst properties I’ve ever dealt with. The property inside is in deplorable condition, with unattached stairs and a lot of bootlegged work.”

McGrew went on, “There were very serious structural deficiencies, including electrical wiring issues, which had not been addressed by Ghosh.” He added that Richerson would have to spend at least $250,000 to get the parcel to the point where it would meet city requirements.

City housing officials also wanted Ghosh to tear down an additional storey he had added to the Dwight Way structure without proper permits.

Reporters examined the exterior of the property on April 25, and found it to be in appalling condition. Although the house facing McGee Street bore external signs of recent renovation, including new electrical wiring, the structure abutting Dwight Way had many rusting appliances housed in its weed-choked backyard, which also stored rotting floorboards and other detritus. Gang graffiti adorned its façade.

But Ghosh’s contractor, Nick Saadi, contended it would have been easy enough to fix all the issues the city had with the properties, which he believed were largely cosmetic.

“It is very unfortunate that he is losing his buildings. Here is a man who is 68 years old, who has done some very important work in his life. We must help him,” said Saadi. He continued that he has worked on homes in much worse shape where the owner has been allowed to retain his property.

The Berkeley City Council will hold a hearing June 8 to determine whether Ghosh should get back the $160,000 he paid to McGrew for repairs.

Photo: By Sunita Sohrabji, India-West

This article was a collaborative project by Sunita Sohrabji, a staff reporter at India West, and Viji Sundaram, an editor at New America Media.

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