East Palo Alto's largest landlord has offered leases for 23 of its units to tenants displaced by a fire that heavily damaged a Redwood City apartment building last month.

The six-alarm fire at the Hallmark House, an affordable-housing complex at 531 Woodside Road, displaced 97 tenants, many of them low-income, elderly, disabled or with mental health issues.

Earlier this month Lee Harrison, a community worker for San Mateo County's Behavioral Health and Recovery Services agency, approached Equity Residential about providing one or two apartment units for the homeless fire victims. The company responded with an offer of nearly two-dozen units and held an open house last Wednesday for prospective tenants.

Equity Residential bought 1,800 East Palo Alto apartment units in December 2011.

"It's a real challenge for people with low incomes to find quality housing," Harrison said in a phone interview Monday. "People were grateful that Equity stepped up and offered this opportunity."

Equity waived application fees and worked with the San Mateo County Department of Housing to streamline the approval process, according to Chris Peter, managing director of Woodland Park, the name Equity has given its apartments located west of Highway 101 next to the East Palo Alto-Palo Alto border.

As of Friday, Equity already had made housing offers to 18 applicants, Harrison said, adding there's little doubt that displaced Redwood City tenants would also move into the remaining five units.


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Supervisor Warren Slocum, who represents Redwood City and East Palo Alto and had made public pleas for property owners to give up "just one" vacant unit in their buildings for a fire victim, said in an email that he appreciates Equity's efforts.

"I continue to be hopeful that others will come forward and do the same," Slocum wrote.

If all 23 units are filled, only a handful of displaced residents in need of permanent housing would remain, according to county officials. In recent weeks, many of the fire victims have been living in local motels paid for by the county.

The July 7 fire at the 72-unit Hallmark House killed one tenant inside a unit where Redwood City fire officials say the blaze originated. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Equity Residential, based in Chicago, purchased the East Palo Alto properties from Wells Fargo, which took over the apartment portfolio from previous owner Page Mill Properties after foreclosing on a loan of about $250 million in 2010.

Tenant advocates and city officials had battled with Page Mill after it raised rents, evicted tenants and sued the city over its rent-control ordinance.

Before Equity Residential took over, some residents and officials expressed concern that it would behave the same way since the company's chairman, Samuel Zell, has been an active opponent of rent-control laws.

Although Equity was quick to issue three-day "pay rent or quit" notices to tenants late on their payments and raised the price tenants pay for parking, there hasn't been as big an outcry as when Page Mill was the landlord.

Harrison, an East Palo Alto resident, said he can't say whether Equity has become a good corporate citizen in its new city. "What I can say is they certainly have in this case," Harrison said.

Follow Bonnie Eslinger at twitter.com/bonnieeslinger.