May 29, 2018

Creating the Collective: Challenges on 23rd Avenue

All photos: Stephanie Lister.

All photos: Stephanie Lister.

One evening in March, a dozen people gathered in the storefront headquarters of Liberating Ourselves Locally, a people of color-led makerspace on the bottom floor of a stucco-and-tile structure in the San Antonio neighborhood of East Oakland. Eight of the attendees lived or worked (or both) in the two-story structure, and three represented the nonprofit that technically owns the building, the Oakland Community Land Trust. But this was not a landlord-tenant conversation that most landlords or tenants would recognize: The rent-collector was helping the renters figure out how to eliminate him — eventually.

Last January, tenants of the century-old building on 23rd Avenue (which contains eight low-cost housing units on the second floor and four longstanding social justice-oriented storefronts below, with a community garden and playground in the backyard) learned that their landlord planned to sell the property — so they mustered a successful bid of $1.5 million. For low-income tenants and members of informal collectives with operating budgets next to nil, it was a feat. In Oakland’s housing market, it was a coup — one that the tenants hope will deter displacement and cultural erasure amid mounting real-estate speculation in East Oakland.

On paper, the storefront organizations were not prepared for a major property acquisition: Sustaining Ourselves Locally (SOL), which oversees the community garden, wasn’t even incorporated as a business. Tenant organizers, some struggling to pay their own rent, said that they felt ignored by city officials positioned to help, and tokenized by prospective philanthropists. Yet the tenants, led by a key handful or organizers, raised more than $90,000 from more than 600 individual donors, and financed the purchase with the help of the land trust. The property title now reads, “Liberated 23rd Ave. LLC.”

Overnight, the fellow renters became equal partners. But they inherited unequal rental burdens. Now the task is to invent an appropriately collective decision-making process; in the end, unlearning landlord-tenant habits and engineering real, equitable community ownership might prove a thornier challenge than marshaling the resources and partners to buy the property.

Land trusts are like landlords without the profit motive. They steward properties (usually residential) while restricting rent near cost-covering levels, and are generally prohibited from selling, thereby insulating tenants from the tides of the rental market. The Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT), which formed during the foreclosure crisis in 2009, owns eighteen properties in the city; aside from 23rd Ave., none are mixed use. Housing cooperatives with attached commercial space exist, but usually the commercial rent subsidizes the housing. At 23rd Ave., however, the storefront nonprofits, all of which center queer and trans people of color, are integral to the push for collective ownership.

Several of the residents and tenants of Liberated 23rd Ave. (l to r): eri, Robbie, Ricardo, Blanca, Devi.

Several of the residents and tenants of Liberated 23rd Ave. (l to r): eri, Robbie, Ricardo, Blanca, Devi.

“To have all nonprofits in the commercial space and then affordable housing above and have it be community owned — that’s really unique,” said OakCLT Executive Director Steve King, adding that he hasn’t seen anything like it in a decade of land trust work.

Early last year, OakCLT connected the tenants with a lender and contributed $300,000 in equity to buy the building and its adjacent lot from Ming Cheung, who’d given her tenants five months to make an offer; her gesture enabled the whole effort. “It’s practically unheard of,” said King. “If it’d gone to market, we wouldn’t have been able to compete.” In December, after closing escrow, everyone signed new, two-year leases; OakCLT assumed a management role while the tenants explore cooperative ownership.

The underlying land will remain in trust, bound by an affordability covenant, but instead of owning and managing the property in perpetuity, OakCLT functions like a stopgap. “The whole thing is about self-determination,” said Devi Peacock, who co-organized the acquisition. “Too often, in affordable housing work, communities of color only get to be clients or consumers — people who receive services instead of providing them.” Still, as Peacock conceded, OakCLT is a resource so crucial, it will be difficult to leave behind.

At the March meeting, King explained that the mortgage acquired from the Northern California Community Loan Fund requires a very costly seismic retrofit; OakCLT is applying for a cost-covering FEMA grant. Onwards through housekeeping, about the rats. “We spent $4,000 rodent-proofing the building when we thought it’d cost $1,000,” King said, referring to money from OakCLT’s own maintenance fund. News of bikes disappearing from the backyard behind The Bikery, a bike shop on site, prompted talk of cameras and motion-sensitive lights. Gaia Weise, an upstairs resident, had looked into replacing an easily climbable fence. “The quote I got was $7,000,” they said, wincing.

The Bikery.

The Bikery.

Money and upkeep talk reminded Eri Oura, who works at the Bikery, to mention that they still have approximately $40,000 remaining from fundraising, and that they should make committees: the group tentatively settled on maintenance, finance, intake (vetting prospective tenants), and organizational development (big picture). The idea is that the committees lay the groundwork for supplanting the land trust. One tenant asked if committee membership is voluntary or mandatory, and if it’s compensated.

“That’s for all us to decide,” Oura responded. “We could fundraise to pay a stipend, or we could slightly raise rent so that we don’t have to fundraise. […] We’re sort of starting a business here, but it’s our house.”

How much time will committee membership require? King put it at two hours a month. Does that include a monthly meeting? No, so it’d probably mean closer to three. And maintenance, in particular, might involve more than two hours a month, plus some training, which OakCLT can arrange. Everyone in the room volunteered to join a committee, but Phoenix Mangum, a seventy-six-year-old upstairs tenant and Bikery worker, voiced concern. He gestured to King and said, “We have our partners, which is fine, but we also have internal partners, ourselves.” He continued, “But there’s only eight of us here. How many people in this building even want to be part of an eventual co-op?”

Phoenix Mangum.

Phoenix Mangum.

Mangum, who started working at The Bikery six years ago, moved into an upstairs studio last March. An activist since the age of ten, when he used a “white” bathroom in segregated Baltimore, Mangum was more recently involved with a defunct West Oakland space called The Holdout. “It was basically white anarchists,” he said. “So there was this issue of whites moving into a Black neighborhood.” At 23rd Ave., he said, there’s more harmony between the residents and the area: Rice & Beans, a childcare collective run out of East Side Arts Alliance, uses the backyard playground. One tenant at the meeting grew up in the building with his family. Mangum also said that, if not for the studio, he’d probably be commuting to the Bikery from the homeless encampment around the corner.

I mentioned the co-op to Peacock, who heads the QTPOC crew of “artist-activist-healers” Peacock Rebellion, which operates out of Liberating Ourselves Locally. They pointed out that the new leases include a time commitment to the building. “Everyone supported that,” they said. Still to be resolved is rent. After the sale, Peacock said, storefront rents were equalized at approximately $1,100. But the residential rents, which range from $420 to $1,100, have yet to change; they differ based on square footage and tenancy length. Should a common commitment to the building mean equal contributions to the mortgage?

“Right now of course we don’t want anyone’s rent to go up,” Peacock said. Will anyone’s rent go down? “It’s an ongoing conversation,” they said. “We haven’t decided.”

The “we” is in flux. Weise, who’d looked into the fence, voluntarily moved out at the beginning of May after working with SOL for more than two years. (They landed an affordable room in West Oakland.) After the acquisition, they said, the expectations of residents increased, but only selectively, and Weise felt at once overruled in group settings and singled out for not doing enough. “Collectives are complicated,” they said. “I feel like other people were not showing up, but they weren’t getting the same critique.”

Although Weise expected the reorganization to be gradual, they were surprised that addressing rent seemed like a low priority. “It’s gotten brought up, and been tabled,” they said. “A lot of the status quo is being maintained.” Weise worries that there isn’t enough communication within the building for consensus about upkeep, let alone bills. They said that sixteen people attended the first post-purchase meeting, but only eight came to the next. “One family upstairs has never been to a meeting,” they said. “I tried explaining the purchase to them and it didn’t seem like they really even understood what’s going on.”

(Oura, a SOL collective member for more than four years, emphasized that the process is in its “infancy,” noting a language barrier with the tenant in question. “This person’s perception of where the building should be is very different from mine,” Oura said.)

The neighborhood is a microcosm of the competing interests in East Oakland. A five-story private housing complex is tentatively slated for development across the street from the building. An adjacent lot is contaminated with lead. On E. 12th Street is “The Village,” a homeless encampment maintained by activists. AC Transit’s incoming Bus Rapid Transit line on International Boulevard is accelerating real-estate interest. Around the corner is the people of color-centered venue and creative resource East Side Arts Alliance, which also owns its residential and commercial building. 23rd Ave. and East Side share the aim of reversing gentrification: preserving culture while impeding displacement and land speculation.

The upstart cooperative works closely with East Side, where they participate in “block dinners,” as well as The Village. “We want to keep making up for some of the services that don’t reach this area,” said Peacock, noting that they’re learning to administer Narcan, which reverses overdoses, and offering free gathering space to nearby organizations. Between 23rd Ave. and East Side, there’s twenty income-restricted housing units, some occupied by longtime neighborhood families.

Oakland Community Land Trust, (L to R): Jen Collinn, Zachary Murray, Steve King.

The Oakland Community Land Trust (L to R): Jen Collinn, Zachary Murray, Steve King.

Still, there’s some dissonance between the principled self-sufficiency — with its goal of entrenching a block against the city’s rapid changes — and the patrons bottom-lining the acquisition. Like many scrappy local cultural organizations desperate for some semblance of stability, the tenants are reaching out to institutions that, in some ways, they consider enemies.

Though the collective received a $50,000 grant from Community Arts Stabilization Trust, a San Francisco arts nonprofit underwritten primarily by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, Peacock expressed general leeriness towards philanthropies. “No board of directors will eventually sell this place for profit,” Peacock said. “Often to get a grant you’re giving them a picture for them to run in their newsletter for ten years and it’s like, ‘Huh? You’re giving us $500.’ We know when we’re getting played.” Asked if there were objectionable terms attached to the CAST grant, Oura responded, “They haven’t asked for anything.”

And though they used $100,000 in public funds to help finance the acquisition, they’re suspicious of city officials. In January, East Side hosted a celebration of its neighbors’ success. (A CAST staffer attended, taking pictures.) It was exactly one year and five days since the former landlord notified the tenants of her intent to sell, Peacock said from stage. “We went to local government and they went, ‘Oh, these cute kids — they can’t pull this off,’” they said, neglecting to mention the $100,000. “But we also went to you, our community, and we pulled it off.”

Carla Muñoz of the Ohlone Sisters.

Carla Muñoz of the Ohlone Sisters.

Later in the event, Peacock announced an unexpected visitor, the Mayor of Oakland. A woman in a wig bounded on stage and introduced herself as “Schibby Laff.” Brandishing posters strewn with graphs and diagrams, she rambled about a “seventeen-thousand-by-seventeen-thousand plan to make Oakland great again” with the help of more cops and developers. Then someone offstage struck a cymbal and said, “This is bullshit.” A dragon operated by two performers chased Laff around stage while the audience howled in delight.

Ohlone sisters Desiree and Carla Muñoz led the last act of the celebration. The audience followed them around the corner to 23rd Avenue, where they smudged the building with sage cradled in a seashell. The sisters spoke about indigenous people making common cause with other people of color, and sang several songs while onlookers spilled into the street. They asked that, instead of clapping, we applaud with oohs. “Clapping repels the spirits that we’ve invited into this building,” said Desiree. Hesitant and hushed, the oohs felt like a tacit acknowledgment of the campaign’s fragility, as if full-throated congratulations were premature.

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