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West Oakland landlords invest in city's most dangerous streets


Mead Avenue is a single block in West Oakland in the triangle where San Pablo Avenue and Market Street meet. Like streets in a lot of low-income communities, Mead Avenue has seen poverty, gangs, gun violence, the crack epidemic. There’s also a church on the corner, a Boys and Girls Club across the street, and a non-profit dedicated to Men’s Health close by. None of those things may be as important to Mead Avenue’s future as that big thing our entire economy revolves around: real estate. Here’s Derek Suring, a real estate agent in Oakland.

“Everyone’s basically gobbling up materials and property wherever they can,” he says.

You can see this all over the Bay Area. San Francisco rents are the highest in the nation, higher even than New York City. A two-bedroom apartment will run you about $2,300 per month. Just a 7-minute BART ride away, is West Oakland. It has a reputation as a rough neighborhood, but that’s not deterring real estate investors.

“You can get $1,500 in rent for a two bedroom one bath in West Oakland,” he says. “So to buy a house that's $100,000 put in another 50 to 60 grand, fix it up, you got instant cash flow.”

This fact is changing streets up and down West Oakland. On Market Street, by a liquor, past the men in baggy jeans – who are there all day – is a man with slicked-back hair, a wife-beater, a gold tooth, and a broom. His name is Ahmed Said.

“I’m here three times a day, sweeping the street,” he says, “because I do have a couple properties on Mead. I'm not trying to change the block dramatically. It's like, leaving the bathtub dirty, if you don't put no Comet down there gonna stay dirty.”

Said bought his first property on Mead in 2001. It’s the two-story white house across the street. In total, he owns six houses here, and says he’d buy more.

“If money comes my way, why not? We could change Mead to Ameed,” he says.

Nearby is a green, one-story house with a garden out front, a tabby wandering the yard. Said picked this one up last year for $70,000. A lot of drug dealing and prostitution went on in front of this house, under a pine tree that had split the sidewalk. Now the pine tree, and the crime are gone, and a couple UCSF students live there.

“We fixed it up to where first of all, everything is brand new so you can keep the good tenants,” he says.

Said’s pragmatic: all business. Like he says, he’s not trying to transform the block. But just down the street, there’s a landlord who is.

“Look at this, this is so beautiful,” says Alex Miller-Cole, surveying the block one afternoon. “Look at the sidewalk. The sidewalk is impeccable.”

Alex Miller-Cole owns 861 through 865 Mead, a four-plex he bought for $175,000 in 2010.

“The idea that we have, which has worked,” he says, “is to buy the worst property possible. So we find whichever is the most troublesome street, the one that has the crime, the open drug market, the prostitution, the shootings, and we find which is the house that is the problem.”

Miller-Cole has bought six places in West Oakland that fit this description. He fixes them up, and rents them out again.

“Our goal is to completely improve it beyond what anybody would expect,” he says.

He seeks out people from the neighborhood to rent to, people who’ve been foreclosed on, or people who just need some help. He also plants street trees. He’s helped plant more than 500 around West Oakland. Unlike Said, he does want to transform the neighborhood, block by block.

Mead Avenue was as good a test of this strategy as any street. For years residents and city officials knew it as one of the most dangerous blocks in West Oakland. In 2010 there were six aggravated assaults reported, and two homicides. As of November 1st, 2012, Mead Avenue had only a single reported aggravated assault, a shooting. There also haven’t been any homicides this year, or in 2011. If the neighborhood isn’t exactly safe, it’s definitely moving in that direction.

“I just became a citizen May 5th of this year,” says Miller-Cole. “I intend to live and die here. So I'm very interested that this whole place gets better.”

Something else on Mead Avenue is changing – the people who actually live there. Since World War II, West Oakland – and Mead Avenue is no exception – has been predominantly black. Ahmed Said is Yemeni, Alex Miller-Cole is Mexican, and Chris Alongi is white.

Across the street from Miller-Cole’s four-plex is Alongi’s first piece of property in Oakland (though not his last – he owns three houses in West Oakland). It’s a white Victorian with blue trim, a garden in back.

“The whole place was vacant because it was a foreclosure,” he says. “The porch was all caved in, the doors were kicked in. There was like needles and mattresses. I had to tear out the floor in the back two bedrooms because it was a drug lab. And somebody locked the dog in there until it died.”

Things are pretty different now. On the second floor of Alongi’s property, you’ll find Ilya Lozowick. She’s a smiling ball of energy. She lives with three roommates, and her goldfish. She says she notices the drug dealers on the corner, but doesn't mind – it's just part of living in a city.

“Where I'm from, it's a very predominantly white small town in Oregon,” she says. “Then I moved down here and I'm like, ‘Hh my goodness, I'm the white girl.’ Nobody really, like, treats you that differently, you are a little more conscious of it than you would be other places, like up in Piedmont.”

Leroy Stanfield is a longtime Mead Avenue resident who’s happy about newcomers like Lozowick. He’s been living at 825 Mead Avenue since 1974. His house is an old, red and white, Victorian that stands out from the other houses on the block. Its original owners were Chinese, and the decoration reflects that. Stanfield’s lived here since 1967, when it belonged to his mom.

“At one time this block, this one block long, was the worst block in Oakland, California,” says Stanfield.

Still, at the top of the market, his house was worth $500,000. Now it’s fallen to about half of that.

“But I think the property is gonna go back up within the next five years,” he says. “It’s going the right way, because the neighborhood is coming, it's coming pretty clean, it’s whole lot cleaner than what it used to be.”

Stanfield is a rare creature: a longtime West Oakland resident who’s also likely to reap the benefits of rising prices. Local housing activists, though, worry that there just aren’t enough people like him. The median income in West Oakland is only half what it is in the rest of the city. And the neighborhood has some of the highest foreclosure rates in the city. Robbie Clark works with the nonprofit Causa Justa: Just Cause.

“So people that live in the neighborhood, definitely have had like an economic crisis before this economic crisis,” says Clark. “And there still needs to be housing that addresses that.”

Clark says new landlords coming in won’t help those people: “There’s an investment in the properties, but not for actual people who live here. We don't have people in the neighborhood reaping benefits of those profits.”

For now, the neighborhood remains in flux. Directly across from Leroy Stanfield’s house is a vestige of Mead Avenue’s past. It’s a two-story house with boarded up windows, a gate slung across the front steps. Abandoned.

Its owner, Jeff Crear, says he keeps his properties boarded up, because he doesn’t trust any tenant who’d want to live there. 

“Does it make sense for me to buy buildings and spend money to meet the city codes of habitability and all and then just board the buildings up?” asks Crear. “No it doesn't. Part of the reason I board up buildings is to make a point. Look, I will sacrifice financially to get across a point that I'm only interested in the right type of tenants.”

By the right type of tenant, Crear means not a drug dealer, not a drug user. Crear’s place is a big, old Victorian. It really would be nice if he took the gate off the stairs, the boards off the windows.

Examining the property, Crear admits that, given the changes on Mead Avenue, he is thinking about selling it. If he does, Crear says the guy he'll give first look to is Ahmed Said, who happens to be walking up the block.

“He told me long ago,” says Said, “he told me about five years ago. He said, look I used to be like you, fire in my stomach He says I used to have fire in my stomach just like you. But look, I had enough of it.”

If Crear’s had enough of it, there are plenty who still want more. Prices in West Oakland are going up. That means Mead Avenue will keep changing. But it’s not clear what that means for the neighborhood.

Eighty percent of West Oaklander’s rent. That means 80 percent of West Oakland is shut out from the benefits of rising home prices. Having involved, decent landlords is great. But in a different world, more West Oaklanders would be landlords themselves. Then it wouldn’t just be a few property owners taking care of a street. It would be the whole street, taking care of itself.

This story reported that Mead Avenue had no homicides in 2012. This was true at the time the story was published. However, on December 28 of this year, two men, Darrel Armstrong and Keith Davis, were shot to death near the corner of Market Street and Mead Avenue. As of January 1, 2013, no arrests have been made and there is no known motive for the homicides. 

Crosscurrents Oakland