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Cannabis business threatens artist housing in East Oakland

Liza Veale
Arthur Monroe in his studio

An East Oakland warehouse is ground zero of a unfortunate standoff between art and marijuana. Over 30 artists are facing possible eviction, after a cannabis investment fund bought their building—one of Oakland’s oldest live/work artist housing.

“If you’ve ever seen a forest fire, which you cannot escape—I mean it goes down fast—that’s what this is.”

Arthur Monroe describes one of his massive 12x12 abstract expressionist paintings. The piece is a patterned expanse of fire and char, but you can see all kinds of sudden ruin in the brush strokes.

Credit Liza Veale
Arthur Monroe in his studio

Earlier this winter, Monroe painted this scene of a habitat destroyed — just after he found out he might be evicted. His home is elaborately lived in, with framed prints and portraits of old friends; treasures and plants stretch all the way up the high walls.

When Monroe first started paying rent back in 1978, it was just the empty second floor of a warehouse.

“It was built from bottom up,” he remembers, “and it took days and weeks.”

There was an eviction scare back in the beginning too. It was illegal to rent industrial space, so when the city found him and a few other artists living here, it said they had to leave. But, Monroe says he worked with city administrators to create the first proto-live/work artist housing provision. He won them over.

“They realized, ‘well, these are not beatniks. These are not vagabond people; they know what they're doing.’ Yes, we knew what we’re doing.”

Credit Liza Veale
Monroe's living room

But in 2016, the city designated the surrounding area the “Green Zone,” a place where cannabis businesses can operate. The neighborhood is already zoned for food and beverage manufacturing. But, it also encompasses an area with a lot of big studio spaces, particularly the Jingletown arts district.

The city estimates there are upwards of 25 permitted live/work spaces in the Green Zone, and many more unpermitted. Now that recreational cannabis is legal, there’s a flood to snatch these spaces up. The Cannery, and anyone else living in the area, is now in the crosshairs of the budding industry.

“They never planned for us,” says Rebecca Firestone, Monroe’s neighbor.

The Cannery tenants don’t know when the eviction notices will come, but Firestone’s hope is that the city will intervene before they do.

“Clearly our days are numbered,” she says.

Green Sage — the Cannabis investment fund that bought the building — is based in Colorado. Firestone says when she happened to run into one of the new owners in the hallway of her building, he told her of the company’s plans to gut and rehab the building in order to create a state-of-the-art commercial space.

“And then I pointed up at my window,” Firestone recounts, “and I said ‘well, that's where I live, are the residents going to be allowed to stay?’ And he said ‘no.’”

Green Sage didn’t respond to calls or emails, but Firestone says the new owner told her not to worry, that the eviction wouldn’t happen right away, but just “eventually.”

Weed and Artists at Odds

Firestone’s knows she can’t find a place she can afford in the Bay Area, so she’s already made plans to move in with her brother and sister in law in Syracuse, New York.

Firestone sees a little irony in the idea that after a long and fruitful friendship between artists and marijuana, one’s become the enemy of the other.

“I think a lot of cannabis rights activists never thought this would happen,” she says. “A lot of them are small-time mom-and-pop growers. They’re people who are very sincere about medical marijuana, and they're advocating kind of for little people, that's not what this is. This is big business. It's not any different from any other kind of big business.”

Credit Liza Veale
Arthur Monroe's bedroom

When the city made plans to attract legalized cannabis to Oakland, no one intended to lure in a threat to arts and culture.

“We have two really noble important goals, in tension,” says Kelley Kahn, policy director for art spaces in the office of Mayor Libby Schaff. “This is killing me.”

Kahn is referring to two of the city’s top priorities: making the city affordable for artists, and growing an inclusive cannabis industry.

“The Cannabis regulations [are] quite new,” says Kahn, “and this is one of the first times we've seen such a direct tension between our goals of preserving arts and culture and Oakland, and the goals that came with the Cannabis legislation around equity and serving Oaklanders.”

Kahn says the new owners of the Cannery—or any property—can legally evict everyone if they want to turn the building into something other than rental housing. It’s legal under the Ellis Act, a state law which advocates have tried and so far failed to reform for years.

“This is one of the great frustrations of being a public servant,” says Kahn, “you can't bend the real estate market and private property law to do what you want, and this is a classic example of that.”

A last-minute solution?

With housing for dozens, if not hundreds of people at stake, the city is working on amending regulations to prohibit issuing cannabis business licenses to projects that would cause residential displacement—though, importantly, unpermitted living situations might not be protected by such a rule.

The city is working fast to make this change; If Green Sage can’t get a license to open up shop in the building, they’ll lose a big reason for evicting the Cannery residents.

That would turn into a reprieve for Arthur Monroe.

Monroe has had a close relationship with Oakland over the decades, he’s worked with it to establish a world class home for the arts. He feels he has a right to stay in the town and home he helped build, and has a certain faith that the city will help him do that.

“I would hope so, those are my dreams,” he says.

At 82 years old, he could be evicted with no means of paying rent on today’s market, and no family with a spare room for him. Here, Monroe has support. He’s visited by an artist from down the hall, Brett Amory.

Credit Liza Veale
Brett Amory in his house

Since the eviction threat, Amory says he’s alternated between feeling restless and resigned.

“I understand it’s the evolution of a city,” says Amory, “it’s just unfortunate when it's happening to you directly—when it's affecting your life.”

Amory is known for painting anonymous figures in urban settings, at bus stops, in diner windows. He’s interested in that way strangers can look so lonely out in public, especially when they’re waiting, stuck between the past and the future. That’s what he’s doing now, waiting.

“You know the Bay Area is slowly—or not that slowly—its losing this culture. And then this is just another blow.”

Oakland City Council will debate adopting tenant protections as part of their cannabis licensing process at a special meeting this Thursday, March 8 at 2pm.