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Community group grapples with Oakland Mayor over 'tiny homes’ for homeless

Liza Veale
Tiny Homes under construction at the E. 12th site


The Village began as an illegal, direct-action program to provide tiny homes for homeless people. It has since gained the city of Oakland’s official blessing. But, the activists say the collaboration with the city has been unnecessarily rocky — and the feeling is mutual.

The story begins early last year, when activists took over a public park in Northwest Oakland and began constructing tiny homes and communal facilities for about ten people — illegally.


That lasted until an early morning face-off in February 2017, when “The Village,” as the tiny home community called itself, was cleared amid resistance from protesters.


The “Promised Land”


The first iteration of The Village was disbanded. But, the city heard the activists’ pitch: they wanted to create a sober, self-governed community that would make it possible for homeless people to get things together and transition into permanent housing.


After the City Council expressed support for The Village, Mayor Libby Schaff’s administration agreed to begin working with the activists to find a new site, through official channels.


Which it finally did, at the beginning of this year. The Village is settled, for now, on a site they call “The Promised Land” because it was promised to them by the city.


It’s a wide dirt lot on East 12th Street in East Oakland, surrounded by a freeway and BART line overhead.


But, the administration recently discovered that the overpass is due for rehabilitation, and has ordered The Village, and the nearly 100 people camping on the lot, to clear out soon.



Credit Liza Veale
A dog rests under the overpass at E. 12th street

When I visit the lot, there’s kebabs cooking on a barbeque, a swing hanging down from the overpass, a cluster of tents, mounds and mounds of discarded junk and materials, and the construction zone.


About ten volunteers are working on building two new tiny homes; three have already been completed.


Jorge Cabrero is part of a shifting cast of people donating time, materials and expertise to this project. He’s lived in the neighborhood all his life, and says he’s been looking for a way to help people on the street get into homes. This is his third time here.


“I was riding on my bike … and I asked if they wanted a volunteer,” says Cabrero, hammering nails into a tiny home. “I’d rather do this than nothing at home.”


A couple high-school volunteers cut and install insulation in another tiny home, with instruction from James Moore.


Building a future


Moore is on the list to get into one of these homes. He’s homeless and he’s a carpenter; he studied the trade at Laney College decades ago.


Moore grew up down the street, right here on 23rd Avenue. He’s also a Vietnam war veteran.


Credit Liza Veale
Carpenter James Moore

“But, I have more PTSD from 23rd Avenue than I do from the military,” says Moore. “Saw more fighting and killing on 23rd Avenue than I did in the war, too.”


Moore is hoping to get into one of these tiny homes and get a little peace of mind for the first time in a while.


“Because I’ll have a lock on both doors and people can’t come and mess with me.”


But, everyone here has to clear out for the overpass construction. The city has not yet chosen another site for them to relocate.


Needa Bee, the lead organizer with The Village, sees things this way: the eviction of The Village is just the latest in a long series of attempts by Mayor Schaaf’s administration to sabotage the project.


“Despite City Council clearly getting behind this,” says Needa Bee, “They still are not working with us.”


Needa Bee says there have been too many hoops to jump through: First, the administration required the village to become a nonprofit or get a fiscal sponsor, which took a while.


Then the city told them they needed $2 million liability insurance.


Then, they offered up a less than ideal plot of land and, she says, immediately directed homeless people to it — more people than the Village could possibly deal with.


“If I offer you land and then I go and herd a bunch of people on that land, people from five different neighborhoods, two rival gangs,” she says, “and then you're expected to deal with that?”


Now that there’s chaos at the site, she says, the city blames them for it, and says it proves they’re not equipped or trained to do the work they’re doing.


Now that the city has reneged on its promised land, Needa Bee suspects The Village is being punished for being uncooperative and hostile last year, when the City shut down its first iteration.


“They didn't like that we said we are ungovernable by you. They’re still pissed off,” she says. And she doesn’t regret it.


“I think if we had been less antagonistic we wouldn't have come as far as we have. We wouldn’t have the Tuff Sheds,” she says, referring to the City’s own project to house homeless people in tiny homes. “The idea of creating a solution would never have happened.”


In other words, Needa Bee believes pressure from activists like her forced Oakland to take action in the form of the Tuff Sheds project, which is the same basic idea as The Village.


“The difference is they’re just very institutional about it whereas we’re very autonomous and grassroots,” says Needa Bee. Oakland’s project has a lot more rules that people must follow, or be kicked out.


Keeping up with the Tuff Sheds


Needa Bee points out the administration moved quickly with their own project, but have dragged their feet with the activists’. Even though the Village intends to use little to no city resources other than the vacant land, and the city’s Tuff Sheds project has a $550,000 budget.


The Assistant to the City Administrator, Joe DeVries, says when the activists bad mouth the administration, it makes it harder for him to root for them. But, he claims it doesn’t make him do his job any differently.


DeVries predicts the new Village will happen soon.


“I think what we need to do is find up a piece of land that will work for them,” says DeVries, “and then move into contract and help them move 40 people over to that parcel from the East 12th site, because they can't be there any longer.”


DeVries says the upcoming construction on the site is unfortunate, but not something they could have anticipated.


He disputes the idea that the administration intends to sabotage the project, by, for example, crowding the site and sowing chaos.


“Needa with the Village claims that the city herded people there and that we encouraged people to move there,” says DeVries. “Other than that dozen people that’s not true, we didn’t.”


The East 12th site is not enclosed or locked, and it’s sanctioned by the city, so it’s no wonder people are taking refuge there. There have been fires and fights, and at least one incident of sexual assault already.


Though it’s not a pure reflection on The Village’s operations, it doesn’t look good.


“I think the biggest concern is that there’s some sort of site management going on that has rules that people have to follow to avoid physical injury for people,” he says.


While Needa Bee agrees in theory, The Village and the city of Oakland have trouble ironing out rules. A cornerstone The Village’s entire approach is that the community is self-governed and anti-authoritarian. For example, they do their own security by taking shifts, not by hiring guards.


Transition issues


The contract negotiations also snag on another issue: how will The Village get people into permanent housing? The City says residents shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the tiny homes for up to two years, as The Village has proposed.


“Otherwise what happens is people just get comfortable,” says DeVries. “They say, ‘Oh I live here now and I'm going to be able to live here as long as I want.’ The goal isn't to have people living in wooden boxes forever. It's to get people on a path to real housing.”


Needa Bee says the plan is to help people get into homes — but the timeline is unrealistic. There just isn’t enough housing available, she says, no matter how many case managers you hire.


City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan has been one of the strongest supporters of The Village.


The Village isn’t the only group asking the city to suspend or change the rules around shelter in this time of growing homelessness.


There are faith-based organizations trying to house people; there are individuals lobbying to be allowed to live in RV’s and shipping containers.


Kaplan is pushing the city to make those alternatives easier, for example, by folding sites into the city’s own liability insurance, instead of requiring groups to get their own.


At a recent City Council meeting, Kaplan compared Oakland’s 3,000 homeless people to the number of homes lost in the North Bay to the devastating fires a few months ago.


In the North Bay, “within weeks, they passed a law making it easier to have legally allowed housing units be it RVs, be it travel trailers,” said Kaplan. “Our emergency is no less serious than theirs and warrants no less of a response.”


Oakland’s housing emergency is also not likely to be temporary.  As grassroots groups and homeless people keep working on developing alternatives, the city will continue wrestling with its role in managing them.