News & Opinion » Feature

A Different Relationship With Housing

Land trusts are playing an increasing role in the effort to help people keep their homes.


1 comment

Francisco Perez has lived in his apartment near International Boulevard in the Fruitvale district of Oakland for 20 years. "It was good for a long time," he said. Then four years ago, the rent started going up steeply every year.

Perez explained that's when the owner learned the building was not covered by rent control because it was built one year after Oakland's rent control law was passed. By now, Perez said, his rent has more than doubled. He retired six years ago and feared he wouldn't be able to keep up.

But on February 27, he and other residents and their supporters gathered in the driveway of their 14-unit building for a victory celebration. After a five-month rent strike by half the residents, the building's owner, Calvin Wong, had agreed the previous evening to start negotiating the sale of their building to the Oakland Community Land Trust.

Several tenants, including Perez, spoke in Spanish with English interpretation. They described the anxiety they had felt about the rising rents and their relief that a solution was in sight. "I feel so happy to know that we are in purchase negotiations and our lives can change," said fellow tenant Jesus Alvares. "I believe that in the end my family, my neighbors, and I will be free from this stress and frustration."

Many of the tenants said support from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a grassroots tenants' rights organization, had been key to their success. "ACCE showed us how to fight for tenant rights and how to raise our voice," said Maria Montes de Oca. "Thanks to our fight, we have been heard by the owner of this building."

Residents said that at first they hope to pay rent to the land trust, whose mission is to keep rents affordable and prevent displacement. But over time they want to become owners of the building themselves. The Oakland Community Land Trust shares the goal of "creating opportunity for tenants to become owners," said Executive Director Steve King. "We want to create structural transformation for low-income people to fundamentally change their relationship to the land."

If the negotiations are successful, this building will join a growing number in the East Bay whose tenants have partnered with community land trusts, nonprofits that buy their buildings to keep them permanently affordable. And city governments are stepping up to support this strategy. Last summer Oakland allocated $12 million to support land trust projects in multi-unit buildings with five to 25 units. Berkeley also has a policy of supporting such projects and has created several funding streams that could help. "With public investment in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, community land trusts have been able to grow in the last two years," said Miranda Strominger of the Bay Area Community Land Trust.

Now both Oakland and Berkeley are also considering ordinances that would incentivize or require sellers of multi-unit buildings to offer them first to tenants and/or the land trusts that are buying buildings to keep tenants from displacement.

Success Story

The home of twenty-six-year-old Alexes Link is one of the recent success stories: an eight-unit building on 10th Street in Berkeley, which the Northern California Land Trust is in the process of buying. Link has lived in the building since she was three, when she moved there with her grandmother, who raised her. Most of the building's other residents are also African Americans who have lived in the building for decades. "We watch out for each other," Link said.

Fellow resident Stanley Glenn agreed: "We're a family." Glenn, who recently retired from a job at Safeway in Berkeley, has lived in the building 27 years. "If you need something, there's always someone who doesn't mind doing it," he said. And rent control has kept the apartments affordable.

One day last fall, Link said, a neighbor came and said, "Do you guys know your building is up for sale?" Link said that after she found the listing online, "most of the tenants were on edge. I was trying to find another place to stay, but it's not easy. We were willing to fight to stay here."

"We all got together and discussed it with the owner," Glenn said. "We said, 'we don't want to be priced out, we don't want to be displaced.'" When potential buyers came "we told them. 'we're not going to let this place go.'" Then in December the residents held a meeting with the Northern California Land Trust. "We all brought chairs and met in the driveway," Link said. "We were ecstatic. We felt like we finally had someone on our team."

Land trust Executive Director Ian Winters said the building was in danger of gentrification. "This was one outrageous displacement too many," Winters said. Sales blurbs pitched it as a good building to "reposition," a code word for corporate investors. The asking price "could only be supported if the current residents weren't there."

The land trust eventually negotiated a lower price and secured a "seller carry-back loan," essentially a second mortgage from the seller. "We were able to negotiate fairly assertively with the seller," Winters said. "We pointed out serious deferred maintenance issues." And tenants' opposition to a commercial sale was key.

The sale worked out well for both sides, said real estate agent Max Ratner, who represented the seller, Steve Bautista. The land trust was "a great buyer for the property," he said, with the ability to take on the deferred maintenance problems. The seller was "willing to be flexible in a way some sellers would not be," agreeing to wait for the land trust to assemble the necessary financing. And, Ratner said, Bautista "came to realize" that the carry-back loan benefitted him as well, providing regular monthly payments with interest over a period of years.