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The Vanishing Underground: Oakland's Housing Crisis Is Also Displacing its Arts and Music Counterculture

Young creatives who flocked to industrial warehouses are now the latest victims of East Bay gentrification.



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In November 2015, the task force surveyed 900 artists. Most respondents indicated that workspace and housing costs were their biggest challenges. Half said they were on month-to-month leases for both their studios and living arrangements, making them particularly vulnerable to displacement. This particularly affects studio spaces because Oakland has no commercial rent control.

As far as solutions go, Kelley Kahn of the economic development department said that the city is partnering with nonprofits, such as the Rainin Foundation, to establish a grant or loan program. These funds could help artists facing displacement cover legal fees and rent increases. She's also advocating to change Oakland's zoning laws to require certain portions of new developments in existing cultural hubs to be allocated for arts organizations and nonprofits.

The Oakland Community Land Trust is also involved. This organization promotes permanent community control of land and housing by purchasing properties and renting them at below-market rates to low-income renters. The tenants at LoBot attempted to work with Oakland Community Land Trust to purchase their warehouse, for example. But they said their landlord refused to negotiate with the trust.

Some advocates argue that the city's proposed solutions are shortsighted, because they only benefit established arts organizations. In order to work with the city and nonprofits, the types of loose, informal creative collectives that typically run underground music venues would need to become legit businesses.

Still, some artists and promoters remain cautiously optimistic. Historically, Oakland's counterculture groups are resilient. Vanessa Nguyen, for one, believes that warehouse scenes are so ingrained in the culture that they're not disappearing anytime soon. "We'll figure it out — that's how we figured out [my] warehouse. We were just driving around and talking to people," she said. Then, she paused: "It was not that easy, though."

A few of the former LoBot tenants have relocated to other artist warehouses in East Oakland. One went on tour, because she struggled to find housing. And some moved to temporary sublets.

Even more artists and musicians have moved to Richmond, Alameda, and outlying East and North Bay suburbs. Some Oakland natives live with their parents.

But cheap housing, and especially low-cost commercial properties, is usually only available because of some kind of fluke, or because of the rare benevolent landlord.

So, for now, there's no resolution. And only one thing is clear: Unless market forces change, Oakland's underground scene won't be around much longer.


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