A building on the corner of 23rd Avenue and International Boulevard has long been a stronghold of grassroots activism in East Oakland: Its tenants include The Bikery, the brick-and-mortar bike shop of the nonprofit Cycles of Change; Sustaining Ourselves Locally (SOL), an organization that teaches gardening skills and offers a low-cost event space; Liberating Ourselves Locally (LOL), a maker lab that offers equipment like industrial sewing machines and 3D printers on a donation basis; Shaolin Life, a martial arts studio; and Peacock Rebellion, an arts nonprofit that offers performance workshops to trans people of color.
“A lot of grassroots group organizing is happening on this block,” says Devi Peacock, the founder of Peacock Rebellion, adding that the tenants regularly collaborate on projects. Peacock Rebellion, for instance, hosts its performance workshops inside LOL. And the young people who come to fix their bikes at Cycles of Change are also welcome to hang out in SOL’s community garden.
The oldest of these organizations, Cycles of Change, has been a tenant in the building since 1998 and SOL, since 2003. SOL's event space hosts meetings and events for organizations such as support groups for sex trafficking survivors and young women migrants from Central and South America. On the second and third floor of the building are eight low-cost residential apartments.
“There’s definitely folks, individuals who are overlapping in the spaces, like me,” says Eri Oura, one of the tenants leading the efforts to purchase the building. “I work for Cycles [of Change] and I live here. There’s other folks at Cycles who do a lot of projects in the building and on the block.”
The landlord of the 23rd Avenue building, Ming Cheung, wants to sell the 10,784-square-foot building and its adjacent 5,000-square-foot community garden, which the Alameda County Assessor’s Office values at $974,025 and $216,450 respectively. But according to Peacock, Cheung supports these organizations’ missions so much that she gave them the right of first refusal -- meaning that if the tenants can raise funds for a $75,000 down payment by May 1, Cheung won’t put the building on the market.
The tenants are currently working towards this goal with via a crowdfunding campaign. They are also pursuing loans and working with the Oakland Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that holds land in trust for the benefit of low-income residents, to come up with additional funding. Northern California Community Loan Fund and several other economic justice nonprofits are also providing consulting services.
“We met with her and her broker and it took a minute for her broker to get it,” says Peacock. “He was like, ‘You could charge a lot more for this.’ And she was like, ‘No, no, I want you all to have this.’"
“But," Peacock adds, "we have to put in an offer letter by May 1 or else that’s it."
While the tenants are still negotiating with Cheung, Peacock says her asking price will most likely be somewhere around $1.75 million -- which is close to market rate. Similarly sized, multi-family buildings in Oakland are going for $1.5 to $1.7 million according to listings on the real estate website Loopnet. And according to Steve King, the executive director of Oakland Community Land Trust, it’s unclear how much the undeveloped community garden could add to the property’s value.
“Values in the current market are incredibly problematic, as I'm sure you can imagine,” he wrote in an email. “Often multi-family properties are specifically marketed with the recognition that the only way to realize their market value is to ‘reposition’ the property -- which is generally code for evicting all the tenants and bringing in higher paying renters.”
Peacock and Oura say they’ve fielded accusations from skeptics who think they might be trying to flip the property themselves. “Bigger nonprofits think of [purchasing property] as an asset,” said Peacock. “But for us, what it actually means to be an asset is to stay here in the community and be invested in the actual neighbors who have been there for a long time.”
The tenants’ collective efforts to buy the building could become a model for low-income people and grassroots groups fighting displacement. Currently, the commercial tenants and the residents of the eight upstairs apartments are working together to come up with a plan for a collective ownership model that will likely entail creating separate co-ops for residential and commercial tenants.
King says that Oakland Community Land Trust is still calculating how much they will put towards the project. “All the financing is still coming together, so that’s a moving target,” he says. “It’s a real community effort to finance the whole thing.” He adds that it’s unprecedented in Oakland for a group of residential and commercial tenants to come together to purchase a building.
With Google leasing commercial space in the Fruitvale Transit Village for their Code Next Academy, a coding school that serves lower-income youth, the 23rd Avenue tenants fear that other tech companies might soon take interest in the neighborhood. Peacock also expressed concerns about AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit plan, which will create a bus-only lane down International Boulevard intended to make public transit more efficient. They say they fear it could attract more developer interest to the area.
Oakland city council member Noel Gallo, whose district includes Fruitvale and the Lower San Antonio, has been supportive of the tenants’ mission. He said in a phone interview that his office has been meeting with Oakland’s Economic Development department to help the current tenants secure loans and work with the owner to ensure a collaboration with the Oakland Community Land Trust.
“We have a housing shortage in the city of Oakland, and what’s exciting is we have residents who are interested in taking ownership of the places they live in,” he says. “I’m excited that the community would take interest in securing this facility that does need some improvements, but at the same time, they want to live there and make it the place to raise their children."
“Hopefully we can grow the housing supply and keep our young people in Oakland.”