Drea Lusion and Andrew Pulkrabek in the hallway of the artist complex known as the Vulcan. Last year the property hit the market for $16.2 million, but tenants are making a case for rent control, which could impact a sale. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
“Is this your whip?”
Andrew Pulkrabek was on the dancefloor of his neighbor Bri Crabtree’s loft at the Vulcan, a sprawling live-work community of some 200 residents in East Oakland, inspecting a hot-pink whip. Mirrors lined a wall near the storage nook known as “clown corner,” all beneath the vaulted ceilings that accommodate Crabtree’s weekly juggling club. Confidently, Pulkrabek cracked the whip. “Not my first rodeo,” he said.
Pulkrabek is a musician and a stuntman, a juggler and a roller-skater—an “entertainer,” he said—whose residence in the Vulcan, a onetime foundry in the Fruitvale district, provides necessary space for his multi-hyphenate circus arts practice. At his kitchen table, overlooking another mirror-lined dancefloor, Pulkrabek stressed the significance of the Vulcan to Burning Man-associated artists internationally.
“It’s probably the largest concentration of circus performers living and working under one roof,” he said, adding that there’s “without a doubt” more jugglers in residence than anywhere.
Lately, though, Pulkrabek has met plenty of his non-Burner neighbors. He’s an organizer of the Vulcan Tenants Union, which formed after the property, owned by politically connected developer Madison Park Financial, hit the market last year for $16,250,000. Now, the union, representing approximately 100 tenants, is working with attorneys and a private investigator to acquire rent-control protections. They say dozens of homes and workspaces are on the line.
At a time of skyhigh housing costs and intense competition for performing arts-appropriate space in Oakland, the tenants union hopes to preserve a longtime live-work community for artists and craftspeople dependent on its relative affordability, high ceilings and communal ambiance. Sale to a commercial investor, they say, means near-certain displacement, and they point to Madison Park’s own marketing materials as proof.
Madison Park’s offering memorandum for investors, acquired by KQED, advertises the Vulcan property as “Rent Control Exempt: A rare opportunity in Oakland.” The pitch goes on to explain that, by increasing rent 15 percent and passing more utilities costs on to tenants, a buyer could nearly double the Vulcan’s current gross profit annually.
“That’s part of what brokers do,” said Simon Chen, Madison Park's chief operating officer. “I don’t think you’ll find an offering memo that doesn’t have that kind of sales approach.”
The tenants also worry they’ll absorb the cost of necessary repairs. Chen said Madison Park has invested in life-safety improvements, including fire sprinklers, but conceded that the place needs work. “It was converted in 1987, and even brand new buildings from 1987 have been renovated,” he said.
At $16.2 million, the Vulcan isn't for a buyer who wants to keep it as it is. The push for rent control, Pulkrabek explained, is about effectively lowering the sale price in order to attract a nonprofit developer—a buyer motivated by stewardship instead of speculation. To that end, live-work advocacy organization Safer DIY Spaces helped the tenants retain attorneys to challenge the property’s rent control exemption before the city's Rent Adjustment Program board.
In Oakland, new construction or residential conversions completed after 1983 are generally exempt from rent control protections. Though the Vulcan’s live-work conversion occurred in 1987, argued the tenants' attorney, Leah Hess, the exemption is invalid because people were actually living there previously. The rent board will consider the 27 petitions in April.
“A negative ruling will put people out of their homes,” she said.
To Chen, the 1987 certificates of occupancy settle the matter. An earlier group of Vulcan tenants unsuccessfully petitioned the rent board on similar grounds in 2005, he said, and an appeals court upheld the denial. According to Hess, this time is different. “The thrust of the petitions back then was a lack of certificates of occupancy,” she said. “We’re saying the rent control exemption was issued through mistake or fraud.”
Lia Walker moved into the Vulcan in 2006, and in 2011 the photographer started working as on-site manager for Madison Park. The company is owned and operated by John Protopappas, who's served as a campaign fundraiser for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and it has overseen several live-work conversions and new market-rate construction projects in the city. The company also managed an artists' live-work complex at 1919 Market St. before officials deemed it uninhabitable, resulting in the displacement of dozens.
For years, Walker said, Madison Park and the Vulcan tenants got along well, but relations worsened as the real estate market improved. The rent started increasing, sometimes dramatically; Madison Park hiked the cost of her darkroom, housed in a separate workspace, by 55 percent, she said. After clashing with a new supervisor, Walker was fired in 2014. "We didn't share a philosophy or sense of fairness anymore," she said.
Drea Lusion, who lives at the Vulcan in a unit with six people, said Madison Park’s decision last year to ban the “free zone,” a hallway area where tenants left art supplies and household goods for communal sharing, also helped inspire the tenants to organize. It was around the time of 7- to 10-percent rent increases for many units, she said. Prospective buyers were regularly touring the property; Madison Park called the free pile a fire hazard. “That was galvanizing,” she said. “Like, what will they take next?”
Currently, there is no sale pending for the Vulcan. But it seems clear that, at $16.2 million, the property is out of reach to anyone but a commercial investor. Last year, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, which develops property for arts uses, partnered with affordable housing developer East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation to explore purchasing the property, but EBALDC said in a statement that they “did not have the resources.”
Kelley Kahn, Oakland's policy director for art spaces, helped bring EBALDC and CAST to the table with Madison Park, and she said the real estate company has been cooperative and open to considering nonprofit buyers. As an industrial live-work space, though, Kahn said the project doesn't align neatly with the traditional financing models for affordable housing.
"The project requires identifying both innovative funding sources and creative development partners with expertise in preserving arts and culture spaces—ideally with a pathway for the tenants themselves to become owners," she said. "This work remains ongoing."
David Keenan of Safer DIY Spaces, the organization funding the Vulcan’s petition effort, said overturning the rent-control exemption would set a significant precedent. Other multiunit buildings formalized as live-work after 1983 were previously used residentially in the common tradition of artists living in warehouses, and the rent board could open the door for them to seek rent control protections. “It’s going to have a ripple effect,” he said.
However, Keenan said, Safer DIY Spaces can't afford to underwrite the petitions for much longer, so the Vulcan Tenants Union recently launched a $50,000 fundraiser. The figure covers the work of two attorneys, two paralegals and a private investigator, according to Pulkrabek. They have anecdotal evidence of residential use at the Vulcan before 1987, but more research will bolster their case.
Lusion and Pulkrabek walked through the maze-like hallways of the Vulcan, pointing out murals by friends, and a plant-laden courtyard. Behind one building was a small park lined with broken pianos. The tenants once tended to atomize along subcultural lines, they explained, the circus artists mingling little with, say, the musicians—until the tenants union. “If anything, this has brought us together,” Lusion said.
Added Pulkrabek, “It’s reminded us of what we’re trying to preserve.”