In summary

A small group of Oakland tenants landed a deal that ensures their rents remain affordable.

When Christine Hernandez moved her family into a yellow apartment building on 12th Avenue in Oakland two years ago, she wasn’t planning on paying rent. She knew squatting was risky, but homelessness was worse. What she didn’t know was that her decision would eventually put her at the forefront of a tenant-led fight to create lifelong affordable housing for the five families living in the building’s six units.

“I’m shifting from being in a constant state of fear,” said Hernandez, whose family of six hadn’t had a stable home for half a decade. “But it worked out. Now we’re stable, legit, long term.”

Hernandez and some of the other 12th Avenue tenants earlier this year got a community land trust to buy the home they’d been living in. Land trusts buy properties, retain ownership of the land, and then build or preserve affordable housing, selling or renting units back to low-income tenants at a discount.

“I had to wash my child in a bucket.”

jayda garlipp, 12th avenue tenant in oakland

Amid the Bay Area’s high rental prices, community land trusts have becoming an increasingly attractive option with at least seven now operating in the region. Last year, the Moms 4 Housing group led a similar effort in West Oakland to fight their eviction from a Magnolia Street home they had illegally occupied. The owner eventually agreed to sell the home to the Oakland Community Land Trust.

The conditions at the 12th Avenue house, tenants said, had been bad for years: a dilapidated roof that leaked, missing windows, and plumbing installed without permits, all code violations found by the city of Oakland during a 2018 inspection. The rent was cheap — between $800 and $1,400 monthly — but the living was hard. For half a year, some tenants said, the building had no hot water.

“I had to wash my child in a bucket,” said Jayda Garlipp, a mother of two who lived in one of the building’s apartments for nine years, and paid $1,050 in monthly rent.

When the longtime owner defaulted on the home mortgage, one of the original financial backers took possession of the home and started construction work with the intention, he said, to renovate and sell quickly.

But for Hernandez and Garlipp, that meant a new owner could decide to flip the house and evict them. So, they organized: The two women tried to discourage any interested buyers and pitched the project to the Bay Area Community Land Trust, which in June bought the building for $700,000. The longtime owner could not be reached for comment.

The land trust has started construction work, including updated plumbing, new windows, an extra room for Garlipp’s kids and an oven, which she hasn’t had in six years. The plan is to have tenants manage the building’s maintenance and live cooperatively. Tenants will pay their same below-market rents to the land trust, and Hernandez has started paying rent too.

The 12th Avenue project was backed by a grant of more than $1.3 million from the city of Oakland and by the Bay’s Future Fund, the investment branch of the Partnership for the Bay’s Future, a collaborative that finances and advocates for affordable housing. The partnership, which includes the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the San Francisco Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, hopes to disburse half a billion dollars to fund 8,000 affordable homes by 2025 by providing low-interest loans to land trusts or developers who want to create or preserve affordable housing.

Christine Hernandez carries her son Malikaih Grasso, 1 1/2, as she opens the door of the backyard of their home in Oakland, on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. Hernandez with her family of four moved into the apartment building without signing a lease two years ago. With the help of the Bay Area Community Land Trust, they bought the property. Now she is on her way to becoming a radical real estate lawyer. Photo by Ray Chavez, Bay Area News Group
Christine Hernandez carries her son Malikaih Grasso, 1 1/2, as she opens the door of the backyard of their home in Oakland, on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. Photo by Ray Chavez, Bay Area News Group

So far, the fund has invested $97 million in 14 projects with 1,121 affordable housing units in the five-county Bay Area. The financial model behind each project varies and the housing developments range from units for chronically homeless people to emancipated foster youth cohabitating with middle-income working families, according to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which manages the Bay’s Future Fund’s financial portfolio.

“Tenants are at the heart of this,” said LISC CEO Maurice Jones. “Frankly, they have the best intelligence. The only way you know what’s happening is by talking directly to them.”

The land trust movement, coupled with investment managers and funds like the Bay’s Future Fund, is making it possible for tenants to advocate for themselves in new ways, Hernandez said. But to do that, tenants need to know their rights — and understand the ways to enforce them. Hernandez said the experience helped her find a new career path, one she realized she’s been practicing for years.

Now, she is a co-director for the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s new project: a “radical real estate law school” where apprentices like herself follow faculty attorneys for four years and then attempt to pass the bar. The goal is to teach future lawyers about alternative models of land ownership that help tenants buy and get affordable housing. In the meantime, Hernandez and Garlipp have started a Youtube channel for tenants facing eviction.

“I can create new opportunities so that people can pass through them,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been on the defensive for five years now — it’s us getting into an offensive position.”

This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Laurence Du Sault covers inequality and the income gap for The Mercury News as part of CalMatters' California Divide collaboration. She has reported on child welfare and police misconduct at the Investigative...