Derrick Soo has moved back to the neighborhood where he grew up. But he can't afford a house there anymore, so he has other plans. Credit: Amir Aziz

Early Thursday morning, Derrick Soo packed up his belongings and left the 77th Avenue homeless camp in Oakland’s industrial flatlands, where he’s lived in a makeshift shack since 2014. He loaded his things into a U-Haul truck and drove up the hill, moving back into the Millsmont neighborhood where he grew up.

These days, houses around Soo’s childhood home can sell for upwards of $800,000, an amount that’s unfathomable for Soo, who’s now in his sixties and has lived on the streets for more than 10 years. So he pitched a tent on a steep vacant hillside on Buena Ventura Avenue, which, despite its stunning vistas of the city down below, has sat undeveloped for decades. 

“This was my view growing up—I used to play on this lot,” said Soo, sitting in the middle of the hill Thursday. “It was always empty.”

With his return to Millsmont, Soo says he’s waging a protest, calling attention to the urgent need for homeless housing and the lack of options for people like him. He wants to draw attention to the vacant lots scattered across Oakland, where homes for unhoused residents could be built. He intends to begin constructing tiny houses equipped with electricity and bathrooms on the hill over the weekend, and has a vision of starting similar communities throughout the city.

“The city of Oakland has allowed homelessness to increase to such vast proportions,” Soo said. “Everybody says, ‘Move someplace you can afford,’ but that place doesn’t exist anymore. Let’s get people off the street and back into housing.”

Of all the vacant lots in Oakland, Soo picked this one for its personal significance. But the site also exemplifies the barriers to rapidly using some of the city’s vacant land to solve pressing problems. The Buena Ventura hillside, divided among numerous different small lots, and owned by several different people, is the subject of a lawsuit alleging that the city of Oakland’s damaged sewer and drain pipes have caused a massive landslide that makes the hill undevelopable. 

Looking for land in Oakland

Activists and some city officials say it’s absurd to let land and buildings sit unused across Oakland when thousands live on the streets. Credit: Amir Aziz

With rents rising, homelessness ballooning, and construction costs climbing, city officials and activists have turned their attention in recent years to vacant land and empty buildings across the city.

In 2019, a group of homeless, Black mothers occupied a vacant, investor-owned house in West Oakland, launching what became internationally known as the Moms 4 Housing movement. Soon after, the sheriff forcibly evicted the unhoused activists, but they ultimately prevailed, buying the house with the help of the Oakland Community Land Trust and the city. Although it was just one house, the protest inspired many to question why so many other housing units are empty during a housing crisis, and why there are vacant lots in residential areas even while thousands of people sleep on Oakland’s streets each night, many of them on sidewalks, under freeway bridges, and in parks.

Soo says his occupation is an extension of the Moms 4 Housing movement. He believes that unused property should be made available to house some of Oakland’s roughly 4,000 homeless residents, who are disproportionately Black. There are also around 4,000 vacant or undeveloped properties in the city. Other groups of homeless people and supporters have already built, or want to build, tiny homes on unused land. 

The mismatch between the city’s housing crisis and abundance of vacant land has inspired some official efforts to incentivize property owners to use their land and buildings for housing. Oakland began collecting vacant property taxes in 2020, after voters passed Measure W. The $6,000 flat tax was sponsored by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.

Some councilmembers want the city to quickly erect temporary and transitional housing—shelters, sanctioned tent sites, RV parking—on lots already owned by Oakland. In response to their urging, city staff released a list of city-owned vacant lots large enough to support homeless housing, excluding parks. 

Of the 48 sites included on the list, around 20 are deemed “not suitable” and even more are labeled with “low suitability”—because the city rents them out for some purpose already, or they’re too small or on a steep hillside. Staff asked councilmembers to propose sites in their own districts next month, given the lack of clear usable locations.

The slogan “Where do we go?” was coined by homeless people and advocates in Berkeley a couple years ago. Credit: Amir Aziz

Soo says he’s not waiting for the city to find vacant land. At the base of the hill where he kicked off his land occupation Thursday, he hung a banner that asks in large white letters: “Where do we go?”

“Where do we go for housing?” Soo said. “Where do we go for answers? For services? It’s a phrase that’s commonly heard in Oakland.”

The slogan originated during protests in Berkeley two years ago when homeless people, who were living by the I-80 freeway entrance and under the overpass, and who were increasingly confronted by state police and Caltrans workers, pushed back by asking, “Where do we go?”

For decades the Bay Area has lacked the capacity to provide places to sleep for its homeless residents, but the problem has grown enormously over the past 10 years. According to a recent audit, Oakland has 1,215 shelter, transitional housing, and RV parking spots—enough for under a third of its homeless population.

Soo admitted that the city of Oakland has offered him a place to move into in the past. But Soo, who’s active on social media, has been publicly critical of the nonprofit housing providers the city contracts with, and says he’d feel vulnerable to retaliation if he moved into one of their sites.

At the same time, he grew desperate to leave his longtime home in the 77th Avenue encampment near the Coliseum. While living there, Soo became known to and respected by his neighbors, unhoused and housed alike. He’s well-connected with service providers and businesses, often securing donations of food and supplies. He also rigged an elaborate system for accessing water from fire hydrants

But Soo said he’s been traumatized by years of witnessing, and sometimes intervening in, pain, poverty, violence, and crime. Just last week a 60-year-old woman was fatally shot at his camp. 

“At 77th Ave. I knew my future. It’s set in stone. Nothing changes,” Soo said while standing on the pastoral Millsmont hillside. “Here, I have a shot at housing.” 

Enrique Soriano, who runs the catering company Cocina del Corazon, heard about Soo online and began delivering food to the 77th Avenue camp. He came to Buena Ventura on Thursday to support the protest.

“A lot of people dismiss the people who live in the streets,” he said. “It’s easy to forget people have stories. Derrick’s family has been here for a long time. They’re always getting pushed around from one spot to another, but there are properties all over Oakland that are not being used.”

Property owner sues city over landslide

Crumbling ground and temporary piping are signs of a landslide and infrastructure issues on the Buena Ventura hill. Credit: Amir Aziz

While it’s true that there are vacant lots located across Oakland, and many could be used for shelter, many of these sites also have complicated histories and are vacant for a reason.

Dan Alweiss bought his piece of the sloping Buena Ventura hill in 2017 for $75,000, at a tax-lien auction held by the county.

He planned to build a house there, but quickly learned that a landslide makes construction impossible. He believes that leaky underground sewer pipes and drainage issues caused the slide, and he alleges the city has failed for decades to conduct basic maintenance and repair of its infrastructure, despite knowing about these issues. He’s filed a lawsuit against Oakland that’s currently pending. In it, he accuses the city of intentionally not disclosing the landslide in order to sell the lot in the auction. 

The suit alleges that broken underground sewer pipes have continuously leaked water into the middle of the crumbling hill since the 1950s. It also blames the landslide on poorly maintained street drains—one at the top of the hill, on Delmont Avenue, that allegedly pours street water down the slope, and one at the bottom, on Buena Ventura, that gets clogged and causes water to back up at the base of the hill. Retaining walls installed across the hill several years ago have collapsed and slid down.

“It’s not vacant because people are land-banking and don’t want to build,” Alweiss said Thursday, after learning about Soo’s protest. “No amount of activism is going to matter to this. The city is doing everything it can in order to avoid having to remove and replace the sewer pipes.”

Oakland’s city attorney says the city isn’t responsible for any of the issues on the lot, writing in its opposition motion to the lawsuit that the county was the seller of the lot, and that auction materials make it clear that the properties are sold “as is,” placing the burden on the buyer to research what they’re getting into—in this case a well-known landslide. 

The city claims there is no sewage leak, and that Oakland doesn’t even own all of the infrastructure that Alweiss says it does. Instead, the long-term landslide was caused by natural forces like the sloping terrain and rain, the city says. Oakland did put in a temporary, above-ground sewage pipe in 2017 after receiving a report of a breakage in 2017, according to the city attorney. Some plastic piping is visible at the site currently, along with a sign near it that says “city of Oakland.”

But the city says there are legal statutes that make public agencies immune from liability in cases involving this sort of public property and tax sales.

“The government writes laws that say, ‘You can’t hold us accountable,’” said Alweiss’ lawyer, Scott Jenny. 

Hearing about Soo’s occupation, Jenny said it’s understandable: “These would be good lots to complain about.” He noted that they’re small and suitable for tiny houses, but only if the land underneath them can be stabilized. 

The lots are among the few undeveloped properties in the Millsmont neighborhood. Alweiss intended to build a house to live in or rent, his lawyer said. Now he hopes the city will either buy back the lot or fix the piping.

Soo said he sympathizes with the property owners on the hill: “They lost money on this and they’re stuck.”

During Soo’s small rally launching his protest, several neighbors wandered by, sharing reactions that ranged from supportive to angry to amused.

Earl JOHson said he’s lived nearby for 40 years, and the hill has been “sliding” the whole time. He was skeptical that Soo can or should build his envisioned community of tiny homes.

“There’s a housing issue, but this hasn’t been thought-out,” he said. The hill “has got to be engineered properly.” JOHson said he’d like to see a reinvestment in public housing by local governments, instead.

Soo said he’s not deterred by geological or infrastructure issues plaguing his new home. In fact, he believes they make the site all the more appropriate for small, temporary structures.

“That’s why tiny homes are perfect for this location—they float on the surface,” he said.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.