When MaryJane Johnson was able to move her trailer off the streets and onto a property in West Oakland it created more stability in her life. Credit: Amir Aziz

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MaryJane Johnson left her hometown of Oakland at age 17 to study business at Langston University, a historically Black university in Oklahoma. Every summer she’d come back to Oakland and live with her mother. But by 2014 she could no longer afford to attend the school, and moved back home permanently. By then, the landlord said there were too many people occupying their Section 8 apartment. One person needed to leave, and since her sister had a newborn baby, Johnson was the odd person out.

Unable to afford another place on her own, Johnson became one of Oakland’s many Black, long-term residents to face homelessness. A tent in a park, then an abandoned building, served as her homes. She met Aaron Bermudez, who grew up in East Oakland, and moved in with his family. But a death in that family caused her to become homeless again, alongside Bermudez. Together they saved up enough money to buy a vehicle and a trailer. The couple eventually married and moved back to Johnson’s old West Oakland neighborhood, where they parked on the street and slept in the trailer. 

But life on the streets was still tough. Although they both worked, daily survival expenses were high and they couldn’t save enough money to secure stable housing. Although they got along with the street’s housed neighbors, the lack of safety and stereotypes they experienced were mentally and emotionally draining.

Their lives improved in the summer of last year when a neighbor, Elsa Trash, extended an invitation to Johnson and Bermudez to move their trailer into the yard of a house she rents at 3404 Market Street, which happens to be right next to Johnson’s childhood home.

“Elsa was like, ‘I don’t want you to leave the block,’” said Johnson. “‘This is your home. Come move in on the property.’”

Trash could empathize with the couple. She had experienced homelessness in Oakland herself. Residents at the house on Market Street had provided her with a way out by letting her live in an RV in the backyard. Eventually she moved into the house and has been there for about the past five years, living with a changing cast of roommates. She wanted to give Johnson and Bermudez the same opportunity.

Johnson and Bermudez now share water, power, a bathroom, kitchen, and food storage areas with Trash and the home’s other current residents. The RV Trash lived in now serves as transitional shelter for trans people. 

“This has been a game changer,” said Johnson of the living arrangement. “I’m taking care of myself as best I can while staying on the block.”

Johnson is also taking care of the shared yard, having transformed what used to be a messy area full of junk into a bright garden full of potatoes, broccoli and various herbs.

But Johnson and Bermudez’s arrangement could soon change. In January, city of Oakland code enforcement officers served the home’s landlord, Gulwinder Singh, a notice informing him that by allowing the RV and trailer on his property, he was violating city laws that prohibit “blight.” The city warned he would have to pay a $2,600 fine unless he removed the RV and trailer. Singh has received more warnings since then, but he’s yet to be fined.

Currently, Oakland bans RVs and trailers from being parked on the front or side yards of residential properties for longer than 72 consecutive hours. While Oakland allows RVs and trailers to be parked in backyards indefinitely, residents are not allowed to sleep in such places for longer than 72 hours.  

“Our landlord is really stressed out about it,” said Trash. “He is starting to threaten to get lawyers to get the RV and trailer towed if he starts getting fined from the city.”

The Oaklandside attempted multiple times to reach Singh for comment, but he hasn’t responded.

The city calls it ‘blight,’ but it’s a home for three West Oaklanders

Oakland considers RVs and trailers parked for more than 72 hours in front or beside a house “blight.” Violations, based on complaints, can result in a costly fine for property owners. Credit: Amir Aziz

To help them navigate the situation, Johnson, Bermudez, and Trash reached out to The East Bay Community Law Center, a non-profit that provides legal services and advocacy for low-income people. Two lawyers, Osha Neumann and Candy Smallwood, have been working to try to prevent them and others in similar positions from being displaced.

Neumann thinks that, in general, laws prohibiting blight are problematic. While the dictionary definition of ‘blight’ is a disease in a plant, or “a thing that spoils or damages something,” cities use blight laws, to allow people’s subjective ideas about aesthetics to drive out poor people.

Most people associate blight with poverty, said Neumann. “But it’s so subjective,” he added. “To me blight is a fancy expensive wine bar in what used to be a poor neighborhood.”

The RV Trash lived in has been on the property for over 10 years and the trailer Johnson and Bermudez live in has been there for about 10 months. Before January, Singh had never faced any problems with the city. 

Oakland’s policy director for housing security, Darin Ranelletti, told The Oaklandside that the city enforces blight issues based on citizen complaints, and that they recently received an anonymous complaint about the RV and trailer on Singh’s property, which prompted them to take action. According to city records, a complaint was filed in November about the RV, and there were two prior complaints in 2016 and 2011, also about the RV in the yard.

Johnson and Bermudez suspect the most recent complaint, which triggered the city’s threat to fine their landlord, was filed by a person who, until recently, owned a nearby building. According to the couple, this person harassed them several times and would call the police when they parked too close to her property. In the summer of 2019, an argument led to a 911 call and Bermudez was arrested on charges that were later dismissed. When The Oaklandside contacted the property owner, who lives in Piedmont, she denied filing the complaint or calling the cops on Johnson and Bermudez and described her interactions with them as non-conflictual. It’s unclear, ultimately, who filed the complaint. But Johnson and Bermudez said whoever did never discussed the issue with them beforehand.

“If people can make anonymous complaints and the city feels it has to deal with it,” said Neumann, “that’s a recipe for allowing the judgements of people who have an agenda to drive out people who are part of the community.”

Neumann and Smallwood are exploring ways to allow Johnson and Bermudez to stay on the property, at least while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. But for people to have long-term secure shelter in these kinds of situations, they say, Oakland has to change its policies related to blight.

“The only way to fix this is if the law can be changed,” said Smallwood.

“I think MaryJane and Aaron are a compelling case of native Oaklanders who have really experienced this horrific housing crises that we’re in, and they’re emblematic of the challenges that Oaklanders are facing,” said Ranelletti. “It’s heartbreaking.” 

Ranelletti thinks the city’s blight laws can and should be changed. But that won’t be enough on it’s own, he said. City zoning laws, which prohibit property owners from renting RVs as dwelling units, should also be reexamined. 

District 1 City Councilmember Dan Kalb is aware of these issues and told The Oaklandside he’s working on legislation to help keep RVs and trailers as viable shelter options. “If someone doesn’t like seeing an RV in a backyard, we don’t want that to be a justification to prohibit or fine anybody,” Kalb said. He hopes to amend the city’s blight and zoning laws before the summer recess. But that could be too late to stop Johnson and Bermudez from being displaced. Kalb is also currently only considering legislation that would change zoning to allow trailers and RVs parked in backyards to be inhabited, but Johnson and Bermudez live in a side yard.   

“I’m hoping that we’re not going to be throwing anybody on the street,” said Kalb. “But I can’t tell code enforcement not to do something.”

The underlying problem: lack of affordable housing

MaryJane Johnson (left) and Aaron Bermudez say if they have to move off the lot where they currently live, they’ll end up back on the streets where constantly moving their vehicle and trailer is difficult and it’s harder to save money. Credit: Amir Aziz

In recent years, Oakland has approved far more market-rate housing projects than affordable housing developments.  A chart released by the city in February 2020 shows that from 2015 to 2019, Oakland approved the development of 13,135 units of housing for people whose incomes were classified as being “above moderate,” defined as a single person who earns $109,600 or more a year, or a family of four with an income at or above $156,600. Over the same period, the city approved 945 units for those whose incomes were classified as “low,” “very low,” or “moderate,” running from $45,700 to $83,450 for a single person, or $65,250 to $119,200 for a family of four.

With high competition for few affordable units, low-income people like Johnson, Bermudez, and Trash often are left with nowhere to go and are forced into homelessness.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, a tenant lawyer with The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and a Berkeley rent board commissioner, said she thinks Oakland should not be enforcing blight laws that could put people on the street. At the same time, she worries about the city changing zoning regulations to allow landlords to rent out trailers and RVs. Tenants living in apartment buildings and other housing units, with the exception of single family homes, who currently have access to a yard could lose that access if their landlord decides to rent RVs or trailers there, she said. RVs and trailers also wouldn’t be subject to rent control.

Instead of changing zoning regulations, she thinks the city can and should suspend enforcement of blight code violations related to living in RVs and trailers. She believes the city has this power under the local states of emergency that are in effect because of the pandemic and the homelessness crisis. 

“That people are living in RVs is a symptom of the fact that we don’t have enough government-provided housing,” she said. “From a tenant perspective, what’s really terrifying is we’re going back in time where it’s acceptable not to have a bathroom or electricity.”

Simon-Weisberg thinks that Oakland should use COVID-19 related federal funds to instead convert hotel rooms into affordable housing units. 

Whoever made the complaint about the Market Street house is unlikely to notice much of a difference in the area, even if Johnson, Bermudez are forced out. If that happens, they plan to park the trailer back out on the street, in front of the house. But the couple’s lives will be much harder, as they’ll be further from the house and they’ll have to move their trailer for street sweeping, a difficult process that will require hitching the trailer to a truck. It will also be difficult for the occupants of the 34th street house to keep the RV as transitional housing for trans people. It no longer runs and would have to be towed as well.

In the meantime, Johnson and Bermudez are continuing to work with The East Bay Community Law Center and talking with Kalb and Ranelletti to change the law—not just for themselves, but the other Oaklanders who could be experiencing the same thing. 

“We don’t want another individual to go through what we’re going through,” said Bermudez.

“If people get blight notices I hope they know that there are organizations like the EBCLC that can help,” said their lawyer Candy Smallwood. “I don’t know if we’ll be successful but we’re at least trying.”

Zack Haber

Journalist and poet writing about homelessness, housing, and activism in Oakland and the East Bay.