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It was supposed to be a protest, but it turned into a tentative celebration.
Two years into their rent strike, the tenants of a 14-unit Fruitvale apartment building had planned to march Thursday evening to the Alameda home of their landlords, urging them, as they have since 2019, to sell the building to a community land trust.
They dressed in white, held candles, and rented a live miniature horse, planning to perform a Mexican Christmas tradition called Las Posadas, a reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for a shelter in which to give birth to Jesus.
But the Christmas-themed demonstration suddenly seemed like it might be unnecessary. Instead, the renters got word that they might receive an early Christmas present.
Earlier that day, the Oakland Community Land Trust and ACCE, a housing advocacy group, had finally gotten in touch with the Wong family, the owners of 1534 29th Ave. The Wongs—Calvin and Melinda and their son Wilson—indicated they might be ready to sell.
ACCE had heard this two years ago too, and went so far as to declare victory at the time. But in the following months, the land trust’s multiple offers on the home were ignored or rejected, according to the organization.
“It’s been really stressful because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” said Jesus Alvarez, who’s lived in the building with his family since 2004. Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, Alvarez said he’s dealt with habitability issues his whole time in the unit, including leaky sinks and rotting wood.
The group of demonstrators—about 50 tenants, organizers, and supporters—had gathered in Alameda even after hearing a deal might finally be made. They seemed unsure of what to do now that things were looking up and a protest could end up thwarting a possible agreement. Back in Oakland, lawyers helping the tenants were working furiously on proposals.
Bundled up to brave the frigid evening, the tenant group ultimately went on a slow stroll around the Wongs’ Bay Farm Island neighborhood, singing a traditional song once they were out of earshot of the quiet residences, and biding their time in hopes of good news. There was anxious energy in the air, as ACCE organizers repeatedly checked their phones.
“If you believe in something, let’s all hope that this deal is going to happen tonight,” organizer Gabriela Vivas told the group.
At the end of the walk, Oakland City Councilmember Carroll Fife joined the group. Fife has long served as the Oakland director of ACCE but recently stepped down from that role. Wearing a white suit for the posada, she said she’d been negotiating with the landlords all day.
“We’ve never been this close,” she told The Oaklandside. “I was there when this whole thing started and I feel a sense of obligation to see this through. I told the tenants we would win together.”
By the end of the night there was vague word that the landlords had sent the proposal “to their investors,” but everyone went home not quite ready to call it a win.
On Friday evening, ACCE lawyer Jackie Zaneri told The Oaklandside that a deal had finally been reached. Asked if she was confident that this agreement would result in a sale, she said, “yes,” the landlord had signed a letter of intent to sell the property. Now real estate agents will have to work on the purchase agreement.
Wilson Wong, reached by email earlier in the afternoon, declined to confirm or comment on the deal.
Tenants went on strike in 2019
Many of the 29th Avenue tenants have been on rent strike since October 2019, several months before the pandemic prompted many other groups of renters to withhold payments. They began striking over reported rent increases and what they’ve described as poor living conditions in the building.
City code enforcement records show nine complaints filed by renters of the 29th Avenue building over the past few years, some describing habitability issues like broken heaters and stoves, a leaky sink pipe, mold, and peeling paint.
“Things were not getting done, but the rent was increasing,” Alvarez said.
According to county records, Calvin and Melinda Wong own at least four other properties in Alameda County in addition to their home and the 29th Avenue building. Those properties include apartment buildings in Adam’s Point and Eastlake.
From the start, the striking tenants asked the Wongs to sell the property to the Oakland Community Land Trust. Land trusts guarantee that property stays affordable in the long run, often by maintaining ownership of the land and selling the building to the residents, who are prohibited from reselling it at a profit.
Anya Svanoe, ACCE spokesperson, said that since the renters went on strike, the land trust made three offers that have been rejected. The initial offer was reportedly for $3.2 million. Earlier this week, Steve King, executive director of the Oakland Community Land Trust, declined to provide details about the negotiations while they were still in progress.
On Thursday, ACCE representatives indicated that the most recent offer was $3.3 million, in exchange for a vow from tenants to pay the rent they withheld before the pandemic and to apply for COVID-19 rental assistance for the payments missed during the crisis.
Advocates have pushed for policies making it easier for tenants to buy their homes
Many tenant advocates in Oakland want to see the city pass a law guaranteeing that renters get the first chance to make an offer on their building when the landlord decides to sell it. Versions of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA, have been considered in Berkeley and a few other U.S. cities as well, and a similar policy exists in Washington, D.C. Some of the proposals would allow land trusts or nonprofits to make an early offer too, and some would give the tenants the right to make another offer once the seller picks a private buyer who isn’t a current tenant. Landlords would not be required to accept the offers.
TOPA has faced fierce opposition from local landlord groups, who say the policy would threaten their ability to sell their properties in a timely manner or could complicate their plans to give a building or home to someone close to them (most of the proposals have exemptions for some family members).
Even when land trusts reach deals to buy properties, costs often get in the way. ACCE and the Oakland Community Land Trust both successfully advocated in 2019 for the inclusion of $12 million in the city budget to help land trusts and cooperatives acquire small apartment buildings and turn them into permanent affordable housing. ACCE representatives last year said they’d planned to submit the 29th Avenue project for funding, but there was a limit on how many applications each organization could file.
Earlier this year, the Oakland Community Land Trust received $4 million from the city for three other projects, from Measure KK funding.
Fife and ACCE were also active in the Moms 4 Housing movement, where a group of homeless mothers occupied a vacant investor-owned house in West Oakland. The sheriff forcibly evicted the moms, who were supported by hundreds of protesters, but the owners ultimately agreed to sell the building to the Oakland Community Land Trust as well.
If the deal for the 29th Avenue building goes through, organizers say it will create stable long-term housing for the families that live there.
“Everybody’s happy,” ACCE attorney Zaneri said. “This wasn’t a legal victory—this is really an organizing victory.”
Alvarez, the 29th Avenue tenant, said he and other residents were pushing for the sale so “we’ll have tranquility and it will assure us we’re safe.”