This story is part of the Oakland Home Histories series, which explores residential buildings and the people who’ve lived in them. Want us to feature your home? Let us know.

In 1889, a widow originally from Maine had a Victorian house built on 12th Avenue, in one of Oakland’s earliest neighborhoods.

She moved in with a piano, and lived there with her daughter and her daughter’s husband. 

Over the next century, the evolution of that Italianate-style home would demonstrate many of the different ways people have lived in Oakland: as owners of single-family houses, as renters of apartments, as squatters who stay in buildings illegally because they can’t afford the high cost of living. 

Now, in 2022, the residents of 1432 12th Ave. are trying yet another experiment in living. They’ve formed a cooperative and, with the help of a community land trust, they’re working to keep the building permanently affordable for all of its current and future residents. The transition has not been easy, involving foreclosures, police, a neglectful landlord, and the daunting task of figuring out how to live harmoniously and respectfully as a collective. 

But as they prepare to relocate temporarily to make way for major renovations, the residents are feeling excited and hopeful about what they’re creating. 

“This is our building,” said Christine Hernandez. “The title is held by the land trust, but this is our home—we kind of call the shots around here.”

Perhaps their project will spell the end of the frequent turnover the property has experienced since its start.

Chocolate, poodles, and upset stomachs

The 1889 house sports bay windows and high ceilings. Credit: Amir Aziz

It’s hard to find out much about Susan D. Wright, the East Coast transplant who enlisted architect Charles Mau to build her house on 12th Avenue, between E. 15th and E. 14th streets, the latter now International Boulevard. The address at the time was 1220 12th Ave.

Mau was well-known for designing many Oakland buildings, including a house for Louis Ghirardelli, son of the famous chocolatier Domingo. The chocolate company was based in San Francisco, but the Ghrirardellis lived in about a dozen Oakland houses and owned other property here. Wright once had a run-in with the chocolate-maker as well—suing either Domingo or his company, according to newspaper records.

Wright’s daughter Hattie and her husband Charles Merithew lived with the widow, and inherited the house after her 1901 death. The Merithews were active in local civic and religious society, hosting a reception for the church across the street and penning op-eds in support of candidates for state senate. Their wedding anniversary made the Oakland Tribune’s “news and gossip” column.

Wright’s house is located in the former town of Brooklyn, which began along the eastern edge of Lake Merritt and stretched to 22nd Avenue. In 1872 the city annexed Brooklyn, making it one of the oldest Oakland neighborhoods. 

This area “developed at a leisurely rate over the late 19th Century, in part as a residential ‘garden suburb’ for people who worked in central Oakland or San Francisco,” which they could access by ferry, according to Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey materials.

Credit: The Oakland Tribune/newspapers.com

At some point, possibly in the early 1920s, the house was converted into six or seven apartments. Ads from that time announced recently renovated “housekeeping rooms” starting at $15 a month. Why housekeeping? “That may be an antiquated holdover from the 19th Century when apartment houses were morally questionable, so perhaps housekeeping rooms was a euphemism,” said architectural historian Karen McNeill.

Other buildings in the area were furiously converted during WWII, to make room for the influx of war industry workers. Many in the former Brooklyn area, sometimes called Clinton after a previous town name, were originally mansions and large single-family homes, so they could accommodate many units. 

Others were simply torn down. The neighborhood was an early federal “urban renewal” location in 1955, seeing the demolition of 100 or so houses, which were replaced with nearly 60 apartment buildings. In many parts of Oakland, urban renewal was billed as revitalization of aging infrastructure and “slum clearance,” often razing Black and brown neighborhoods and displacing residents.

The house at 1432 12th Ave. is still standing. Dozens if not hundreds of tenants have cycled through the property, and many stand out, some tragically. There was the WWII naval officer who never came home, and the Oakland firefighter who ended his life at the hospital. Buster the poodle went missing in 1907. 

And “Oakland’s gassy lady,” Martha Kleene, was inexplicably compelled to share her stomach’s trials and tribulations in an advertisement for a miracle medication in 1936. “No matter what I ate my food would not agree with me but just laid my stomach in a mass of bloat and turned sour and swelled me up with gas,” she told Tribune readers.

A sour stomach pales in comparison to the turmoil experienced by the tenants of 1432 12th Ave. nearly 100 years later.

Renters and squatters push for sale to land trust after years of neglect

Recent owners of the property painted the building a gray-blue. Credit: Amir Aziz

Months without hot water. Broken locks. Eviction threats. Crumbling walls. 

According to the residents—and court records from a lawsuit they filed—these were some of the issues they faced in their home over the last few years of the 2010s. 

“I was in a panic,” said Jayda Garlipp. “I had to literally boil water on the stove in order to bathe my children in buckets.”

The landlord at the time, Robert Bennett, also once owned the West Oakland house that would become the site of the Moms 4 Housing movement. The houses had the same fate: they were both foreclosed on and both eventually sold to land trusts. When the West Oakland house was foreclosed on, a man named Bernardo Mendia bought it. The residents of 1432 12th Ave. knew Mendia as an associate of Bennett’s, who’d often come to the property and get into confrontations with tenants, sometimes bringing police officers.

Bennett had borrowed money from private lender Michael Roy, ostensibly to make repairs on the 12th Avenue property. But Roy foreclosed in 2019, telling media at the time that Bennet never spent any of the money to fix up the house and defaulted on the loan. Some of the tenants, wary of the next owner pushing them out, showed up to the foreclosure auction, making their presence known. No buyers bit. 

Christine Hernandez stands in the attic, which reveals years of deferred maintenance and neglect. Credit: Amir Aziz

While the property was in foreclosure, some tenants went on rent strike, advised by a lawyer that they didn’t need to make payments. Some had never paid rent: Christine and Emilio Hernandez and their children had quietly moved into a vacant unit in the building, making an agreement with the renters to help repair the property in exchange for being permitted to squat. The family, unable to afford Oakland rents, had tried elsewhere too to invoke an obscure law called “adverse possession,” where illegal occupants can gain ownership of a house after paying taxes on it for five years.

After the failed foreclosure auction, Roy made some improvements to 1432 12th Ave. He lined up a buyer, he told the East Bay Express, but they backed out—possibly because the tenants gave them a grand tour of everything wrong with the place. Roy, eager to offload a property he never intended to buy, agreed in 2020 to sell the building to the Bay Area Community Land Trust, or BACLT, for $700,000. (Wright had it built for a cool $5,000.)

Figuring out how to rebuild together

Sadie the dog watches over her home. Credit: Amir Aziz

Attention has swirled around land trusts in recent years, but what are they exactly? There are several different models, but land trusts usually buy properties, hanging onto the land and either selling or renting the buildings to residents for cheap. Land trusts guarantee that their properties remain affordable permanently, prohibiting resale at a profit. 

At 1432 12th Ave. residents rent their units from the land trust, and tenants must make below a certain income limit to live there.

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Although BACLT owns the building, “we believe in resident empowerment,” said Rick Lewis, the land trust’s interim executive director. The 12th Avenue residents have formed a cooperative and have much more decision-making power than traditional tenants about what happens at their home. 

Land trusts have largely been embraced as a tool for preserving affordable housing, but the costs of buying and maintaining buildings can be a barrier. In this case, BACLT got a loan from LISC to acquire the building, and a $1.4 million loan from Oakland’s Measure KK for renovations. Even with those funds, there isn’t enough money to make all the desired repairs, especially with rising construction costs.

WIth 1432 12th Ave. there’s no mistaking that the building is old—both because of its regal features and decades of deterioration.

Corinthian columns flank the entrance. Inside, the ceilings are fabulously high, with ornate moldings. There are clawfoot tubs and pretty tiling. Each unit is laid out differently, with funny results of the seemingly haphazard conversion to apartments. The little bathroom carved underneath a staircase is Exhibit A.

“We’re really glad they largely maintained the doors and trim,” said Lewis. While the conversion to apartments was wacky, “much of the character is still there.”

Between the neglect of the former owner and some previous tenant activities, many of the spaces are in poor shape. 

“The property had been seriously mismanaged and there was a lot of deferred maintenance,” Lewis said.

Many of the original features are still standing in the house, while others have been added over the decades. Credit: Amir Aziz

The attic, set to become an apartment, has flooring that’s patched together and walls adorned with graffiti. At one point “generations of pigeons” called the space home, leaving repulsive waste that looked like something out of a “horror movie,” said Christine.

The renovations will focus on the kitchens and bathrooms, including electrifying the whole building. But the residents are not just building a stronger and cleaner structure. They’re also developing a stable community—work that can be as challenging as the construction. 

“The land trust warned us about this,” said Christine. “We thought we’d made it through hell and back, and we could do whatever it takes. But it’s easy to come together when you have a common enemy. Once that villain is removed, it’s different. We all have very different ways that we live our lives, so agreements are paramount, and people have to be really honest about what their true needs are.”

Those agreements include common lease logistics, like handling late rent and pets. Other rules are designed to foster safety, trust, and a communal spirit. Major decisions require “consensus minus one.” There’s a detailed section on conflict resolution, with links to literature on communication styles. And if someone wants a guest to stay for more than 10 days, that guest has to host a pizza party for the house.  

After attempts at mediation, the residents and land trust recently asked one of the residents to leave, for continually violating the agreements, they said. For residents who had previously feared eviction and dedicated years to gaining security and stability for their household, it felt uncomfortable to be in the brand new position of deciding who could and couldn’t live in their home.

12th Avenue is still changing 

The landmarked Brooklyn Presbyterian Church was built just a couple years before Wright’s home was, and her daughter hosted a reception for the congregation at her house at one point. Credit: Amir Aziz

The 12th Avenue residents hope to invest not only in their own household but in the community beyond their walls.

It’s a tough place to raise a family, they said. Gunshots are audible several nights a week, and visible drug use and sex work are prevalent. Emilio Hernandez, who identifies as a progressive Christian minister, used to lead ceasefire walks in West Oakland with other clergy, and wants to start something similar in his neighborhood. 

The historic church across the street, built just a couple years before Wright’s house, just sold to a real estate company called Strive, which says it plans to convert the landmarked property into affordable housing and shelter space. If the company keeps to its word, the co-op residents will be thrilled.

“This community is neglected in a lot of ways,” said Christine, who along with Garlipp often stays posted on the porch, meeting passers-by while trying to protect their space and their children. “There are some amazing people who live in this community, and we need to find more resources and decommodify housing.”

For some of the cooperative members, the collective struggle against their landlord and the hardships of life in the neighborhood have coincided with periods of personal difficulties. Paris Alexander, a former boxing champion who’s lived in the building the longest—20 years—was in a devastating bike collision and suffered other personal losses over the dramatic past few years.

A pair of golden boxing gloves gifted to him after the accident hang on his wall, glistening in the light from the big bay windows. The unit is a small studio, but it’s enough room for him and his cat. He’s walking now and works at a gym, despite being told he’d be in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” said Alexander.

It’s a cliché, but for 1432 12th Ave. it’s apt: The backyard, an “outdoor wonderland for the kids,” said Hernandez (at least when nobody is breaking into it), sports a massive citrus tree overflowing with fruit.

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.