Two groups of people living in tiny-house communities in Oakland are pushing back against evictions by the same new owners who bought both abandoned properties in a county auction earlier this year.
The Coyote Bush Collective on 15th Street at Peralta Street, and 37MLK on the corner of 37th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, are both long-standing unsanctioned communities where residents are living mostly in wooden shelters that they’ve built. The once-vacant land where they’ve made their homes was “tax-defaulted,” meaning the property owners had not paid taxes on it for at least five years.
In March, the county auctioned off both sites at its annual online sale of tax-defaulted properties, which the state mandates. The buyers, Sanjay and Gaurav Khanna, also purchased a third property located nearby, where nobody is living.
In the spring, the Khannas served both of the occupied sites with “unlawful detainer” notices, demanding they vacate the properties.
Residents moved to the MLK lot in 2019
For resident Rayetta Delores Simon-Dixon, the 37MLK community has provided stability. “I don’t feel homeless here,” she told The Oaklandside while sitting outside her trailer. Blue and pink-painted tiny homes stood nearby.
“If we have to go,” she said, “I know I’m going to be the first one to start crying.”
Simon-Dixon has been homeless for 12 years and has lived at 37MLK since it opened in the late summer of 2019. Before that, she was sleeping on the street near the property, which at the time was fenced-off and vacant.
37MLK started after Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, who was fed up seeing her neighbors on the street, began setting up tents on the land without asking permission. In a Facebook video she posted at the time, Echeverría-Fenn stated she was “demanding land for my homeless friends.” The lot soon filled up with people who had lost their housing in the area, like Simon-Dixon. Now in her fifties, Simon-Dixon grew up and has spent her entire life in the neighborhood.
“I went to school here, met all my people here, my kids were born here,” she said. “This area is my whole life.”
Throughout the years, much has stayed the same at 37MLK. Its population has always been mostly Black, and entirely of women of color, other than a few male partners. According to Simon-Dixon, seven to eight people now live at the site and it’s “like a family.”
Since it opened, 37MLK’s living quarters have improved. After unusually heavy winds destroyed tents at the site in February 2020, Echeverría-Fenn and residents put out a call for help. Community members responded by participating in fundraising events like a dance/punk concert, donating money to buy Simon-Dixon’s RV and building materials for safer living structures, and volunteering to construct six tiny homes.
37MLK’s members say their relationship with the surrounding community has been mostly harmonious. But resident Alice Luddy received some unexpected bad news after a recent and brief encounter with the Khannas, who stopped by to view their new property. Luddy, who had heard the 37MLK land was going to be auctioned, asked them if they bought it. They confirmed they had, and Luddy became curious about what would happen to the land, herself, and her neighbors. So she asked them more questions.
Guarav told Luddy that she and the other residents wouldn’t have long to stay there. After she asked what they planned to build on the land, Guarav said, “I don’t know yet,” according to Luddy.
“Basically he was like, ‘none of your business,’ in a nice way,” said Luddy.
Gaurav Kahnna declined multiple requests to provide comment for this story. Online, the Khannas describe themselves as Bay Area real estate professionals with specialties in investment properties and foreclosures.
By early May, the 37MLK residents received paperwork, attached to their fence, informing them that 10 unnamed inhabitants of the land were being sued in an unlawful detainer case, which is the first step in seeking an eviction.
Residents are pressing buyers, county to preserve their sites
At the other occupied property, which the Khannas purchased on 15th Street in West Oakland, the residents who live at the Coyote Bush Collective garden have been pushing back against the sale and eviction of that site.
Since early 2020, two people have lived in tiny houses they built there, nestled in a lush community garden that volunteers have been tending for years. The property, located on a residential block of 15th Street, had been abandoned by its previous owners for decades.
The new buyers visited that site after the auction as well, and seemed surprised to learn that people were living there. Alameda County auctions off tax-defaulted property “as is,” with little information divulged, so it’s up to bidders to do their own research. The only way to reverse a sale is for either the county or the new buyer to initiate a “recision,” a complex legal process requiring the buyer to prove that the county did not reveal critical information about the property.
The Coyote Bush residents, Angeles Gottheil and Nicolas, who declined to give his last name, told the new owners that if they weren’t willing to pursue a recision, the pair wanted to buy the property back from them. Gottheil said the owners expressed some willingness to consider this initially. The residents offered $35,000 from community donations and their own savings, and told the Khannas they planned to raise more. But the property had sold for much more, $274,000, and the owners soon indicated they wouldn’t wait long enough for Coyote Bush to try to gather that much cash.
One day, according to Gottheil and confirmed by The Oaklandside in a police report, the buyers showed up with police and cut a lock the residents had put on the gate. Later in the spring, the eviction notice came.
“Now, we always have one of us staying here,” said Gottheil, who began volunteering with the garden in 2015. The residents filed a legal response to the eviction notice, contesting it. “We’re determined to fight it, so I’m definitely optimistic to a certain degree,” she said.
Henry Levy, the county’s elected treasurer and tax collector who oversees the property auctions, said he’s offered to serve as a mediator between the Khannas and the Coyote Bush Collective.
The issue has also reached Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office. “I’ve been in contact with both the buyer and the residents about the 15th St. site to discuss potential outcomes that could be supported by both parties,” said Darin Ranelletti, the mayor’s policy advisor on housing security, in an email to The Oaklandside. He declined to share more details about the nature of those conversations or what he’d like to see happen with the site.
Levy previously shared with The Oaklandside that he didn’t know there were people living at the Coyote Bush property, and that he would have removed it from the auction list if he did. That is typically his office’s protocol.
That wasn’t the case with the 37MLK site, however, Levy said last week. He was aware of that community, which is visible from the street. About a decade ago, the county had removed that property from the auction list, through a process allowing nonprofits to buy tax-defaulted land, and it was sold to the Community Development Corporation of Oakland. But that organization never developed it and appears to have gone defunct.
“We tried to get interest from nonprofits and the city of Oakland for seven to eight years,” Levy said. Eventually, the county decided to auction off the site, selling it for $305,100 to make up for money it was owed in back taxes.
Facing an eviction, the 37MLK residents have chosen to challenge the case in court. Briggitte Nicoletti, a lawyer with the nonprofit East Bay Community Law Center, has taken them on as clients. In an interview with The Oaklandside, Nicoletti declined to speak about legal strategy, but said she thinks the county could do more to connect the residents with housing.
“Will the county step up and recognize that it sold land at a tax sale where people were living?” she said.
Recognizing that the residents of the two sites are in similar situations, Gottheil has been meeting with Simon-Dixon, and wrote an email on Tuesday to county and city officials, including Levy and all five members of Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors, in support of 37MLK residents. Calling the project “an example of the self-determination of Oakland residents to house themselves by any means necessary,” she urged the officials to “provide the community at 37MLK with a piece of land where they can rebuild their community.”
Levy said his office has previously connected residents of other tax-defaulted properties with social services, but has not in this case. He said he has recently been in touch with the city, however.
In the meantime, Luddy, the 37MLK resident who originally talked with the buyers, is concerned. She became homeless after unexpectedly and suddenly experiencing medical problems that caused her to be hospitalized for a month, prior to moving to the site three years ago. She grew up in the East Bay, but has never had to sleep on its streets because, although she’s homeless, she’s always been able to live at 37MLK.
Luddy is still experiencing medical problems that she said make it impossible for her to work consistently. She works when she can, but feels housing in Oakland is too expensive for her.
“It’s just scary,” she said. “I know I can’t afford this rent.”