The site of the infamous RCA punk house has been boarded up for years. It could soon give way to a six-story apartment building. Credit: Amir Aziz

An affordable housing project could soon rise on a long-abandoned stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Way that has a storied past.

Resources for Community Development (RCD), a nonprofit developer, plans to construct a 77-unit building, dubbed the Longfellow Corner project, on four adjacent lots at MLK and West MacArthur Boulevard. RCD owns two of the lots, and the city of Oakland owns the other two. On Tuesday, the City Council solidified a deal to transfer ownership of its half of the property to RCD.

All of the apartments at Longfellow Corner will be reserved for households making between 20-50% of the area median income, which is $20,000-$50,000 for one person or $29,000-$71,000 for a four-person family. Thirty-four of the units will be reserved as supportive housing for formerly homeless residents. 

The ground level of the six-floor building will have shops and a parking garage.

The city has so far given the developer $14.4 million for the project, which is expected to break ground around summer 2024, according to city staff.

“I’m very excited about this project,” said City Councilmember Dan Kalb, whose district includes the site, at a meeting in December. 

He added that he first met with RCD about developing the land back in 2015, an indication that “it takes a while to piece together the financing for a fabulous affordable housing project.” But plans to build housing on the property date back even longer than that.

In previous lives, an electronics store and a punk squat

The city bought one of the two northern lots in 1990, already intending to turn it into affordable housing, and later lent money to a developer to buy and build on the lot next door, according to a report by city staff. But construction never happened, and the city ultimately foreclosed on that property, gaining control of it in 2017.

For decades, a man named Felton Theriot owned the other two lots on the southern end, where two boarded-up buildings still stand. He ran an electronics shop out of the corner property—now painted bright blue and covered in murals and graffiti—and rented the Victorian house on West MacArthur to tenants, reported journalist Sam Lefebvre in a detailed account of the site

In the years following Theriot’s 2005 death, those southern lots were sold and flipped among a string of real estate investors, including one, Grove Park, that received nearly $1 million from the city to turn the property into condos, reported Lefebvre. When that company went bankrupt in the housing market crash, the property was auctioned off for relative pennies.

Meanwhile, squatters took up residence in both the Victorian and the commercial building, establishing two prominent punk houses and venues in the early 2010s called Hot Mess and RCA. Dozens of people—both radical idealists from Occupy Oakland and low-income residents struggling during the Great Recession—lived in the buildings over a span of a few years, and countless more came for shows, parties, and art events.

The squatters fought a looming eviction for years but were eventually forced out by a fire.

The property “feels like a monument at this point,” said East Bay Yesterday podcast host Liam O’Donoghue on an episode about the site. It’s at once a “symbol of what happened to one of Oakland’s thriving Black business corners and the exodus of a community; or it could be a symbol of how the revolutionary dreams of Occupy went down in flames, literally; or it could symbolize the East Bay’s insane real estate market,” he mused.

Property has languished for years

3823-3829 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Oakland, CA 94609
The undeveloped lots owned by the city of Oakland will be transferred over to RCD, a nonprofit developer. Credit: Amir Aziz

In 2018, RCD received $3.2 million in Measure KK funds from the city of Oakland to buy the two southern lots and turn them into affordable housing. A couple months later, the city was seeking proposals to develop the publicly owned lots to the north, and RCD proposed the project making use of all four parcels. 

The developer plans to demolish the former Hot Mess and RCA buildings to construct the 77-unit project. The building site is a few blocks from MacArthur BART and Mosswood Park, on the border of Temescal and the Longfellow neighborhood. 

“I think this is a great location,” Kalb said.

In recent years, the properties have languished, becoming “blighted, vacant, undeveloped, and recently subject to extensive and repeated trespassing,” wrote city housing staff. This past year someone set up an “unlicensed automobile repair operation” at the site.

The lots have now been cleaned and fenced off.

An environmental analysis revealed signs of contamination at the property, including polluted groundwater and lead in the soil, said Oakland housing development coordinator Everett Cleveland, Jr., at the December council meeting. RCD has worked up a plan to mitigate the issues, and the transfer of full ownership to the company will allow it to address the entire project site, he said.

Typically “the city seeks to retain ownership of its land,” but this project needs a single owner to be eligible for state and federal funding sources, and RCD is best equipped to handle the maintenance needs, Cleveland said.

The Longfellow Corner project is part of a broader push by some officials and community members to use publicly owned property to address the housing affordability crisis. 

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, officials also moved an affordable housing project forward at a city-owned lot on East 12th Street and 2nd Avenue. In that case, the city is keeping the land and entering into a long-term lease agreement with the developer.

Clarification: A previous version of this story referred to the location of this project as West Oakland in the headline. It’s been updated with a more specific location.

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.