Middle aged man standing in the middle of a large living room with colorful art all over the walls.
Alistair Monroe lives in the apartment he grew up in, where his father Arthur Monroe, whose painting still hang on the walls, started a live-work community in the 1970s. Credit: Amir Aziz

Residents of the Oakland Cannery, a decades-old artist live-work community on San Leandro Street, have received “Ellis Act” notices, meaning their landlord is evicting them and taking their units off the residential rental market.

The 11 people living in the building—down from 32 just a few years ago—have 120 days to move out of their spacious lofts, which are packed with canvases, recording equipment, and instruments. 

“It’s really hard finding spaces like this in Oakland, especially at an affordable rate,” said muralist Timothy B., who’s lived at the Cannery for 10 years and has two children. “I’m not sure what to do or where I’m going.”

The eviction is the latest development in a years-long legal saga at the Cannery, involving toxic diesel generators and some two dozen lawsuits.

In 2016, anticipating that state voters would approve a ballot initiative legalizing cannabis, the city declared a large swath of East and West Oakland the “Green Zone,” permitting cannabis businesses to operate there. 

The Green Zone covers an area largely zoned for industrial uses—yet it is also home to some 25 live-work properties where tenants run small businesses out of their apartments. For generations, these set-ups have constituted some of the only affordable opportunities for artists to live in Oakland while practicing their crafts and building community with like-minded creatives.

The Cannery was reportedly the first sanctioned live-work space in Oakland, started nearly 50 years ago by renowned painter and professor Arthur Monroe. His son Alistair still lives at the property and has made it his cause, over several tumultuous years, to ensure his family and neighbors can remain in their homes.

“My own family doesn’t want to hear me talking about this anymore,” said Monroe, giving The Oaklandside a tour of the Cannery this week. “Well, who would we be, and what would we stand for, if we don’t protect our history?”

Large, colorful, abstract paintings by his father, who died in 2019, hang on the walls of his unit—the space where Monroe grew up—and in a makeshift gallery Monroe created in a vacated unit. 

After the Green Zone was established, a Denver-based company called Green Sage bought the Cannery and a neighboring building, with the intention of turning the properties into a massive cannabis cultivation campus. According to the residential tenants, who have always occupied only part of the Cannery alongside several businesses, their new landlords threatened eviction early on.

Tenants, city battled cannabis landlord for years

Young man wearing a camera around his neck leans against a boxing bag, in a large, plant-filled room
Muralist Timothy B. is concerned he’ll be unable to find another affordable space for his art studio and family in Oakland after the eviction. Credit: Amir Aziz

In response to the burgeoning conflict between the cannabis industry and live-work communities, in 2018 the City Council changed the law to prohibit cannabis businesses from getting permits to operate in live-work spaces. The idea was to stop evictions of artists and other occupants from properties in the Green Zone. But that didn’t mean cannabis operations couldn’t coexist in the same building or on the same land as an artist community, as long as they operated out of a different part of the property. 

In 2019, Green Sage got a $55 million loan from Canadian lender Romspen, for its redevelopment plan. 

Shortly thereafter, Green Sage allowed cannabis companies at the Cannery to operate diesel generators next to the building, after a PG&E transformer failed and caused a fire. The massive generators produced enough electricity for 9,000 homes, according to a Bay Area Air Quality Management District calculation. Tenants complained of constant exhaust fumes and pollution spewing just feet from their windows. 

Over the ensuing two years, Green Sage was hit with numerous violation notices and orders to shut down the generators from the city of Oakland, the Air District, and state and federal authorities, and upwards of 20 lawsuits from tenants, investors, and environmental groups. The twists and turns have been covered in depth by outlets including KQED and Broke Ass Stuart. 

Many residents moved out during this period, due to stress, according Monroe.

The behavior of Green Sage has a particular sting for 16-year Cannery tenant Douglas Stewart. The artist and educator owns a “micro-business” through the city’s Cannabis Equity Program. Stewart said he was prevented from operating his business at the Cannery and has experienced three robberies and threats through his line of work. He’s trying to make it in the same industry that’s now “forcing us out of our homes.”

“Needless to say, I get no sleep,” he said.

A man reclines in a rom covered in posters, with musical equipment and a large computer.
Since moving to the Cannery in 2007, Douglas Stewart has used his space for creative and entrepreneurial endeavors, and to host events. Credit: Amir Aziz

Late last year, Green Sage finally removed the generators following a judge’s order. Meanwhile, the company defaulted on its loan. Romspen acquired the property through foreclosure and has been trying for months to serve a lawsuit on Green Sage executives Kenneth E. “Kenny” Greer Jr. and Bruce D. Miller—but they’re nowhere to be found.

Monroe said he reached out to community organizations and had a meeting with someone representing Romspen, trying to negotiate an option for tenants to either buy the building from the lender, or get a large enough payout to establish a similar community somewhere else. The landlord made offers, but they were contingent on tenants not lobbying for an update to the city’s 2018 live-work policy, according to Monroe. The sides couldn’t reach an agreement.

In June, the City Council passed a policy that city staff said would address a “loophole” left by the 2018 policy preventing cannabis operations in live-work spaces. The new legislation says that not only is any cannabis business barred from operating in specific units used for live-work or residential uses—cultivation now can’t occur on the same property at all. The idea was to prevent displacement of tenants from properties like the Cannery that have become unlivable due to nearby cannabis operations.

The law applies to any building that contained a live-work space as of June 1, 2023.

But the law doesn’t override the state-level Ellis Act, which still permits landlords to stop renting to residential tenants altogether. And it doesn’t prevent non-cultivation cannabis businesses from opening at these sites.

Cannery tenants say the city should more aggressively defend live/work spaces

Two middle-aged Black men, one in a tshirt that says "Healthcare" with a marijuana leaf, stand stoically in front of the Cannery warehouse building.
Douglas Stewart and Alistair Monroe are some of the few remaining tenants at the Cannery, and are still fighting to stay there. Credit: Amir Aziz

In emails reviewed by The Oaklandside, a Romspen representative indicated to the city that the company planned to remove the Cannery’s tenants. 

“The goal of the recent cultivation ordinance amendment and the similar 2018 cannabis permit amendments have been to preserve work-live spaces in Oakland, such as those at the Oakland Cannery,” Assistant City Administrator Greg Minor explained to the company in an email in late July.

“I don’t imagine that Romspen will preserve the live-work component of the project,” Romspen partner Kevin Saavedra replied. “I suspect that Romspen will invoke their rights under the Ellis Act and decommission the live-work component. Is that not how you imagined this would play out?”

Saavendra said he was not authorized to speak with The Oaklandside. A lawyer for Romspen did not respond to a request for an interview.

Minor told The Oaklandside that the city has little recourse against the Ellis Act. But he said the new city law prevents commercial cannabis cultivation at the property going forward.

“Accordingly, the city of Oakland encourages the owner of the Oakland Cannery to re-consider its eviction of the work-live tenants and explore alternative approaches that preserve the work-live uses,” he said in an email.

Although Monroe pushed for the new city rule prohibiting cannabis cultivators from getting permits to operate in live-work buildings, he said he knew an Ellis Act eviction was a potential outcome. He blamed the city for “twiddling their thumbs” and applying “bandaids” instead of more aggressively defending the live-work space.

While Monroe said some tenants have accepted their fate and are ready to take the Ellis Act relocation payment—$7,800 to $12,000—and move out, he’s not letting go of a better alternative. 

“There’s really no way to get around this except for elevating our voices as best we can,” he said. “And finding sympathetic, like-minded people who care about this community, and can help us find another location if we’re not successful fighting this.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated shortly after publication with comments from the city. We also clarified that the recent city policy permanently prohibits cannabis cultivation at properties where live-work spaces existed as of June 1.

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.