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Artwork on the outside of the West Oakland Public Library. Photo by Isaiah Polite

Oakland’s black residents gather around housing rights

on September 24, 2019

On Saturday, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action (ACCE) held an event at the West Oakland Public Library to talk about housing affordability, community land ownership, and legal support services for people of color.

The event titled, “Where is Home? A community town hall on the housing history and future of Oakland’s Black residents,” was facilitated by the Black Housing Union and sponsored by ACCE. People crowded into the community room in the library—when they ran out of open seats, others stood in the back.

The talk featured a set of five panelists, each with their own specialization in helping Oakland residents. Merika Reagan, a member of ACCE, gave general information about the goals of her organization, which are to assist people in organizing, provide opportunities to protest against oppressive systems, and offer resources that will help people fight rent increases in the city.

As almost 100 people filed into the library, she discussed her own experience with housing in Oakland prior to joining ACCE. “My landlord was going to raise my rent by $350 and I was not sure what I was going to do. I found ACCE and realized that these people can help me. They were able to negotiate my increase from $350 down to $50. By myself I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” she said.

(From Left to Right): Facilitator Vanessa Bulnes and panelists Xavier Johnson, Zachary Murray, and Darleen Flynn (Photo by Isaiah Polite)

The other panel members included Zachary Murray, a member of the Oakland Community Land Trust, an organization that helps provide affordable housing opportunities to low-income families; Darleen Flynn, a representative from the City of Oakland’s Department of Race & Equity, which works with other city departments to achieve racial equity; Chanée Franklin Minor, a representative of the city’s Rent Adjustment Program, who brought pamphlets covering housing law and tenant rights; and Xavier Johnson, a member of Centro Legal De La Raza, an organization that provides legal services to immigrants, people of color, and those in low-income communities. Each panelist was given five minutes to introduce themselves, explain the purpose of the meeting for them, and to discuss themes such as gentrification.

“People assume we’re lazy don’t value education,” said Flynn, while discussing perceptions people might be lower-income residents in Oakland. “We have to take the opportunity to reshape the narrative to how we got here. We have to educate ourselves. To fix this we have to fix the causes.”

In order to combat this, Flynn said that the black community in Oakland needs to “reshape the narrative about how it got like this,” and this can be achieved by being informed about where the disparities are. Flynn works with city departments to examine housing policies, and uses data and history in the hope of solving housing affordability issues.

Johnson, during his session, encouraged community members to reach out to his clinic. The clinic has various practice areas such as employment law, immigration law, a tenants’ rights division, and a youth law academy.

Johnson, who works in the tenants’ rights division, noted eviction defense and weekly clinics as ways in which his organization helps those in the community. “We access what your goals are, figure out the legal strategy to get you there, identify if there is a law that’ll help support you getting there,” he said. “And if there’s not a law that helps support you get there, we’ll tell (you), here’s where you need to go to change the law. I think that’s important and doesn’t happen in a lot of legal service organizations. I think that’s something needed in our community in particular.”

Murray gave insight into how a community land trust works to give people a long-term place to live without risk of the property being sold off. “A community land trust is a non-profit organization that acquires land and housing, in the case in Oakland, to provide permanent affordability to ensure there is always a space for people who are low-income in our communities,” he said.

Murray who argues that the demolishing of homes to build unaffordable housing, or store space as a replacement is driving a lot of displacement in Oakland. He also spoke about how banks have used tactics such as “predatory lending,” a practice that places exploitative policies on borrowers, making it difficult for them to maintain ownership of their homes. The purpose of the community land trust is to “keep us in our neighborhoods,” said Murray, to resounding applause.

Murray said the emergence of community land trusts across the country over the last 50 years are definitely a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 2019 marks the 10-year anniversary of a community land trust in Oakland.

Among those in attendance were Carroll Fife, the director of the Oakland and San Francisco ACCE branches, and Barbara Lopez, policy director to Oakland City Council President Rebecca Kaplan.

Towards the end of the meeting, Fife gave words of encouragement to the audience with the intention of making all in attendance feel their power and ability to change the community. “Folks at ACCE, folks that are a part of the Black Housing Union, we’re going to keep doing it. We have these little bitty numbers, but my hope is that it becomes like a snowball,” she said. “We need an avalanche. We need to act like this is a crisis.”

ACCE is planning another event to continue their discussion about housing and gentrification for early October.

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