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Wood Street

Caltrans bulldozes tiny home without required notice, advocates say

on November 10, 2021

Volunteers with Artists Building Communities spent 10 days last month building a fire-proof, 4-foot-by-8-foot cobbed tiny home in the Wood Street encampment under Interstate 880. The next morning, neighboring residents watched as California Highway Patrol officers and California Department of Transportation workers bulldozed the home.

Residents of the encampment and advocates from Artists Building Communities say the tiny home was demolished on Oct. 11 without the legally required 48-hour notice.

Tariq Ahmad Bhat was looking forward to moving into the tiny home, after living in a metal structure at 18th and Wood streets since moving to Oakland from Reno, Nevada, last year. He thought the tiny home would better protect him from the elements and enable him to feel “more human.”

Ahmad Bhat, 36, said the demolition was “a stab in the heart.” Caltrans, he said, should “think about how they could be destroying a whole life and livelihood.”  

Wood Street

“The singling out of this structure is alarming,” said Tariq Ahmad Bhat, who had hoped to move in.

Caltrans acknowledged taking down the house. In an emailed response, the agency said it removed “the framework of a wooden structure that was not occupied or habitable” and that, “no one was living in the wooden framework.” Caltrans said it was part of an area cleanup that included three stolen vehicles, a burned van, and trash. “It is fire related, in general we have been asking people to voluntarily move to safer areas,” the agency wrote.

Annmarie Bustamante, co-founder of Artists Building Communities, disputed the agency’s reasoning. “They came and talked to me the Friday beforehand, so they had a full opportunity to tell us that they didn’t want it there,” she said. 

“For them to kind of play the card that they had no idea of someone’s living there or because no one was living in there at that exact moment that someone wasn’t going to move in, it’s pretty manipulative, especially because we’ve been in email talks since the beginning of the summer, so it wouldn’t be hard for them to be transparent about what they wanted to do,” she said.

Additionally, Bustamante said, the torn down structure was made with fire-proof materials to minimize fire risk after two tiny homes burned down.

Without providing 48-hour notice or a reasonable amount of time to clear personal belongings, Caltrans risks violating a recent settlement agreement.

It is illegal to reside on Caltrans land without permission from the agency. But before a sweep, Caltrans is required to give 48 hours’ notice, provide ample time to move personal belongings the day of the sweep, and store any seized property for 60 days. 

This comes after a class-action settlement, Sanchez v. Caltrans, finalized in July, in which the agency committed to giving due notice before sweeps for five years. It also agreed to pay $1.3 million to unhoused plaintiffs in Alameda County.

Under the settlement, “Caltrans is not obligated to store ‘bulky items,’ which would include a tiny home,” said Zal Shroff, an attorney at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which represented the unhoused plaintiffs in the lawsuit. 

This could change soon, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in September that Los Angeles cannot destroy bulky property of homeless individuals. Shroff said the decision could “readjust what constitutional protections exist, particularly for large items that homeless folks have.”

Bustamante said that until the Wood Street home was bulldozed, Caltrans had abided by the settlement agreement.

Caltrans said it generally does sweeps “based upon safety concerns,” and “in critical circumstances where encampments pose imminent threats to safety or infrastructure and must be immediately resolved upon discovery.” The agency added, “Caltrans always attempts to first pursue engagement by local outreach unless emergency response functions are impeded.”

Wood Street residents and advocates from Artists Building Communities and Cob on Wood requested to meet with the California Transportation Equity Advisory Roundtable and the agency agreed. The parties had a planning session on Oct. 27 to devise an agenda for a “listening session” later this month according to an email from the agency that Artists Building Communities shared with Oakland North.

Wood Street
Tiny homes on Caltrans land at the Wood Street encampment known as Wood Street Commons. (Semantha Norris)

Caltrans extended the invitation to Shelter Oak’s Homeless Advocacy Working Group, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, Prescott Neighborhood Watch, and District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife. The transportation agency also invited its partners: the city of Oakland, Union Pacific Railroad, Burlington Northern Railroad, and Capitol Corridor.

Ahmad Batt’s tiny home was the 11th such structure that Artists Building Communities has erected since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Bustamante and her friends decided to help the unhoused community deal with shelter-at-home orders. While the home cannot be recovered, Wood Street residents like Lamonte Ford, who has lived there for five years, wants Caltrans to “first understand that we are people and that an amicable solution can be created where the people that are currently on the land can stay, not be displaced.” 

Ford, 48, hopes for a mutually beneficial relationship with the agency, with residents organizing regular cleanup efforts and Caltrans possibly employing some.

“Caltrans can gain from us being there,” Ford added.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Bhat, who must wait for the construction of a new tiny home this year, said in an email that he wants Caltrans to take responsibility for the destruction of his home.

“The singling out of this structure is alarming,” he said, adding that “the culprits of this devastating episode,” should be held accountable.

(Photo of Tariq Ahmad Bhat, with Theo Cedar Jones, courtesy of Eli Osborn)

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