2 years after rent strike began, Fruitvale tenants say they have deal to buy their building

It was meant to be a protest, but it turned into an attempted celebration.

Two years after the start of their rent strike, tenants in a 14-unit apartment building in Fruitvale had planned to march Thursday night to their owners’ home in Alameda, urging them, as they have been doing since 2019, to sell the building to a community land trust.

They dressed in white, held candles, and rented a live miniature horse, planning to perform a Mexican Christmas tradition called Las Posadas, a re-creation of Joseph and Mary’s search for a shelter in which to give birth to Jesus.

But the Christmas-themed protest suddenly seemed unnecessary. Instead, the tenants learned that they could receive a Christmas present in advance.

Earlier today, the Oakland Community Land Trust and ACCE, a housing advocacy group, finally made contact with the Wong family, the owners of 1534 29th Ave. The Wongs – Calvin and Melinda and their son Wilson – have indicated they may be ready to sell.

The candlelight demonstration drew 40 to 50 supporters. Credit: Amir Aziz

The ACCE had also heard this two years ago and went so far as proclaim victory at the time. But in the months that followed, the multiple land trust offers on the house were either ignored or rejected, according to the organization.

“It’s been very stressful because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” said Jesus Alvarez, who has lived in the building with his family since 2004. Speaking in Spanish via ‘an interpreter, Alvarez said he was facing livability issues. all the time in the unit, including leaky sinks and rotten wood.

The group of protesters – around 50 tenants, organizers and supporters – had gathered in Alameda even after hearing that a deal could finally be reached. They seemed unsure of what to do now that things were improving and a protest could end up thwarting an eventual deal. Back in Oakland, the lawyers helping tenants were working hard on proposals.

Bundled up to brave the frosty evening, the group of tenants finally strolled slowly through the neighborhood of Wongs’ Bay Farm Island, singing a traditional song once out of reach of quiet residences and biding their time hoping for good news. . . There was anxious energy in the air, as ACCE organizers repeatedly checked their phones.

“If you believe in anything, let’s all hope this deal comes through tonight,” organizer Gabriela Vivas told the group.

ACCE organizer Gabriela Vivas answers a call during the march, hoping for news of a deal. Credit: Amir Aziz

At the end of the walk, Oakland City Council member Carroll Fife joined the group. Fife was the Oakland director of ACCE for a long time, but recently stepped down from that role. Dressed in a white costume for the posada, she said she had been negotiating with the owners all day.

“We’ve never been this close,” she told The Oaklandside. “I was there when it all started and I feel obligated to go through with it. I told the tenants that we would win together.

By the end of the night, there was a vague word that the owners had sent the proposal “to their investors,” but everyone went home not quite ready to call it a win.

ACCE attorney Jackie Zaneri told The Oaklandside on Friday evening that a deal had finally been reached. When asked if she was convinced that this deal would lead to a sale, she replied “yes”, the owner had signed a letter of intent to sell the property. From now on, real estate agents will have to work on the purchase contract.

Wilson Wong, reached by email earlier in the afternoon, declined to confirm or comment on the deal.

Tenants went on strike in 2019

Some tenants complained about rent increases and livability issues in the 14-unit building. Credit: Amir Aziz

Many tenants on 29th Avenue have been on rent strike since October 2019, several months before the pandemic prompted many other tenant groups to suspend payments. They began to strike against the reported rent increases and what they described as poor living conditions in the building.

City code enforcement records show nine complaints filed by tenants of the 29th Avenue building over the past few years, some describing livability issues like broken radiators and stoves, an electric pipe. leaky sink, mold and peeling paint.

“Things weren’t getting done, but the rent was going up,” Alvarez said.

According to county records, Calvin and Melinda Wong own at least four other properties in Alameda County in addition to their home and the 29th Avenue building. These properties include apartment buildings in Adam’s Point and Eastlake.

From the start, the striking tenants asked the Wongs to sell the property to the Oakland Community Land Trust. Land trusts ensure that property remains affordable over the long term, often by retaining ownership of the land and selling the building to residents, who do not have the right to resell it for a profit.

ACCE spokesperson Anya Svanoe said since tenants went on strike, the land trust has made three offers which have been rejected. The initial offer was reportedly for $ 3.2 million. Earlier this week, Steve King, executive director of the Oakland Community Land Trust, declined to provide details of the negotiations while they were still underway.

On Thursday, ACCE officials said the most recent offer was $ 3.3 million, in return for a pledge from tenants to pay the rent they withheld before the pandemic and request a COVID-19 rent assistance for missed payments during the crisis.

Advocates lobbied for policies to make it easier for tenants to buy their homes

Many tenant advocates in Oakland want the city to pass legislation ensuring tenants have the first chance to bid on their building when the landlord decides to sell it. Versions of the Tenant Possibility to Buy Act, or TOPA, have been taken into account in Berkeley and a few other US cities as well, and a similar policy exists in Washington, DC Some of the proposals would also allow land trusts or nonprofits to make an early offer, and some would give tenants the right to make another offer an once the seller chooses a private buyer who is not a current tenant. The owners would not be required to accept the offers.

TOPA has faced stiff opposition from local homeowner groups, who say the policy would threaten their ability to sell their properties in a timely manner or could complicate their plans to donate a building or house to a loved one ( most of the proposals provide for exemptions for certain family members).

Sully, a miniature horse hired from Boulder Creek, pretended to be the donkey during the posada.

Even when land trusts make deals to buy properties, costs often get in the way. ACCE and the Oakland Community Land Trust both successfully advocated in 2019 for the inclusion of $ 12 million in the city budget to help land trusts and co-ops acquire small apartment buildings and to transform them into permanent affordable housing. ACCE officials said last year that they planned to submit the 29th Avenue project for funding, but that there was a limit to the number of applications each organization could file.

Earlier this year, the Oakland Community Land Trust received $ 4 million of the city for three other projects, with KK Measure funding.

Fife and ACCE were also active in the Moms 4 Housing movement, where a group of homeless mothers occupied a vacant investor-owned home in West Oakland. The sheriff forcibly evicted the mothers, who were supported by hundreds of protesters, but the owners ultimately agreed to sell the building to the Oakland Community Land Trust as well.

If the deal for the 29th Avenue building goes through, organizers say it will create long-term, stable housing for the families who live there.

“Everyone is happy,” said ACCE lawyer Zaneri. “It wasn’t a legal victory, it really is an organizational victory.”

Alvarez, the tenant at 29th Avenue, said he and other residents were pushing for the sale so that “we will have peace of mind and that will make sure we are safe.”

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