Home & Leisure

Bay Area activists fight against tide of soaring prices and gentrification to secure homes for those in need

James Rainey, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Home and Consumer News

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Oliver Burke could have joined his Silicon Valley counterparts who cashed in precious stock options and pumped their newfound riches into start-up businesses, bigger houses and fancier cars.

Instead, he looked at the wreckage just beyond the glistening tech world -- the tent cities beside seemingly every freeway onramp, the destitute neighborhoods -- and decided to take a different path. A former motor test technician for Tesla, Burke used $200,000 from his company stock options to buy a corner lot in a struggling Oakland neighborhood to create a new home.

For someone else.

He is in the process of giving the weedy, junk-strewn property in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood to a real estate cooperative, which plans to build as many as six tiny homes for people who might otherwise be driven away by the San Francisco Bay Area's rapacious real estate market. A deed restriction will keep the homes affordable in perpetuity.

"I saw a hell of a lot of people in need," said Burke, 46. "If this prevents a conventional developer from displacing people with another $1-million-plus house and it improves the lives of four people, or maybe six people, to me that's a good multiplier of resources."

He and an unknown number of like-minded souls are creating a small undercurrent against the onrushing tide of escalating home prices and gentrification sweeping many California cities. There's no name or central organization for their movement, just people gifting property to create affordable homes, pooling resources to keep property off the speculative real estate market and adopting "justice easements" designed to keep housing affordable for the long run.


Much of this activism calls for a radical rethinking of the American dream of homeownership. Advocates say they are pushing back against the cutthroat culture of real estate speculation, displacement and gentrification -- imagining a day when instead of owning a home for personal use and eventual profit, Americans would tend to property for themselves and their community, with the promise of limited, or no, long-term financial gain.

"Part of what we will need to turn things around in this world is to have people become really dedicated and affectionate land stewards," said Janelle Orsi, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Orsi's public interest firm is crafting the "justice easements" to lock in affordability. Like agricultural easements designed to preserve farmland, the justice easements will designate housing as the only appropriate land use, with an additional requirement -- that future rent increases be limited to, for instance, hikes in the consumer price index.

The activists say such dramatic initiatives are needed because traditional affordable housing developers guarantee submarket rents for only a limited period, of, say, 40 years.


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