Community through collective ownership in Oakland

In 2015, after the economy began to fully recover from the Great Recession, the tech industry experienced a boom in the San Francisco Bay Area. This has led to an influx of people into the Bay Area, driving up housing costs and displacing BIPOC residents (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) from their homes in cities like Oakland, a trend that continues in 2022.

According to data from the US Census Bureau, the population of black residents in the city of Oakland has increased from 28% in 2010 to 22.7% in 2021, compared to 44% in 1990.

“Circa 2015, the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network (POCSHN) found that despite the economic boom in Oakland and the Bay Area, and the explosion of diversity, those you don’t see housed [were] Black and brown people,” says Noni Session, executive director of the East Bay Permanent Housing Cooperative (EB PREC).

POCSHN volunteers attended one of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) law cafes in Oakland in 2015. The volunteers were looking for legal mechanisms to help BIPOC communities in Oakland and the Bay Area collectively own and to co-manage land and housing outside the traditional real estate market. Members of these two organizations discovered that they shared a common goal. They soon teamed up and began drafting articles of association for a cooperative society that could hold title to property or land.

The East Bay Permanent Housing Cooperative was launched in 2018 through the efforts of POCSHN and SELC to reach out and revitalize land, housing and cultural hubs for BIPOC and allied residents of Oakland and East Bay. The organization is led by Bay Area activists and organizers like Session, who started as a volunteer at EB PREC and now serves as its executive director.

In addition to their work co-designing the framework for EB PREC, SELC attorneys partnered with organizations such as the East Bay Community Law Center to create and strengthen AB 816, the California Worker Cooperative Act, which passed in August 2015. The bill created a new business entity specifically for worker cooperatives under California’s Consumer Cooperative Corporation Law, which made possible the formation of EB PREC.

Session and fellow organization co-founders Ojan Mobedshahi and Shira Shaham began dedicating their time to EB PREC in 2017. At the time, Session was recovering from a 2016 City Council campaign for the Oakland District 3 seat, which she lost. incumbent Lynette Gibson McElhaney. However, thanks to the campaign, Session got a lot of information.

“It was clear to me that co-ops were a potential driver of economic recovery,” Session says. “When people with the idea for EB PREC came to my book club asking me to be on the board, I declined, but what I volunteered to do was start their cooperative element as a living laboratory for myself, to see how effective cooperative economics could be for disinvested communities.

East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative is a co-operative of “owners” with four different classifications, ranging from those with roots in the East Bay, to businesses and organizations wishing to invest in EB PREC, to those who work for the organization and those who live on its properties. Any California-resident or California-based organization or business can become an owner of EB PREC by purchasing a $1,000 share of the cooperative, which aims to generate dividends of 1.5% per year.

“The return is minimal because this is an impact investment, which means reducing the cost of capital is what makes these projects possible so people serve their communities instead of paying down debt” , says Session.

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All investment capital is directed to purchase, build, rehabilitate and preserve real estate in the Bay Area for BIPOC and allied communities. For those who cannot pay a full share but still want to contribute, EB PREC offers payment plans for up to five years and also offers volunteer opportunities.

“We want to make it clear that money shouldn’t be a barrier to community control,” Session says.

The first property donated to the co-op came from writer and dance therapist Carolyn North, who donated a four-bedroom home with a freelance dance studio on Prince Street in Berkeley, California. North chose to live part-time in her 40-year-old home. The other two bedrooms were assigned to EB PREC resident-owners, who moved in in January 2021.

“It’s often less about you picking a project and more about a project picking you because it’s the right time,” Session says. “Prince Street chose us.”

Tenants of a four-unit apartment building in North Oakland reached out to EB PREC for help when they found out their landlord was selling the building. EB PREC organized with the tenants and partnered with the Northern California Land Trust to purchase the property in June 2019, with the help of grants from the City of Oakland through Bond Measure KK. The project, called Coop 789, includes educational workshops to teach residents what it means to live in a co-op.

“It was a perfect opportunity to test our concept for the first time, especially with people who are already willing to cooperate. We have built a lot of infrastructure that feeds and supports our subsequent projects with the Coop 789 project,” says Session.

The co-op’s latest acquisition is Esther’s Orbit Room, a mixed-use building in historic West Oakland that plans to house a coffee shop and juice bar, a music venue and bar, and a art gallery on the first floor. On the second floor, there are three residential units, which can accommodate approximately eight to 10 people.

The building was a gathering place for West Oaklanders until the owner died in 2010 and the property was abandoned. The acquisition of Esther’s Orbit Room in September 2021 is the first step in EB PREC’s 7th Street Cooperative Cultural Corridor Revitalization Plan, which emphasizes community-driven development.

“We recently brought the first jazz [club] back to Esther after 10 years, and really 20 years of disappearance”, explains Session. “We are also working on a plan to replicate the Esther model along the West Oakland Corridor.”

In addition to developing new projects and moving forward with Esther’s Orbit room, Session hopes that EB PREC can create a section to develop similar projects in the future and encourage people to “invest in their communities, not in commodities”.

This article was produced by Local economy of peacea project of the Independent Media Institute.

About Wanda G. Warren

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