Cities Are Shifting; How Can We Still Build Community?
Published in Communities Magazine / Spring 2022 / Issue #194
Image of Crescent House
Three years ago, me and my family bought a house in Berkeley. The deal was this: my parents would finance the house and I would make sure that the taxes and maintenance of the house were taken care of.
As a first generation American, it was an exciting opportunity for my parents to provide this for me. Both my parents had grown up without home ownership. I heard stories of my grandparents who rented out single room apartments above Chinese restaurants they worked in, and times when they were sharing the living room floor to sleep on. To be able to bring up children in a stable single-family home was their dream.
I, perhaps in my youthful rebellion, do not share their dream. I’ve always craved something different from the nuclear family and when paired with the gravity of our times, started to dream of something more radical, something more collective. So, when the opportunity to convert this house we owned into a piece of that dream, took it.
The first step to this dream was collectivising the house. I didn’t want the responsibility of being a landlord. It was too much responsibility and I felt uncomfortable with profiting from a house that was already an asset to me. So with the
help of my co-creator Jonah, we created a five person co-op called Crescent House.
Crescent House runs on a transparent finance system that has two funds: house and food. The food fund is simple, this is where our monthly dues go to pay for our shared groceries and toiletries. The house fund is a little more nuanced. This is where rent on a sliding scale is deposited and used to pay for property taxes, house insurance, house projects, special house items and dinners, donations to orgs and whatever we collectively decide to use it on. We share the labor of decision making empowered by a mutual tending of house affairs.
Crescent House is one of over three hundred cooperatives in the Bay Area. And depending on who’s perspective you get, that num
ber is rising as folks adapt to the expensive housing market or falling due to people fleeing the area. From my perspective, it seems like both are true. I know many cooperatives in this area that have dissolved and I’ve also been lucky enough to participate in the creation of new housing cooperatives.
If both are true, who are the people staying in this massive, multi-city area with some of the highest housing prices and one of the deepest legacies of cooperatives in the States? And what do they have to teach us about forming cooperatives in cities? And lastly, where does Crescent House fit into all of this?
To answer these questions, I wanted to look at a few examples that felt unique to the Bay Area where land has been taken back for common use and where cooperative models are being practiced.
In 2012 a plot of agricultural land in the East Bay that was the last remaining bit to a once 100 acre parcel owned by UC Berkeley was slated to be developed into a parking lot, a Whole Foods and a nursing home. Students and community members rallied together and occupied the land by planting seeds and raising chickens and bees without the permission of the UC. UC Berkeley fought back, erecting a fence around the tract which led to occupiers rallying support and finding unique ways to continue their protest like building a slide to get farmers over the fence. And when UC Berkeley stopped the water, community members ferried water from their own homes.
After several months of resistance, UC Berkeley came to an agreement with the organizers to keep the land as agricultural land. Now, Giltract which sits between two busy streets and a UC housing development, runs as a community stewarded farm which hosts a solidarity farm stand that provides free, fresh, Giltract produce.
This fall, East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EBPREC) announced its purchase of Esther’s Orbit Room. An once community staple in West Oakland, Esther’s Orbit Room has been closed for 10 years. EBPREC raised over 4 million dollars to purchase the property, with the support of several foundations and individual investors who bought shares of 1,000 dollars each.
EBPREC’s first project was buying a house with the help of the Northern California Land Trust and converting it into a coop. And with their model of raising money through individual investors who are aligned with EBPREC’s goals, they are continuing to raise money and create affordable alternatives in the Bay Area.
Esther’s Orbit Room will soon be transformed into a community event space as well as a rentable commercial space along with three units on the top floor rented out. One of the units will be rented out at market rate, subsidizing the two below market rate units.
Both EBPREC and Giltract come behind a legacy of alternatives that the Bay Area is known for. Yet in both of these organizations there is also a strong presence of a younger generation who see the potential to use these organizations to uproot another legacy of this area. For example, Giltract shares its land with Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an indigenous led land trust that is rematriarching land in the Bay as well as Black Earth Farms, a black and indigenous led agroecology collective. EBPREC works on providing affordable housing and job opportunities for black indigenous, people of color.
As organizations in cities, both Giltract and EBPREC are diverse in their methodology. With available people power in the East Bay, both orgs have been able to use strategies like non-violent direct action, community organizing, partnerships with other organizations and funding through individual investors. Both organizations have successfully created systems that work within the confines of their realities.
In the case of Giltract and EBPREC, I can see how easy it would be to say that the conditions that they started out in would make them impossible to succeed. Giltract was going against a massive institution and development project and EBPREC is facing one of the fastest growing housing prices in the country. Yet both Giltract and EBPREC are examples of ways the highly populated Bay Area community along with the wealth and traction this city raises can create dissent to the status quo.
Often, I catch myself discounting people or places as options for community. I worry that a place is too rural, too red, too young, too old etc. Yet I’m starting to shift my mindset to see that these attributes can often be a community’s points of strength. That what is available is not only what we have to work with but is often more of an asset then we might imagine it to be.
Before Crescent House, I was stuck. I was unable to act in alignment with my values. It felt fraudulent to have privilege yet have a desire to be part of a broader movement to create more equity within my community.
What the answer was for me was to turn towards my reality and ask for support from my community to create systems that could turn what I had into something that could create value for myself and those around me.
And with our cities today, my answer feels the same, to look around at what there is and to use those unique qualities to build and reclaim our future.