On Tuesday, Oaklanders Will Decide Whether Landlords Can Evict Them for No Reason

In a city that has become ground zero for gentrification, black working-class tenants are leading a fight to stay in their homes.

Eli Day

Lifelong Oakland resident Terema Pettus (L) and her daughter, Donmonique Daniels, are fighting eviction and for tenants’ rights measures. (Photo by Sarahbeth Maney)

OAK­LAND, CALIF. — On a Mon­day evening in Sep­tem­ber, the head­quar­ters of the Alliance of Cal­i­for­ni­ans for Com­mu­ni­ty Empow­er­ment (ACCE) is full of vol­un­teers, most­ly Black and Lati­na women fresh off of grind­ing shifts in retail, fast food, house­keep­ing and jan­i­to­r­i­al jobs.

With an insatiable demand for Bay Area housing thanks to the tech boom, working-class people of color fear they represent a vanishing demographic in a rapidly gentrifying Oakland.

As work­ing-class peo­ple of col­or, they rep­re­sent a van­ish­ing demo­graph­ic in a rapid­ly gen­tri­fy­ing Oak­land. They’re here to resist the forces try­ing to uproot them from the city.

ACCE’s vol­un­teers are phonebank­ing and door-knock­ing on behalf of two Novem­ber bal­lot mea­sures that aim to put the brakes on gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Prop 10, a statewide mea­sure, would let Cal­i­for­nia cities like Oak­land pass their own rent con­trol laws, and Mea­sure Y, a coun­ty ini­tia­tive, would expand Oakland’s just cause” pro­tec­tions against unjus­ti­fied evictions.

Life­long Oak­lan­ders Tere­ma Pet­tus, 45, and Robin Jones, 48, dis­cov­ered this July how pre­car­i­ous life as a renter can be.

Pet­tus, an X‑ray tech­ni­cian at Kaiser Per­ma­nente, lives with her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. Jones, a col­lege-edu­cat­ed retail work­er, sup­ports a child with spe­cial needs. They live in sep­a­rate units in a triplex in Oakland’s his­toric Low­er Bot­toms. On July 10, they received evic­tion notices. It didn’t mat­ter that they haven’t been accused of vio­lat­ing any por­tion of the lease. It’s all per­fect­ly legal. Once the prop­er­ty own­ers’ son moved in, Jones and Pet­tus became ten­ants of an own­er-occu­pied triplex, which exempts own­ers from pro­vid­ing a cause for evic­tion. Mea­sure Y would change this.

With the tech boom cre­at­ing insa­tiable demand for Bay Area hous­ing, Oak­land is gen­tri­fy­ing fast, push­ing out Black and brown com­mu­ni­ties that have long called it home. Accord­ing to the Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project, the aver­age apart­ment rent in Oak­land rose from $1,624 in 2011 to $2,813 in 2016. Mean­while, the city lost more than 40,000 Black res­i­dents between 2000 and 2014, over 30 per­cent of its Black population.

In the 1960s, Oak­land emerged as the Black Pow­er movement’s cen­ter of grav­i­ty. The Low­er Bot­toms, where Jones and Pet­tus live, once housed the Black Pan­ther Party’s head­quar­ters. Here, Pan­thers co-founder Huey New­ton took his final breath after being gunned down August 221989.

Today’s Oak­land is home to lux­u­ry con­dos and swanky or inten­tion­al­ly grungy arti­sanal shops along rapid­ly evolv­ing streetscapes where peo­ple of col­or now stand out. It’s shock­ing,” says Pet­tus’ daugh­ter, Don­monique Daniels, 26.

They used to say it takes a vil­lage to raise a kid,” Jones says. We don’t have that type of thing now. … There’s noth­ing neigh­bor­ly about it.” 

Jones and Pet­tus decid­ed they weren’t going to leave qui­et­ly. Soon after being served their 60-day evic­tion notices, when they were debat­ing whether to hang on and fight it (risk­ing sud­den home­less­ness) or to fol­low oth­er Oak­lan­ders pushed to dis­tant sub­urbs, they found ACCE. The statewide grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion fights for work­ing­class issues such as hous­ing, labor and envi­ron­men­tal justice.

Since con­nect­ing with ACCE, Jones and Pet­tus have sprint­ed from the out­skirts of polit­i­cal life to the front lines of grass­roots hellraising.

In mid-Sep­tem­ber, Jones, Daniels and Pet­tus led a protest out­side the Oak­land restau­rant Boot and Shoe, where one of their land­lords, Bradley Ceynowa, works as exec­u­tive chef. Perched in the win­dow was a Black Lives Mat­ter sign.

The 20-odd pick­eters were met with both sym­pa­thy and mal­ice, Jones says: A restau­rant work­er promised to send an email to the absent chef on the pro­test­ers’ behalf, while a patron threw their f lyer to the ground in contempt.

Despite gin­ning up pub­lic sup­port, each received a court sum­mons in Octo­ber. In exchange for the right to stay through Jan­u­ary 2019, they gave up the abil­i­ty to evoke Mea­sure Y if it passes.

Only 21 cities in Cal­i­for­nia and a hand­ful of states offer just cause pro­tec­tions, yet Oakland’s sit­u­a­tion is shared by many Black metrop­o­lis­es around the coun­try. Res­i­den­tial seg­re­ga­tion once walled in gen­er­a­tions of Black fam­i­lies. Now, many of those fam­i­lies are being ban­ished to far-flung locales in favor of whiter and wealth­i­er tenants.

Novem­ber 6 will test whether ACCE’s months of work can defeat the oli­garchy of land­lords and real estate inter­ests (includ­ing both the Cal­i­for­nia and Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Real­tors) that have dumped rough­ly $160,000 into defeat­ing Mea­sure Y.

ELI DAY was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He’s also a Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in Vox, Cur­rent Affairs, Moth­er Jones, and the New Repub­lic, among others.

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