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Mayor and City Staff Plan to Destroy Self-Made Homes, Advocates Raise Funds to Provide Tents




A man who asked not to be identified and lives beneath the BART tracks between 81st and 85th Avenues in East Oakland begins to dismantle his self-made small home. The city plans to destroy all remaining homes in the area on Sept 11. Photo by Zack Haber.

On Sept 11, the Oakland Public Works Department plans to destroy about 20 small homes that residents who can’t afford sanctioned housing have built and currently live in.

“It’s gonna be terrible,” said Manuel Cruz, an Oakland resident of 30 years who’s lived in his small home with his wife, Gail, for about a year and a half. “Our homes give us protection, shelter, and help to keep us away from the wind and the rats.”

The residents won’t have to move and will be allowed to stay in tents. But they claim living in tents will be more dangerous and less comfortable for them. Many of their current homes have locks and some residents expressed concern that if they’re forced to live in tents, it will be impossible to secure their belongings from theft. They’ll have to stay near their belongings all the time or risk losing them.

City workers had originally planned on demolishing the homes, which sit beneath the BART tracks between 81st and 85th Avenues, on Aug 26, but after advocates for the small home residents called and wrote letters expressing anger and dismay, the city administration agreed to delay the destruction for two weeks.

The city administration and representatives for Mayor Libby Schaaf claim the homes are fire code violations. They’re especially concerned that since the homes sit directly beneath the BART tracks, a fire could also harm those that use the transportation system.

“The location adds significantly to safety concerns for the homeless and for the BART system riders,” said Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries.

Jeffrey Burris, who grew up in the Bay Area and has lived along 81st and 85th Avenues for about six months, agrees that the homes he and others live in are unsafe, but thinks living in a tent would be even more dangerous.

“A tent will burn faster than wood,” he said. “I’ve seen that first hand.”

DeVries disagrees and thinks tents are a safer option.

“These structures are full-on fire fuel,” said DeVries, “wooden pallets and plywood…burn at high temperatures for long periods of time.”

He also pointed out that since the homes aren’t built to code with any fire-resistant sheet rock, it would be easy to get trapped inside during a fire while it’s relatively easy to escape from a tent that’s aflame.

The small home residents have additional safety concerns outside of fire and theft. They’ve experienced or witnessed several violent attacks from those who live outside of the area. Some worry that living in a tent would make them a more easy target.

Candice Elder, the founder and director of The East Oakland Collective, is aware of the danger the homes pose but also thinks they don’t need to be destroyed. She tried to work with the city to find a safer location for the homes and to transport them there.

“The city was definitely dead set on destroying the homes,” said Elder. “There was no budging or negotiating with the city about that.”

Justin Berton, the Director of Communications for Mayor Libby Schaaf’s administration, says the city is hopeful that the residents will dismantle their own homes but has confirmed there will be no further extensions and that the City plans to remove any remaining self-made homes on Sept 11.

Elder described the two-week delay as a “hard compromise,” but thinks it will help the residents of the small homes as it’s allowed her time to set up a gofundme fundraiser that plans to provide large, flame retardant tents, heavy tarps, as well as moving, packing and fire safety supplies and devices.

“The fundraiser is going well but we do need more supporters,” she said. “We are up against a deadline.”

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