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Oakland Co-op Buys Historic Esther’s Orbit Room Space

The revitalization of Esther’s, and EB PREC’s mission, has a deep personal connection for Session, EB PREC’s executive director and a Black, third generation West Oaklander who has struggled to keep her childhood home.

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Noni Session, of The East Bay Permanent Real Estate Collective, stands outside the legendary Esther's Orbit Room on 7th Street in West Oakland, whose doors had been closed for about a decade. Photo by Zack Haber on October 12.

“It’s like life just stopped here,” said Noni Session, as we stood inside a large dusty room on Seventh street in the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of West Oakland on Indigenous People’s Day. The black, sparkly ceiling emitted a celestial vibe. Rows of liquor bottles sat partially full behind a 20-foot wooden bar while vinyl ’70s style stools rested in front. Gentle yellow light was omnipresent. A calendar opened to May 2010 hung in front of a mirror.

Words on a colorful but faded sign out front showed this place was once “Esther’s Orbit Room,” a vibrant cultural hub for Black Oaklanders that stayed open for about 50 years before it shuttered its doors shortly after its owner, Esther Mabry, died at age 90 in 2010. On September 30, the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC) closed on purchasing this space. They plan to revitalize it as an extension of their overall mission to help Black, Indigenous and people of color remain and thrive in the East Bay.

The revitalization of Esther’s, and EB PREC’s mission, has a deep personal connection for Session, EB PREC’s executive director and a Black, third generation West Oaklander who has struggled to keep her childhood home. In the ’80s she and her father stopped at Esther’s regularly before they would go fishing at a nearby pier. At that time, it wasn’t just a bar and restaurant but also a shop where her father could buy bait and she could get a treat.

Memories of Esther’s Orbit Room are still alive in the neighborhood. As Session and I talked, we were fortuitously interrupted two separate times by Black, long-term residents who just happened to be passing by and noticed the open door. They both briefly shared fond recollections of the place, and excitedly asked about the reopening. One of these people was 60 year old Pamela Brown.

“[Esther’s] was a happy place,” Brown said. “There were not that many places Blacks could go and be comfortable, but that was one of those places.”

Brown remembers Esther’s always being packed in the ’70s and ’80s and that “the vibe was just awesome and friendly.” She loved the southern comfort food they served: greens, pork chops, black eyed peas and hamburgers. Brown’s uncle, Nathaniel Harrison, remembers it being a great place to socialize around that time and that people were always dancing to the jukebox. Although Brown and Harrison were too young to experience it, legendary musicians like BB King, T-Bone Walker and Ike & Tina Turner performed at Esther’s in the 60s.

As I asked Session about what EB PREC’s revitalization project could look like, she told me about dreams she’s been having lately that place her inside Esther’s and wake her in the night to visions of “old school, Black church mixed with afro-futuristic aesthetics.” While several specific design ideas interest her, like installing colorful stained glass window art and putting a mural up of Maasai people walking across planets, she is excited that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the space. That uncertainty exists because its re-creation will be a massive collaboration involving many people who aren’t even in the EB PREC collective yet.

How EB PREC Works

Session is just one cog in a wheel that keeps EB PREC spinning. Well over 400 people currently form the collective in a complex process of communal ownership. While Esther’s will be EB PREC’s first commercial business, it’s not their first project. In 2019, and 2020, they purchased two East Bay homes that currently house 13 resident collective members, almost all of whom are BIPOC.

These residents all pay less than $900 per month toward costs required to secure and maintain the homes. At the end of the year, residents can get paid back any surplus if their payments exceed these costs. It’s all part of EB PREC’s process of replacing landlords with communal ownership and permanently taking housing and land off the speculative market in order to keep it affordable.

“There’s no supply and demand issue when it comes to housing; the demand comes from the demand for investment assets,” said Ojan Mobedshahi, EB PREC’s Finance Director. “Our move is to de-commodify land and we never consider putting it back on the market to profit from it.”

One way EB PREC has raised the capital to make these affordable homes accessible and the Esther project possible is by also including community owners in the collective who live in the area and each pay $10 a week, a year, or a month, depending on what they can afford. The community owners offer feedback and guidance on EB PREC’s projects and also have a direct role in electing some of EB PREC’s board members.

Individual investors also play a crucial role in EB PREC by buying shares of the collective for $1,000 each. None of them will strike it rich. EB PREC offers these people a targeted 1.5% yearly return on shares, about what one would expect to secure from a savings account and much lower than what one would expect from a typical real estate investment.

The collective’s website stresses that a key boon in becoming a shareholder is the ability to “feel good about your money being invested in community.” But unlike community owners, investors don’t share an active role in decision making. EB PREC also gets loans from foundations that are aligned with their vision and offer low to no interest loans.

The work and/or money of EB PREC’s five-member staff, 13 owner residents, and hundreds of community owners and investors has made it possible to secure two Bay Area homes and start revitalizing Esther’s, a project they see costing around $5 million. To finish the Esther’s project though, EB PREC needs a new classification of people to join them called commercial co-owners. They see the large indoor spaces hosting a bar and café that they hope will have music performances as well as a healing arts center while the backyard will host a farmers’ market. They’re seeking BIPOC people with expertise in those areas to run and take communal ownership of those spaces with EB PREC.

“Even in my dreams many of the walls are just prepped for art instead of having art on them,” Session said, pointing around to the spaces in Esther’s. “It’s not like how can we cover all the walls with our ideas but how can we prepare a palette that holds our mission and also holds space for other people’s creativity and control?”

Session sees the symbol of the palette in her dreams as the space that commercial co-owners and the community can help to fill. She has many questions like: What kind of cafe will be in the place? What kind of plants can the backspace have? What kind of music will be played in the space? What kind of healing arts practitioners will come? What kind of food will be served?

“We know we can’t be totally clear on what this space will be until it has its humans,” Session said. “Right now, we’re sort of its steward humans.”

As EB PREC searches for BIPOC commercial co-owners, they’re again seeking more resident collective members as the Esther’s property also has residential units that can house at least six people. They hope to build a community of BIPOC business owners and residents to bring vibrant life to Esther’s once again.

Building from Seventh street’s vibrant Black past 

To look back at how the original Esther’s Orbit Room was founded in the early ’60s could likely read as a fairy tale to the modern reader as the economic conditions, particularly for Black people, were radically different at that time. Esther Mabry, a Black woman who came to West Oakland from Palestine, Texas at age 22, in 1942, worked as a waitress at Slim Jenkins Supper Club, a legendary Seventh Street jazz and blues club, and was able to save enough from tips to start her own restaurant in 1950.

She named it Esther’s Breakfast Room. By the early ’60s, just around the time Slim Jenkins Supper Club and other similar establishments were closing, Esther and her husband William, a worker at the now closed Alameda Naval Air Station, had enough capital to buy a new space and open Esther’s Orbit Room.

Esther’s and William’s ability to open their business was likely aided by World War II and its subsequent postwar economic boom of the ’40s and ’50s that brought decent paying jobs, disposable income and homeownership to much of West Oakland’s Black population. Seventh Street was lively at that time and full of Black-owned businesses, including dozens of Black-owned jazz and blues clubs.

“It was the place to be,” Mabry said in an interview from 2002. “They used to have music playing and the hot tamale man. They would have shows and dances and theaters. You could just go from one club right to another. But no one’s there anymore.”

Writer Jennifer Soliman briefly and poignantly shows much of the complex reasons for the demise of these economic and social conditions in her historical essay “The Rise and Fall of Seventh Street.” They included federal urban renewal projects and the creation of BART, both of which lead to the destruction of Black-owned homes and the displacement of much of the Black population. In the same 2002 interview, Mabry lamented that there were no longer Black business owners in that location and said, “I’m the only one that’s left.”

These days, starting a successful business on Seventh Street based solely on the capital two people earn who don’t have deep generational wealth may seem like a pipe dream. But in one instance, a cooperative model has worked. The BlPOC worker owned Mandala Grocery Cooperative, which sits across from West Oakland’s BART station, employs seven people and has been open over a decade.

Session hopes EB PREC’s new collective project will help bring some of the vibrant Black life Seventh street once had back to the area by creating an economic and artistic anchor point around Esther’s. For that to happen, Session said she realized more than just housing was needed for BIPOC people, but an economy that they co-create. She hopes the Esther’s project can contribute to that and serve as a model for others.

In the meantime, Pamela Brown eagerly awaits what’s to come from the rebirth of a place that brought her so much joy decades ago.

“This is such a good idea,” Brown said. “It’s a great place to be revitalized.”

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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Activism

African American Sports & Entertainment Group (AASEG) helps support 25th annual turkey drive in East Oakland

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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The African American Sports & Entertainment Group came out to support the 25th annual Community Giving Foundation Turkey drive at Verdese Carter Park in East Oakland.

Hosted by founder and organizer Marlon McWilson, the turkey drive that started in 1997 has now donated over 35,000 Turkey’s through McWilson’s foundation. In attendance were Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, Oakland PAL, California Assembly Member Mia Bonta (AD-18) along with husband and Attorney General for the State of California Rob Bonta. Assembly Member Bonta also congratulated the AASEG on their recent unanimous 8-0 approval to enter negotiations with the City of Oakland on an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) to purchase the city’s half interest of the coliseum land, and looks forward to working with the team.

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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Bay Area

California Moving into Next Budget Year With a $31 Billion Surplus, Analysts Say

“Under our current law and policy approach, we estimate the general fund revenue will reach $202 billion in the budget year and result in a surplus of about $31 billion for that budget year,” said Gabriel Petek, legislative analyst of the State of California, referring to LAO’s projections for fiscal year 2022-23.

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California has the strongest economy of any state in the country with an estimated Gross State Product of $3.0 trillion. If it were a country, California would be the fifth-largest economy in the world.
California has the strongest economy of any state in the country with an estimated Gross State Product of $3.0 trillion. If it were a country, California would be the fifth-largest economy in the world.

By Tanu Henry, California Black Media

California is expected to move into the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2022, with a whopping $31 billion surplus, according to estimates from the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO).

The LAO announced the anticipated surplus during a news briefing last week.

“Under our current law and policy approach, we estimate the general fund revenue will reach $202 billion in the budget year and result in a surplus of about $31 billion for that budget year,” said Gabriel Petek, legislative analyst of the State of California, referring to LAO’s projections for fiscal year 2022-23.

Petek said the large surplus reflects a number of trends. Among them are surpluses in the state current operating budget, money left in the economic reserve from the last fiscal year, higher revenues than projected for the last two years, etc.

“Revenue collections have grown rapidly in recent months, coming in over $10 billion ahead of budget act expectations so far this year. Underlying this growth is a meteoric rise in several measures of economic activity,” LAO report reads.

That windfall in the state reserve could mean a rebate for taxpayers or more money for education and other public spending.

State spending is expected to reach a cap set by California voters through a ballot measure in 1979 called the Gann Limit. When that happens, the state is compelled to return money to taxpayers by lowering taxes, sending out rebates or spending money on education.

Salena Pryor, president of the California Black Small Business Association (BSBA) says she is encouraged by the investments the state has made to aid small businesses and to improve the overall economic outlook for Californians most impacted by the pandemic.

She hopes the state will use monies from the surplus to sustain some of its initial investments.

“There is still a lot more work to do. Forty-one percent of Black small businesses have closed permanently due to COVID-19, so further investments into start-ups and restarts would greatly benefit our community,” she said.

California has the strongest economy of any state in the country with an estimated Gross State Product of $3.0 trillion. If it were a country, California would be the fifth-largest economy in the world.

“California has no peers – continues to have no peers. We are world-beating in terms of our economic growth,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaking at the California Economic Summit earlier this month.

“In the last five years, no western democracy has outperformed the state of California. The United States has not… Germany, Japan, the U.K… no other western democracy has outperformed this state in our economic output of 21% GDP over the last five years.”

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Activism

New California “Strike Force” Gives Teeth to State Housing Laws

California Attorney General Rob Bonta said that California’s 17 million renters spend a significant portion of their paychecks on rent, with an estimated 700,000 Californians at risk of eviction. High home purchase costs — the median price of a single-family home in California is more than $800,000 — have led to the lowest homeownership rates since the 1940s.

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The Housing Strike Force will address the shortage and affordability crisis by enforcing state housing and development laws in the attorney general’s independent capacity and on behalf of the DOJ’s client agencies.
The Housing Strike Force will address the shortage and affordability crisis by enforcing state housing and development laws in the attorney general’s independent capacity and on behalf of the DOJ’s client agencies.

By Antonio Ray Harvey, California Black Media

To advance housing access, affordability and equity, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced earlier this month the creation of a Housing Strike Force.

The team, housed within the California Department of Justice (Cal DOJ) has been tasked with enforcing California housing laws that cities across the state have been evading or ignoring.

The strike force will conduct a series of roundtables across the state to educate and involve tenants and homeowners as the state puts pressure on municipalities failing to follow housing rules and falling short of housing production goals set by the state.

“California is facing a housing shortage and affordability crisis of epic proportion,” Bonta said. “Every day, millions of Californians worry about keeping a roof over their heads, and there are too many across this state who lack housing altogether.

“This is a top priority and a fight we won’t back down from. As Attorney General, I am committed to using all the tools my office has available to advance Californians’ fundamental right to housing.”

The Housing Strike Force will take “an innovative and intersectional approach” to addressing the housing crisis, focusing on tenant protections, housing availability and environmental sustainability, housing affordability, and equitable and fair housing opportunity for tenants and owners.

Bonta also launched a Housing Portal on the Cal DOJ’s web site with resources and information for California homeowners and tenants.

The strike force will enlist the expertise of attorneys from the Cal DOJ’s Land Use and Conservation Section, the Consumer Protection Section, the Civil Rights Enforcement Section, and the Environment Section’s Bureau of Environmental Justice in its enforcement efforts.

“California has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address its housing crisis, thanks to the historic $22 billion housing and homelessness investments in this year’s budget. But it’ll only work if local governments do their part to zone and permit new housing,” Governor Gavin Newsom said. “The attorney general’s emphasis on holding cities and counties accountable for fair housing, equity, and housing production is an important component to the state’s efforts to tackle the affordability crisis and create greater opportunities for all Californians to have an affordable place to call home.”

According to the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB), the level of Black ownership nationally has decreased below levels achieved during the decades when housing discrimination was legal.

The 2020 census reports that there was a 29.6% gap between homeownership rates for African Americans and whites. Homeowners accounted for 44.6% of the Black population as compared to 74.2% for whites.

“Blacks have made little, if any, strides at closing the homeownership gap. Systemic discriminatory regulations and policies continue to thwart any meaningful effort at increasing Black homeownership,” Lydia Pope, NAREB’s president, said.

In California, the DOJ reports that over the last four decades, housing needs have outpaced housing production. It has caused a crisis that stretches from homelessness to unaffordable homes.

Despite significant effort, the DOJ stated that California continues to host a disproportionate share of people experiencing homelessness in the United States, with an estimated 150,000 Californians sleeping in shelters, in their cars, or on the street.

Bonta said that California’s 17 million renters spend a significant portion of their paychecks on rent, with an estimated 700,000 Californians at risk of eviction. High home purchase costs — the median price of a single-family home in California is more than $800,000 — have led to the lowest homeownership rates since the 1940s.

Due to decades of systemic racism, these challenges have continuously and disproportionately impacted communities of color. For example, Bonta said, almost half of Black households in California spend more than 30% of their income on housing, compared with only a third of White families.

In addition, less than one in five Black California households could afford to purchase the $659,380 statewide median-priced home in 2020, compared to two in five white California households that could afford to purchase the same median-priced home, the California Association Realtors (CAR) said in a February 2021 statement.

The percentage of Black home buyers who could afford to purchase a median-priced, existing single-family home in California in 2020 was 19%, compared to 38% for white households, CAR stated.

“Just as the price for a single-median home reaches a new record of more than $800,000 in California, everywhere you look, we are in a housing crisis,” Bonta said during the virtual news conference on Nov. 3.

“Among all households, one in four renters pays more than half of their income on rent.”

The Housing Strike Force will address the shortage and affordability crisis by enforcing state housing and development laws in the attorney general’s independent capacity and on behalf of the DOJ’s client agencies.

Earlier this year, Newsom signed Assembly Bill (AB) 215, enhancing the attorney general’s concurrent role in enforcing state housing laws.

AB 215 was designed for reforms, facilitating housing development and combating the current housing crisis.

Newsom also signed Senate Bill (SB) 9 and SB 10 in September, legislation designed to help increase the supply of affordable housing and speed up the production of multi-family housing units statewide.

Authored by Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), SB 9 allows a homeowner to subdivide an existing single-family residential lot to create a duplex, triplex, or fourplex.

In response to SB 9, homeowner groups have formed across the state to oppose it. The groups are citing challenges they anticipate the law will bring to their communities, from garbage collection to increased risk of fires.

Livable California, a San Francisco-based non-profit that focuses on housing, is one of the groups that opposes the new laws.

“Senate Bill 9 ends single-family zoning to allow four homes where one now stands. It was signed by Gov. Newsom, backed by 73 of 120 legislators and praised by many media. Yet a respected pollster found 71% of California voters oppose SB 9,” the Livable California website reads.

“It opens 1.12 million homes in severe fire zones to unmanaged density — one-sixth of single-family homes in California,” the message continues. “SB 9 could reshape, in unwanted ways, hundreds of high-risk fire zones that sprawl across California’s urban and rural areas.”

But Newsom says the laws are urgent and overdue.

“The housing affordability crisis is undermining the California Dream for families across the state, and threatens our long-term growth and prosperity,” Newsom said in a Sept. 16 statement.

SB 10 was designed for jurisdictions that want to opt-in and up-zone urbanized areas close to transit, allowing up to 10 units per parcel without the oversight of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“Passing strong housing laws is only the first step. To tackle our severe housing shortage, those laws must be consistently and vigorously enforced,” said California State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), chair of the Senate Housing Committee. “I applaud Attorney General Bonta’s commitment to strong enforcement of California’s housing laws.”

The Housing Strike Force encourages Californians to send complaints or tips related to housing to housing@doj.ca.gov. Information on legal aid in your area is available at https://lawhelpca.org.

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