The Rise and fall of Oakland's first Co-Governed Tiny House Community

The story of Oakland’s first attempt at a Resident-Run homeless intervention is ultimately a story of the power of Oakland’s unique brand of activism. It was activists that pushed the City for years to consider this approach. It was different activists who organized resistance to an encampment closure at Union Point Park that set the stage for this project. Then different activists who conjured distrust amongst participants at our weekly meetings that the City or Tiny Logic would screw them over. And finally two totally different activists who protested the site at E12th parcel daily for over a month, before anyone even moved in, with a conspiracy narrative of racial segregation that ultimately shut down the experiment. In most cases, the activists held different beliefs to those before and after them in the process, all genuinely felt they were fighting for the "homeless," and none stuck around long enough to understand what was really happening.

In 2021 Tiny Logic helped launch the City of Oakland’s first experiment in a resident-run transitional housing space for houseless people on city land with city funds. It was dubbed a “Co-Governed Community.” The term “Co-Governed” was coined somewhere within Frank Ogawa Plaza, but it pointed toward a well-known set of models in Oregon and Washington, often framed as “Self-Governed,” where the participants attend regular democratic governance meetings and take on roles and responsibilities in the operation of the space much like a housing cooperative. The promise of this model is that you could get more housing relief for less money, and it would feel less oppressive and more empowering to the people involved.

The helpful analogy, Talia Rubin of the Human Services Department often used, was the Residents are in the Drivers Seat, the "Backbone Agency" (Tiny Logic) is in the passenger’s seat giving directions and advice, and the City is in the back seat often back seat driving. What I realized was important to add to that analogy is that the City of Oakland was also paying for the Car and deciding on the make and model. And looking in the rearview mirror, I’d additionally add to this analogy that the roads we were traveling on were jammed up by activists, protesters, and politics.

Ultimately these last two realities were why the Co-Governed car was pulled off the road. Overlooking the "Optics" of the location of the site next to a neighboring transitional housing program with a different model in a high profile location was the initial error that did the project in. Currently, the cohort of 15 chronically unhoused folks who call themselves “Union Point on the Rise,” (UPOR) still have a place to live, despite their inconvenient majority whiteness. The task ahead for Housing Consortium of the East Bay, the site provider that will operate both communities going forward, is figuring out how to merge the two communities and the two operation models to satisfy the critiques of “inequity.”

The purpose of this article is to document what worked, what didn't, and lessons for how this could work in Oakland in the future. The vision of the project was to pilot an Oakland-based model for lower-cost interventions that taste better to participants. However, it must be said that the question of should any money ($350k for this project) be spent on “transitional housing” instead of permanent housing should be asked continually and often.

In the case of UPOR, I learned from the group that nearly all of them were much more interested in finding a way back to traditional-sized permanent housing compared to living in a tiny home in a community with each other. My plan for this program was to lean hard on one metric of success, navigation to permanent housing. Our goal was to navigate at least 8 people by the end of the following year. However the question, I’m sad I won't be able to ask with this project, is how does someone without the ability to work and roughly $900 in monthly government support income achieve permanent housing?

From early March of 2021 through to Jan 2022, roughly 20 individuals stayed in market-rate hotel rooms (Conservatively $480,000), moving on 28-day cycles to avoid establishing tenancy. Throughout this time Tiny Logic facilitated weekly governance and planning meetings with these participants. We discussed potential issues that would come up in a resident-run and secured space and explored systems and solutions to those issues, developed community agreements and consequences for breaking them, elected a leadership team, and outlined potential roles and responsibilities for the operation of the eventual space. Communication and engagement was a significant challenge, with a digitally disconnected audience with nocturnal rhythms and a long history of people letting them down. The first few months were spent mostly convincing the group that this was actually going to happen and that the City of Oakland was actually trying to help them in significant ways. The default of distrust was often spurred on by guest appearances at meetings and side conversations from outside activists and their set of assumptions. It wasn't until an actual site was located and construction underway in the late summer, that the group began to take conversations more seriously and get engaged.

With as much agency as we had, we designed the layout of the space, and talked through the budget and process for approving spending decisions. The scarcity of land options came up a few times. The site on E12th was very triggering for the UPOR group because just a year earlier Kendrick Donte Riley, the son of one of the UPOR leaders and a friend of many, was brutally murdered across the street. The land was also promised to a Developer for market-rate housing, which meant that depending on the Developer's ability to raise capital by a coming deadline, the site may or may not be ended within a year. This uncertainty was used by the city to stall on completing a sewer connection to the site.

In early November, the project actually received funding, however, the electrical contractors were not done with the site till early December. When we finally had the chance to begin building the deck for a Geodesic Dome community Kitchen we were hit with rains, holidays, Omicron outbreak and an escalated protester campaign. It was in the final days of 2021 that the city pushed for the group to move in by New Year’s day, an impossible task to clear out hoarded hotel rooms, move 15 people and their belongings across town into an unfinished site before a threatened hotel cutoff. In the midst of this impossible logistical task, the city canceled the contract a few days before Xmas and after taking a more hands-on look at the site, made the same assessment that the site was not ready for move-in and extended the hotel cutoff date to mid-January.

What Worked and what I’m proud of:

  • Building TRUST with UPOR community

  • Building habit and tradition of weekly Governance Meetings

  • Co-designing the site layout and amenities with residents

  • Designing and building Movable Toilet and Shower structures that do not exist on the market (Huge thanks to Architect Rob Kelly and his army of tireless volunteers)

  • Developing Partnership with our neighbors Dewey Academy to preserve one unit for a houseless Dewey Student

  • Empowering individuals as part of their personal transitions

  • Reenforcing existing community bonds

  • Leveraging the strengths and talents of the participants

What didn't work and what made this project Challenging:

  • Virtually no land options for this program.

  • Uncertainty if the City would actually go through with the project while being put in a position to defend them to the group.

  • Conflicting information about a sewer connection.

  • Not knowing if the land for the site would be canceled in a year because of Developer entanglement.

  • Pressure to move UPOR into unfinished site from the city in the dead of winter rains, holidays and Omicron by people who had never stepped foot on the site.

  • Moving to a site that had a tragic meaning for UPOR

  • 64 sq ft Pallet Shelter Units were flagged as too small from UPOR from the beginning, their size made engagement hard.

  • Navigating concerns of theft amongst UPOR members, and the interpersonal conflict that can ripple from the assumptions, accusations, and distrust.

  • Communication, virtually no one had or checked email, only a handful could be contacted by phone, the only way to discuss and distribute information as a group was in the weekly meetings, which got 60% attendance.

  • Night-based circadian rhythms and inconsistent sleep habits. Workdays, meetings, scheduling was hard as the majority of people's schedules started at night.

The Lessons learned:

*Trauma-informed programming starts with stability. One of the major things I learned in this process is the importance of stability and habit in working with people who have experienced the trauma of being homeless.

If the City wants to do these types of projects, it should first get clear about what will be provided and where it will be sited before any sort of engagement. Through this process, some city reps guaranteed plumbed facilities, others resisted plumbing based on precedence and faulty financial assumptions. Some City staff claimed we had to make one specific site work at E11th Street and Calcot Place, while others told us we couldn't use that same site because of politics. Engaging participants without clarity and worse, contradictory information, further erodes trust and leads to lack of engagement.

*Delayed Funding, paired with an unreasonable move-in timeline makes for an impossible task. Give the project sufficient time to be developed and get funding in providers accounts well before forcing a move in. This problem will be around for a while, these sites should be as well. Apply more logical long-term thinking to these projects.

*The hotel rooms were a nice respite for the participants and in a lot of ways made the job of meeting facilitation and test driving the community culture easier, however, it was pretty obvious how long it would take to set up the site from the beginning. The money for hotel rooms should have went toward apartments. Conservatively the city spent around $480,000 on 10 months of hotel rooms for roughly 20 people at over $100 per night. That kind of money would have been spent much more effectively on shared apartments and a trained social worker focused on housing navigation. You would have spent much less money doing that and gotten better results for the people involved.

*The lot should not have been developed if it would need to shut down in a few months because it was promised to a developer. The site development budget for E12th was well over 1 million dollars for both programs and a third site at 3rd and Peralta, that is public record, found in City Council’s approval of the projects. Journalists should dig into the specific numbers for what went into developing the site on E12th and why that decision was made if all those expenditures would need to be scrapped a year later.

Despite that decision, we were told that spending an additional roughly $50,000 or so for a sewer connection didn't make sense because the site may need to close in a year. Meanwhile, the approved Porto Potty budget for both programs at E12th for the year was $36,000. The Contractor Jim Moore of Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, was able to see this and did the right thing by installing the network of pipes on the land as part of his site work rather than forcing the site to be sewer-less for the life of the program’s existence. But the city resisted making the sewer connection for months with a very weak rationale of costs that mathematically just doesn’t add up. This is not to mention that, as Eastbay MUD and many others pointed out, any costs spent by the city to improve the land on E12th with a sewer-line could very easily be recouped from the developer as part of the city handoff, since the high-priced housing would need a sewer connection to the land anyway.

*Support site providers and protect participants from further trauma by neutralizing harassment from “protesters.” A mediator and a representative from the city should have spoken to these two individuals, this should not have been just something the providers needed to deal with day in and day out for over a month.