Hellarity burns

How a cauldron of squatters and property owners, stirred by green dreams and the bursting housing bubble, set an unusual Oakland house ablaze
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news@sfbg.com

"The angels in the summertime are ashes in the fall. As Eden fell so heaven shall. I will burn them all."

The sign, written in gothic letters on weatherworn plywood with faded red flames, is nailed to the side gate of a two-story duplex off Martin Luther King Jr. Way in north Oakland. Today, the old sign's words carry a chilling new meaning, greeting visitors to a house whose insides were scorched by an unidentified arsonist.

The charred house has been a cauldron of contention for more than 10 years. It has been the product of two anticapitalist housing experiments, one started by an environmentalist landlord who sought to create an ecotopia, and the other by a group of anarchists who intended to make it their home. In the process, it became a hub for traveling activists and aspiring hobos, and a headquarters for antiestablishment endeavors such as Berkeley Liberation Radio.

"People would hear about it through the grapevine, hop off a freight train, and show up on our doorstep with a backpack, a banjo, and a Woody Guthrie song," says Steve DiCaprio, a tenant who moved into the house in 2001 with his wife after living in a van out front. "We had an open-door policy. Anyone could come in, no questions asked. They just had to abide by certain rules: no hard drugs, no racism, no homophobia, and no violence. We wanted to emphasize equality — it was a reaction to the closed, materialistic, competitive, dog-eat-dog society we live in."

The house originally was part of the green property owner's attempt to create a network of sustainable, affordable housing. When his project floundered, the residence was slowly taken over by his tenants, a group of people who one-upped his radicalism. Both sides claimed to be avowed anticapitalists, but their strategies were at odds; his was to produce an alternative to the local housing market by creating a nonprofit that would help tenants own their homes as a collective. Theirs was to make space for themselves in a rent-based housing market by seizing property from investors and absentee landlords.

The owner eventually went bankrupt — drowned in the early stages of the current defutf8g housing market — and the property fell into the hands of a small-time real estate investor, despite the tenants' attempts to buy it themselves. The tenants refused to leave, transforming themselves into squatters, and fought it out with the buyer in court for three years. As the court case bogged down, housing values plummeted, making the landlord's investment lose value by the day.

On Feb. 28, when one of many hearings was set to take place, the squatters showed up in court but the landlord hadn't filed the paperwork needed to move the conflict closer to a resolution. The following night, in the early hours of March 1, someone lit three fires in the empty upper apartment, setting the house ablaze as people slept inside.

WELCOME TO HELLARITY

For years the house has been known as "Hellarity," although its original owner never called it that. In fact, he refuses to. To recognize that name would be to legitimize the people who adorned it with the title — a group he sees as thieves, squatters who disrupted a legitimate project he thought would have a small but tangible impact on a profit-driven housing market.

Born on the Sunrise Free School in northeastern Washington State, Sennet Williams — known by most as "Sand" — spent his early years bouncing between Spokane and "environmental and pacifist intentional communities" in the area. A year after moving to Berkeley in 1990, he graduated from UC Berkeley's Hass School of Business.