Hellarity burns - Page 2

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

With a degree in urban land economics, he wanted to do his part to turn the tide of environmental degradation by developing "nonprofit car-free housing" in Berkeley.

Williams didn't see attending business school or investing in property as contradictions of his ideals. For Williams, they were strategic moves. He thought that anticapitalist projects lacked an important element — money — and wanted to be a benefactor for alternative forms of housing.

One week after graduating, his dreamy aspirations came to a crashing halt when an SUV plowed into his compact car while he was on a ski trip at Lake Tahoe, badly injuring him and causing brain damage. His goals would have been quickly destroyed, but Williams sued the driver and convinced the court that the accident interfered with his budding career, winning a settlement in 1993 that he says was "almost a million dollars."

While his money was tucked away in mutual funds and he was living briefly at a student co-op in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1994, Williams solidified his ideas into an ambitious project called the "Green Plan" with some of his housemates. The plan was an elaborate scheme to "end homelessness" by creating "an urban nonprofit dedicated to self-governing and radical environmentalism" that would fund "rural sustainable ecovillages in Hawaii and elsewhere."

That summer, Williams bought five houses on credit in what he calls Berkeley's "'80s drug-war zones" and brought his Ann Arbor friends to California to turn his rundown properties into co-op material. Over the summer, the Green Plan became an official organization and Williams let its members live in his houses without paying rent. Instead, they were expected to pay monthly dues to their organization — roughly the equivalent of fair market rent — to put toward buying rural land or repurchasing the houses from Williams at cost. Those who couldn't afford to contribute were allowed to stay free in exchange for working on the houses, doing extra work for the Green Plan, or volunteering in its Little Planet café.

"Sennet (Williams) tried to be clear that he wasn't a landlord," says former Green Plan member Dianna Tibbs, but relations between Williams and the members quickly disintegrated. Three years after its formation, the Green Plan remained unincorporated as a nonprofit. A former member also said it was still too centered on Williams' ideas. Williams' relationship with the tenants soured. "Ultimately there was a rebellion among the people against Sennet," Tibbs says. In 1997 the project disbanded, transferring all of the money they had raised — about $50,000 — to the Little Planet café.

The Green Plan fell apart, but Williams was caught up in the fervor of the mid-90s real estate market. In 1997, he bought the house that would later be named Hellarity for $114,000, with the goal of "making it into a demonstration of an eco-house that would be an educational resource for the city." He says he chose that property in part so it "could be a tribute to the Black Panthers' goals of providing food in the inner-city," as it was on the same block as the home of Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale.

But shortly after Williams bought Hellarity, he says he became "overextended in real estate." By the time he made his first mortgage payments, he says there were "over 60 people" living in his houses. He owned eight in Berkeley, two in Oakland, and was planning to buy farmland in Hawaii. With Williams tied up in too many projects to fix up Hellarity, he moved in some people to "house sit" in exchange for free rent.

Shortly after people moved in, Williams stopped coming around the house.