Hellarity burns - Page 4

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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Cooperative Roots is a Berkeley-based nonprofit organized in 2003 by members of the University Students Cooperative Association. They received money from progressive donors — mainly the Parker Street Foundation — to buy houses that they turned into "cooperative, affordable housing," says Cooperative Roots member Zach Norwood. Anyone who lives in their houses is an automatic member of the cooperative and makes monthly mortgage payments to the foundation.

For Hellarity, Cooperative Roots was a godsend. "Other people would walk into that house and say, "This place is disgusting," DiCaprio says. "But they said, 'Wow, this is a work of art.'<0x2009>" The Parker Street Foundation was willing to put down whatever was needed to buy the house, Norwood says, but the occupants were limited by the monthly payments they could afford. On Nov. 4, 2004, the house went up for bankruptcy sale, and Cooperative Roots was prepared to bid up to $420,000. "It was exciting to be there with a bunch of crazy Hellarity people, putting out bids for hundreds of thousands of dollars," Haviland says.

No one expected them to show up at the sale. Williams says they had previously offered to buy the house from him but he "didn't think they were serious." By the time they had the money, Williams no longer had control of the sale. At the courthouse, the anarchists were playing by the rules, bidding with money up front. The only other party interested in the house was Pal and his brother-in-law Charanjit Rihal, who were placing bids against the occupants. The two sides bid against each other, driving up the price until the occupants reached their limit. Pal and Rihal took the property for $432,000.

OWNERSHIP VS. CONTROL

"This sale was symptomatic of a housing market gone haywire," says DiCaprio. "People like Pal and Rihal thought they could just throw a bunch of money into real estate and it would always be a good investment. I'm glad the market finally crashed, because that kind of behavior hurts a lot of people. It ended up driving the price of housing to the point that normal people can't buy anymore — and that's absurd."

Pal soon discovered he owned the property on paper only. The occupants didn't recognize the sale or his authority to tell them to leave. Three months after the sale, the occupants were still there, refusing to go. Pal took the case to court in an "action to quiet title," demanding that they be ejected from the property and that the title be freed from any future claims against it. He claimed the people in the house were squatters, living on his property without permission. But before the police could drag out the occupants, they countersued, holding themselves up in court without a lawyer for three years and living in the house the whole time.

One of the first cross-complaints came from Robert Burnett who — with his contempt for the computerized, cell phone-saturated consumer culture — wrote his cross-complaint on the back of a flyer on an ancient typewriter. When the document appeared in court, one side advertised a benefit for a pirate radio station at the anarchist info shop at the Long Haul with an image of tiny people being thrown out of an upside-down Statue of Liberty. On the other side, Burnett claims that he is a co-owner of the house, which he acquired through "adverse possession." Two other defendants made the same claim.

"Adverse possession transfers the ownership of a piece of real estate to people occupying the house without payment," says Oakland attorney Ellis Brown, an expert in property law.