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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"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.
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. 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. The housesitters gradually brought in their friends, the walls were slowly painted to suit the eccentric tastes of the occupants, and more people started calling the house theirs. Williams said he didn't invite them, but admits that he never asked them to leave. He had little contact with the occupants as years passed. "He was just a theoretical person that owned the house," DiCaprio says.
Hellarity took on a distinctly anarchist flavor in Williams' absence. "People with alternative lifestyles and alternative family arrangements could live without having to dedicate their lives to making money, giving them more time to invest in their homes and their communities," says long-term resident Robert "Eggplant" Burnett, Bay Area punk rock legend, publisher of the zine Absolutely Zippo, and editor of Slingshot newspaper. Hellarity hosted the pirate radio station Berkeley Liberation Radio, a do-it-yourself bike shop, and cooked meals for Food Not Bombs.
It seemed like an anarchist paradise, but it wouldn't last.
By 2004, mortgage payments were driving Williams deep into debt, and Hellarity became a burden. The house was being pulled away from him from two sides: by anarchists who increasingly challenged the legitimacy of his ownership, and by creditors who placed liens against his properties.
When Hellarity was eventually sold by the court in a bankruptcy sale, the tenants say the man who would buy the house, Pradeep Pal, had never set foot in it. Pal, who refused to be interviewed for this article, lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Hercules and owned two businesses, Charlie's Garage in Berkeley and European Motor Works in Albany. He wasn't exactly a freewheeling real estate flipper he was a South Asian immigrant who, according to Guardian research of property records, never owned real estate in the area other than his own home.
But to the tenants, Pal was a capitalist trying to buy them out of their home. In a recorded meeting with tenants, Pal admitted he hadn't been inside the house before he bought it, and Williams tells us the real estate agent who arranged the sale also never toured the house before Pal bought it. "He obviously had no interest in moving into the place or contributing to the community if he didn't even look at it," future occupant Jake Sternberg says. "This was someone who just wanted to make a profit."
The tenants made it clear to Pal that they didn't want him to buy the house and would make life difficult for him. As soon as it became apparent that Williams would lose the house, Crystal Haviland and a few other occupants started searching for someone to help them buy the house. In the summer of 2004, the house was slated to go up on foreclosure auction, but the tenants hadn't found a sympathetic donor.
The auction was set to occur on the steps of the René C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse, and the occupants showed up banging drums and bellowing chants to warn off prospective buyers. "We wanted anyone interested in buying the house to know that the people who had been living at the house for 10 years wanted to buy it," says Haviland, who is now raising a child, studying psychology at San Francisco State University, and volunteering as a peer counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic. "We didn't want people to buy it and turn it into an expensive gentrified thing." While people gathered, Williams showed up and announced bankruptcy, a legal move that cancelled the auction.
With more time to search for financial support, Haviland started talking with Cooperative Roots, an organization that bought a couple of Williams' other houses now known as "Fort Awesome" and "Fort Radical" in foreclosure auctions. 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.
"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. "In the state of California, you have to be openly living in a place for five years without the titleholder trying to make you leave to win an adverse possession case."
"Adverse possession originated to prevent Native Americans from taking back land from homesteaders, but squatters turned it around, using it to protect people who take possession of unused property," says Iain Boal, a historian of the commons who teaches in the community studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the author of the forthcoming book, The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure. Boal emphasizes the large numbers of squatters in the world, a figure Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World (Routledge, 2004), pegs at 1 billion. "It is only here that squatters are seen as bizarre leftovers from the '60s," Boal says. "We are in a crisis of shelter, and people need to fill their housing needs."
DiCaprio concurs. Along with Burnett, DiCaprio was the main backer of the occupants' legal case. As we talk in a dark, live-in warehouse, he sips coffee out of a Mason jar and looks over the court case on his laptop. He says he wants to be a lawyer, but he has never been interested in making lots of money he says he wants to "fight for housing rights." DiCaprio learned squatter law while cycling through family law court, criminal court, and federal court over a Berkeley house he was squatting and trying to win through adverse possession. The city threw him in jail, and he was released just after Pal sued the occupants of Hellarity.
He says Hellarity was different from other situations he's dealt with as a squatter. "We never thought of ourselves as squatters [at Hellarity] per se until Pal sued us and start using that language in court," he says. "Before he bought the house, no one was challenging our presence on the property. Sennet [Williams] was either actively or passively letting us stay there. By filing a claim to quiet title, Pal made it apparent the title was in question. By calling us squatters instead of tenants, they lost some claim to the property. So we took the ball and ran with it."
Their use of adverse possession was strategic, DiCaprio says, but they didn't intend to win the house that way. "We were never under any illusion that we would win ownership of the house in court," he says. "We wanted to use the court as a forum to enable us to buy the house. We were just treading water until Pal got tired and agreed to sell." The occupants say they offered him $360,000 for the house, the price it was originally listed for, but he refused to take a loss on his investment.
DiCaprio says the courts generally aren't sympathetic to squatters' cases. "Pro pers tend to be poor, so there is a class bias against them," he says, referring to people who represent themselves without a lawyer. DiCaprio says judges have rejected documents for having dirt on them and refused to give fee waivers to people with no income. "The courts do not like squatters. If you mix pro per and adverse possession, you could not have a more hostile environment against us."
For more than two years, Pal and the occupants played a cat-and-mouse game, dragging out the case and trying to complicate it in hopes the other side would just give up. Pal's lawyer, Richard Harms (who did not return Guardian calls seeking comment), objected to the terms "documents," "property," and "identify" when asked to produce evidence related to his claim. "Instead of trying to prove their case, they were just waiting for us to trip up and not file something before a deadline," says DiCaprio.
The occupants didn't slip, but as the case wore on, he and Burnett grew tired of upholding their side in court. By fall 2007, the two cut side deals with Pal. Burnett settled for $2,000 and DiCaprio for an undisclosed amount. "I realized I couldn't save it alone," DiCaprio says. "I told them to sink or swim."
When Burnett and DiCaprio settled with Pal, the subprime housing crisis was splashing the headlines. Pal's investment was starting to seem more like a loss, but for the first time since he bought the property, it looked like it would finally be his. By November 2007, the remaining squatters dropped the battle for ownership and began bargaining with him for concessions.
By mid-February, Pal was ready to start renovations, and all but two of the squatters had moved out. They made their final plea and Pal gave his last compromise: two more weeks, then they had to go. "He was sure he was going to get the house, so he agreed to let us stay," says a squatter called Frank, who asked not to be named because of his immigration status.
What Pal may not have understood was that he was not the only party still interested in the house. The house was becoming a point of contention among the larger community of squatters and anarchists in the East Bay. Fissures broke around a central question: was it up to those living there to decide the fate of the notorious squat, or did the larger community of radical activists have a say in the property?
As Pal was getting rid of the last people occupying the house, the squatters' conflict came to Hellarity's doorstep. A new group of people came to the North Oakland house, among them a few who had previously stayed at Hellarity, ready to renew the struggle against Pal. Frank, who had been living in the house for seven months, was unhappy about the new arrivals.
"I told them that this kind of action would make problems for me," he says. "I already made an agreement with this guy [Pal] to leave by the end of the month." The new group saw things differently. "We own this place," says Jake Sternberg, the new de facto caretaker of Hellarity, who has since been pushing for the squatters to renew their court case. The discord between the squatters split up the duplex: the two old squatters stayed upstairs while the recent arrivals occupied the lower half.
Two weeks after the new crew moved in, a fire was lit in the upper apartment that burned through the ceiling and the floor. But who did it? Was it a disgruntled squatter who would rather destroy the house than hand it back to Pal? Or was Pal connected to the arson, losing his nerve as a newly energized group of squatters took over and the value of his investment crashed?
If not for the squatters, Pal might have been less affected by the subprime crisis than most property owners. He had no mortgage on the house he bought it outright so he wasn't under threat of foreclosure, unlike tens of thousands of other California homeowners. But Pal faced a different threat. It seems likely he bought the house as an investment, and as the market crashed, he was stuck with a house he could neither renovate nor sell, and was left to watch its value tank as he slogged through court proceedings.
For an investor like Pal, the numbers weren't looking good. In March, median housing prices had fallen 16.1 percent compared with those of March 2007, according to DataQuick Information Systems, and home sales declined 36.7 percent from the previous year. In April for the seventh consecutive month Bay Area home sales were at their lowest level in two decades, DataQuick reported. And according to Business Week, national home prices will plummet an additional 25 percent over the next two to three years.
On Feb. 17, the day after the new group of squatters moved in, Pal made an appearance at the house. In early March, Sternberg showed me a video he recorded during Pal's visit. On the screen, Pal is sitting on a couch in the downstairs living room of Hellarity. At the door, a well-built man who looks to be in his 30s and calls himself Tony leans against the wall with two younger men who call themselves Salvador and Ryan. Sternberg tells me that Pal came to the house demanding they leave his property. Sternberg called the police, accusing Pal of trespassing. As they waited for the OPD to arrive, which took more than 25 minutes, they discuss their conflict over the house.
At the beginning of the video, Sternberg tells Pal why he and his friends refuse to give up the property: "People came over here from Europe and they said, 'Hey, we're going to take this place.' Now they sell land to each other. And how did they get it? They took it.... And just because somebody pays for something doesn't mean that they get it. And just because somebody sells something doesn't mean they have a right to sell that."
A few minutes into Sternberg's video, Pal told the squatters he was ready to take matters into his own hands. "You just have to deal with me now because what I'm saying is, it's person to person.... And you know what? If it's gonna get dirty, it's gonna get dirty. I don't care. Because you know what? That's the way it's gonna be, because this is what I need. I need to have it. I don't have any lawyer. I can't afford a damn lawyer. So it's gonna be me and you. One to one. Man to man."
Pal eventually left the property after the police arrived, but the two younger men, Salvador and Ryan, spent the night upstairs. "[Pal] had them stay there because they thought the people downstairs would squat the upstairs," Frank says. "He wanted to protect the house." Frank, who says he was concerned that Pal would try to evict him with everyone else, initially didn't protest the presence of the two young men.
The next day, at Frank's request, Pal told Salvador and Ryan to leave, and for the two weeks that followed, Pal didn't return to the house. The new group of squatters expected to see him Feb. 28, the date set for a case hearing called by Pal's lawyer prior to the re-occupation of the house. If the defendants didn't show up, a default judgment could have been entered, granting Pal his request to have the squatters removed and ordered to pay $2,000 per month in back rent. The squatters showed up for court, but Pal's side hadn't filed the necessary paperwork to hold the hearing.
Once again the house hung in legal limbo and the day after the hearing, the remaining people upstairs moved out as agreed. Frank says Pal called him while he was at work that afternoon to make sure they were gone. For the first time in 11 years, the upper apartment was empty, waiting for either Pal or the other squatters to seize it.
But someone was committed to preventing that from happening. The night after the people upstairs moved out, at around 3:15 a.m., the squatters downstairs awoke to fire creeping through the floorboards above them.
"Both of the doors upstairs were locked," Sternberg says. "We broke through one of the doors and threw buckets of water on the flames."
After the fire department extinguished the blaze, the squatters called the police to have an investigator search the scene. "It appears that unknown suspects entered the house through unknown means, and then set three fires in an attempt to burn the house," the police report states. According to the report, all three fires were set in the upstairs apartment; two burned out before the fire department arrived. Officer Vincent Chen found two used matches in the bathroom, where the wood around the sink had been burned, and a gas can hidden in the bushes on the east side of the house.
When I first met Sternberg, he told me the Oakland Police Department's arson investigator, Barry Donelan, was helpful. Two and a half months after the fire, however, Sternberg says: "I regret having talked to the police."
Initially, Donelan didn't know they were squatters Sternberg had told him they owned the house. "Once he found flyers for a fundraiser to defend the squat, he became angry," says Sternberg. "He said he submitted the case to the district attorney, and didn't expect anyone would be arrested."
Sternberg says Donelan also threatened to have him arrested for a traffic-related warrant and that he would turn Sternberg's name over to the Federal Communications Commission, which had an open investigation on the house for hosting Berkeley Liberation Radio. In March, Donelan told us he wouldn't comment on the case and at press time, he hadn't return Guardian calls about the status of the investigation.
Although the arson may never be solved, the squatters have strong suspicions about who was behind the fire. But they have a hard time deciding who, ultimately, is most culpable for the blaze. "No one involved in Hellarity is innocent, and no one is completely guilty," says DiCaprio. The one point of view everyone seems to share is that Hellarity has long been a tinderbox of contention, in which property owners struggling in a beleaguered housing market faced off against a group of people who reject the market outright for its inaccessibility to low-income people. Eventually, it all literally burst into flames.
When I visit after the fire, people are sitting outside playing guitar, smoking rolled cigarettes, and singing the timeless hobo ballad, "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The sounds drift over the budding vegetable gardens and into the downstairs living room, where a message written on a big green chalkboard suggests that if the fire was intended to drive people out, it was unsuccessful: "WELCOME BACK TO HELL(ARITY). Because bosses, landlords, and capitalists suck, the house has lots of repairs that need to be done before it becomes fully livable."
Upstairs, Sternberg looks up at a charred, gaping hole in the ceiling. "We have to make lemonade out of lemons," he tells me, explaining that they just got a skylight to fill the cavity. "We're going to continue fighting just like we've been fighting. This guy [Pal] has been in court with us for three years. He's got no case." *