City Destroys Self-Made Homes

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José Vargas (left), who’s lived in Oakland since he was three, and Jillian Wright, who’s lived in the Bay Area all her life, take a short break from disassembling their self-made home. After the City of Oakland forced them to take down their home, they offered them no alternative housing. Photo by Zack Haber.

While establishing a fire lane and cleaning a portion of a Home Depot parking lot where around 50 unhoused residents live, on Oct. 22 and 23 Oakland’s Department of Public Works (DPW) destroyed over a dozen self-made wooden homes and left those displaced with no alternative housing options.

“It’s nothing but it keeps a roof over my head,” said José Vargas about his thin, high-ceilinged, self-made home with a bed, couch and TV in an interview with the Oakland Post a few days before the demolition. He lived there with his partner, Jillian Wright, but was disassembling the home during our interview to save the wood, which he says he purchased at Home Depot for about $300.

“If the city gets to [my home] first, they’ll just destroy it,” said Vargas.

Vargas has lived in Oakland since his family came from Mexico when he was 3 years old. He had stable housing and worked in a restaurant until his father passed away three years ago. Since then, he’s lived by Home Depot, in an encampment that residents call The Community of Grace (COG).

COG has been under scrutiny since at least last November 2018, when the site’s City Councilmember Noel Gallo talked with KCBS about the site’s crime and squalid conditions. A walk through the site reveals large trash piles, living and dead vermin, and human waste. But the residents, most of whom are long-time Oakland residents priced out of their former housing claim that most residents leave Home Depot alone and that the city refuses to provide dumpsters, do consistent trash pick up, and provide adequate toilet services.

Vargas says he first found out he could no longer keep his home on Oct. 14, when the city put a notice on it saying it was a fire hazard. Vargas and his partner, Wright, understood the concern as one of their previous self-made homes recently caught fire, but they were frustrated that the city offered no alternative housing.

Wright says that for more than four months she has been on a waiting list for the city’s Community Cabins program, which offers temporary shelter in shared 10’x12’ cabins, but hasn’t been able to enter the program. Oakland North reported in September that the Community Cabins can only currently offer beds to 195 participants.

“This is as an attack on curbside communities,” said Candice Elder of The East Oakland Collective (EOC). “They’re citing self-built homes for fire-code violations that normally only apply to your traditional single-family home.”

Elder was on site when the city destroyed about 20 self-made homes between 81st and 85th Avenues beneath the BART tracks in East Oakland in mid-September.

At the city’s request, EOC successfully raised funds to provide replacement tents but the group refused to do it for the city again as they want the city held accountable.

“There should be a time period when residents can address any safety or fire code concerns to see if they can get their self-built structures more safe,” said Elder. “But the city is jumping straight to the extreme of destroy.”

EOC was able to negotiate with the city to allow some structures to remain for residents in particularly vulnerable situations. Two single mothers were able to keep their homes, as were an elderly couple.

The city’s leniency did not extend to residents with disabilities. A total of at least 13 homes were destroyed, including one belonging to Amy Krawkowskeie who has both cerebral palsy and a traumatic brain injury. The Oakland Post interviewed her partner, Kayla Krawkowskeie, as she packed up all of the couple’s belongings on October 22, hours before her home was destroyed.

“The fact that they’re demolishing our house is ridiculous,” Kayla said, who felt that she was being punished for other people’s lack of common sense. “We just need to be more careful about not cooking inside of places like this.”

Unlike the vast majority of other displaced residents, the city offered Amy and Kayla Krawkowskeie space in a Community Cabin site for six months. Although the couple preferred to stay in their former home as they had lived at COG for four years, they accepted the offer after the city destroyed their home.

The Oakland Post e-mailed Noel Gallo for comment on this story but did not hear back. The Post also e-mailed Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries, who wrote the policy for The Community Cabins program, but did not hear back.

The city plans a similar operation in the private lot that borders the Home Depot lot and also has self-made homes, on Oct. 29 and 30.

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