Low-Income Residents Thrive at 'Homefulness,' An East Oakland Affordable-Housing Hub That Does Things a Bit Differently 

Financed by POOR Magazine, those who live at Homefulness don't pay rent.

Lisa Gray-Garcia chats with Muteado Silencio at their East Oakland home.

Laura Newberry

Lisa Gray-Garcia chats with Muteado Silencio at their East Oakland home.

Lisa Gray-Garcia was barely a teenager when she and her mom first parked their car outside a narrow lot in East Oakland. On that patch of land sat a dingy duplex, sandwiched between a motel and two apartment buildings. The mom and daughter wagered that this was a safe place to stay for the night. In Berkeley, police often told them to move along, even issuing them citations for sleeping in a car. But in the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of Oakland — in this case, Eastmont — she says cops had other things to worry about.

Gray-Garcia and her mom stayed there most nights for a year and a half during the mid-1980s. No one ever asked them to leave. "Those months when we parked out there — it was beautiful," explained Gray-Garcia, now 43, referring to that lot at 8032 MacArthur Boulevard.

Eventually, Gray-Garcia — who goes by "Tiny" — founded POOR Magazine, in 1996, with her mother, Dee. And, either by coincidence or fate, that patch of land in East Oakland has played a crucial role in her adult life: She and her 13-year-old son, as well as two other families, now actually live in the renovated and expanded duplex.

And if all goes as planned, no one will ever have to move out.

What brought them there was "Homefulness," a co-housing project built by poor people, for poor people, and without help from government programs or charities. Gray-Garcia refers to Homefulness' growing, quasi-village environment as a "de-gentrification zone" and a solution for people ending up on the streets because of displacement and the rising cost of living. Each family pays their share for utilities, insurance, and general upkeep. But no one pays rent.

"This isn't just about building more housing," she said. "It's about actually giving control and self-determination and agency back to the people who are without it."

'We Come From Struggle, Too'

Homefulness is a longstanding project under the umbrella of POOR, and was first conceived when Gray-Garcia and her mother released volume one of the magazine in 1996. The issue culminated with their solution to homelessness, a vision of land liberation aptly named "homefulness."

The concept was made real through donations, which are given directly to the magazine, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The organization has a separate bank account for Homefulness, Gray-Garcia said, and the donations come primarily from what she calls their "solidarity family" — sympathetic adults with race and class privilege, or formal education, who want to help.

And Gray-Garcia encourages these donors do some work, instead of just giving money. They attend what she calls "People's Skool," a twice-annual weekend seminar where they learn about poverty, racism, and wealth re-distribution. They finally become donors after learning about de-gentrification, de-colonization, and what Gray-Garcia calls "community reparations."

"Sure, they could write us a check right away," she said. "But people need to go through some education to understand why they would be writing us a check. People generally don't want to give poor people money, no questions asked."

The initiative has raised nearly $200,000 since its inception. In 2011, it had enough in the bank to allow Gray-Garcia to start looking around for property. Coincidentally, a realtor took her to look at the location where she and her mother and had parked for so long. At the time, the duplex had been abandoned for about decade. It was in bad shape.

It was perfect.

"I knew this was it," she said of the parcel that sits just west of Interstate 580 and south of Parker Elementary School.

With $79,000 of the donated money, she paid for it in full. She had to — no one from Homefulness has credit.

At first, some neighbors were wary of the tenants — who have lived on the property since 2013 — and POOR Magazine, which is headquartered in the duplex, according to Muteado Silencio, 33. He has lived in the Homefulness duplex with his little girl, partner, and mother for about a year.

"There was not a welcoming right away," he said.

But after a couple years, trust was gained through meeting the neighbors and over food at a pop-up café — located under a tent on the sidewalk every Thursday — where customers pay by a sliding scale. The Homefulness community garden also gave them credibility.

"They started realizing that we are people like them," said Silencio, who immigrated from Mexico when he was six and attended nearby Castlemont High School.

"We come from struggle, too."

'You'd Be Amazed'

On a Thursday in September, neighbors crowded around the cafe, while Gray-Garcia piled paper plates high with cornbread, falafel, greens, and other fixings.

"Whoo-ee," one woman declared as she walked home from the cafe, which encourages donations between $3 and $5, though most people eat for free. "They got some good chicken down there."

Homefulness is unique in Oakland, according to housing experts. When Gray-Garcia and her mom conceived the idea, they pulled from international housing movements that stress a sort of village mentality, an operation that's independent from government intervention.

Carol Galante, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in affordable housing, said she's never heard of anything quite like Homefulness. So-called "sweat-equity" projects — those where residents earn their keep by building the community homes themselves — have traditionally sprouted in rural areas.

Galante said the project would be difficult to replicate on a large scale without involvement from the government or outside nonprofits. "I would say that people trying to take control of their destiny, and raising funds to do this sort of thing on their own, has merit," she said. "But how far will they be able to go with it?"

POOR already has plans to build four townhouses on the MacArthur property, re-construct a larger community garden, put in a performance space, and give the pay-what-you-can cafe, now in a tent, a permanent space on the property. These too will be financed by donations.

Richmond-based architect Bob Theis, who designed the proposed Homefulness townhomes pro bono, said he would like to see more projects like it. "They're recreating the kind of communities we used to count on for survival," said Theis, who specializes in "green" architecture. "Mutual support has been slowly eroding over the decades. But that may change once people discover that every house on the block doesn't need its own washing machine."

By all accounts, mutual support is an essential part of the movement's blueprint. But residents also relish the independence.

Queennandi Shabazz — who has been writing for POOR since 2006 and hopes to live at Homefulness someday — has endured bouts of homelessness and a series of evictions. She said she doesn't want to be at the mercy of a landlord any longer. She wants to grow tomatoes in her backyard without having to ask permission.

"If you give us a little determination, then you'd be amazed what we can do," Shabazz said. "I don't want to rely on public housing. I don't want to rely on welfare. I don't want to become complacent and just be labeled as this welfare queen."

"No," she said. "I just want to be."

On a recent afternoon, Silencio sat on a plush couch in his living room and watched his little girl, Lily, twirl around in a Belle costume from the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast. His mom and partner fried some chicken in the kitchen. He pointed at the wood floor, which he installed himself.

It feels like a real home to Silencio, who spent most of his childhood in cramped studios and neglected apartment complexes, moving more than 20 times as rents rose across Oakland. He wants Lily, too, to raise her children here at 8032 MacArthur.

But the fear of being kicked out, of something going wrong, still creeps up on him from time to time. It's a 30-year-old thought pattern that's hard to shake.

"Yeah, we have this little piece of something," Silencio said. "But for brown and Black people, you never feel stable.

"You never know if what you have right now may be gone tomorrow."

Laura Newberry is a freelance writer, photographer, and student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. This story was initially written for a news-reporting course.

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