Turning Blight into Urban Gardens and Homes 

A small Oakland nonprofit is pushing a plan to transform blighted, abandoned parcels into small urban gardens with tiny homes.

The farm on the corner of 37th and West streets is easy to miss. With just a few vegetable plots, some fruit trees, a pen for ducks and chickens, and a tiny, 120-square-foot home, it hardly compares to some of West Oakland's bigger urban farms. But the farm's founder, Steven DeCaprio, sees it as the first stage in a plan to bring a new type of farming and affordable housing to Oakland.

DeCaprio is the head of Land Action, a nonprofit that he created in 2011 to assist tenants with eviction defense. Two months ago, Land Action launched a campaign to build one hundred micro farms in Oakland over the next five years. The farms will be anchored by tiny homes — less than 120 square feet in size — that will house low-income Oakland residents.

The plan hinges on the use of so-called "tax-defaulted property" — land that is worth less than the taxes owed on it. In Alameda County, tax-defaulted parcels typically have been abandoned by their owners and can be publicly auctioned after five years. But attracting buyers willing to pay the back taxes and fines can be challenging.

DeCaprio believes that his plan solves those problems and more. Building farms on blighted property will rid the city and county of urban eyesores, while the tiny homes will provide people with shelter, and residents will act as stewards for the farms, which, in turn, will also sustain them with nutrition. "This gives us the opportunity not only to provide sustainable models for urban agriculture, it also helps us to fight gentrification," DeCaprio argued.

DeCaprio isn't alone in seeing the potential of tax-defaulted properties. In 2013, the City of Oakland's Department of Housing and Community Development started working with the Alameda County Treasurer-Tax Collector's Office on a program to make use of blighted parcels. "We looked at the opportunity of starting a program working with developers and nonprofit agencies about bringing these [properties] back online specifically to do affordable housing," director Michelle Byrd said.

The program's mechanism is relatively simple. When a tax-defaulted parcel fails to sell during a public auction, the county can enter into direct negotiations with nonprofits to take control of the parcel. A nonprofit is still required to pay the defaulted taxes, as well as any associated penalties and costs.

But the city-county program hit a snag earlier this year when the chief architect of the plan, Margaretta Lin, director of strategic initiatives in Oakland's Housing and Community Development Department, resigned her position. According to Byrd, the city and county recently started to move forward again, engaging in discussions with organizations such as Hello Housing that are interested in investing in parcels. DeCaprio's proposal is under review, she said, and it still needs to be assessed by the county to see if it's viable.

While DeCaprio is interested in working with the city and the county, he's also concerned that the program might not go forward because of Lin's absence. So Land Action has circulated a petition online, demanding that Oakland and Alameda County officials eliminate back taxes and penalties on tax-defaulted properties sold to land trusts and give full support to the micro-farm and tiny home campaign. "Historically, these tax-default properties have existed in this legal gray area," DeCaprio said. "The city just found this one loophole to escape from this conundrum, and we'll explore that, but I'm more than happy to provide housing and sustainability through direct action."

'Direct action,' in this case, would mean taking possession of tax-defaulted land through adverse possession — the legal term for squatting. DeCaprio is one of the Bay Area's foremost experts on adverse possession. He started practicing it in 2000, shortly after he returned to the East Bay from touring Europe with his punk band, Lesser of Two. Unemployed and living in his van, DeCaprio began searching neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland for abandoned houses that he could live in.

click to enlarge Steven DeCaprio. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Steven DeCaprio.

He eventually found an abandoned home in Berkeley that he started to refurbish, but his neighbors frequently complained to police about his presence. Unable to afford a lawyer, DeCaprio researched adverse possession so he could represent himself in court. In 2004, he was arrested and ultimately convicted of three misdemeanor counts of unauthorized entry of a dwelling. He eventually moved to West Oakland where he found a new squat, and has remained there ever since. "There's a lot of abandoned land in Oakland," DeCaprio said. "I would say there are probably hundreds of properties that are probably tax-defaulted."

It's difficult to determine the actual number of tax-defaulted properties in Oakland, but DeCaprio's claim may not be far off. During the county's last auction in March 2015, 47 tax-default properties were up for sale in Oakland. This figure doesn't include the numerous properties in the city that are advancing toward tax-default status.

In addition to his home, DeCaprio eventually took ownership of the lot on 37th and West streets through adverse possession. The former property owner had abandoned his home in the late 1990s, leaving behind several-hundred-thousand-dollars-worth of unpaid property taxes and fines. The house was eventually demolished in the early 2000s, leaving behind a lot filled with knee-high weeds and trash, and infested with rats.

DeCaprio and his girlfriend have occupied the lot since 2008. In California, adverse possession kicks in after five years of exclusive and continuous occupation of a property. It also requires paying back taxes, which DeCaprio refuses to do with his farm. "I filed a tax appeal and said, 'Waive all the taxes except for the last five years, those are the ones I'm responsible for,'" said DeCaprio.

According to the Alameda County Treasurer-Tax Collector, his appeal is still pending. In the meantime, Land Action's microfarm campaign is moving forward, establishing farms and tiny homes on other tax-defaulted properties.

Just ten blocks from DeCaprio's farm, the organizers of the Buried Seeds Medicinal Garden are testing the soil as they prepare to establish an herbal garden. According to DeCaprio, the city had planned to transfer the site to a land trust, but the transaction was never finalized, so he encouraged the Buried Seeds organizers to start their farm before the city or county could rescind the offer.

Tatille Jackson and Thunder Currier of Buried Seeds said that addition to the farm, they're planning to move two tiny homes onto the lot. "Having stewards be on site is really important for us because people can see how you can live on the land, eat from the land, and use the resources that come from it responsibly," Jackson said.

But there are numerous unresolved issues with this live-work arrangement. Like DeCaprio, they are squatting on tax-defaulted land, which means that, sooner or later, they will probably be hit with a bill for back taxes. They also need to get various commercial and residential permits, which may be impossible given that they're squatting.

For now, DeCaprio is continuing Land Action's campaign, arguing that the city and the county shouldn't be bothered by adverse possession because it's being used to improve blighted land, grow food, and provide affordable homes. DeCaprio and his nonprofit only advocate for squatting on vacant lots if they're tax-defaulted and have been abandoned by their owners.

"It's not conflicting with anyone because the property owners are the only adverse party, and they already walked away from these properties," DeCaprio said. "So if the city backs out, we just move forward."

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