Chasing Cheap Rents


Photograph of Oakland Town Hall by Tom Coates via Flickr (cc)

From Harper’s:

I was back in Oakland for my new job. After nearly a month of looking for a place to live, I got a text from Jenny: “Would you consider a shack?”

An ex-boyfriend of hers had a disused shed in the backyard of his West Oakland home. Jenny worked as an artist and musician, but mostly as a barista, and she lived in a squalid garage nearby with her instruments and two cats, where she paid $500 per month. She was a victim of the housing crisis in her own way, and if she didn’t want the shack, I knew there must be a reason. It was smaller than a closet, she warned me, and illegal to inhabit, but if I was willing to seal it against the elements and finish construction, I could rent it for $240 per month. I said yes without even visiting.

Erik, Jenny’s ex, had built the shack as part of an attempt to start a tiny-house construction company, designed to shelter the ever-growing legions of homeless. In the years since I’d been gone, the second tech boom had arrived in the form of Uber and Twitter and hundreds of other startups, enticed north from Silicon Valley by tax incentives and backing from venture capitalists based in San Francisco. Hundreds of tech companies had moved or expanded into the city, and some 130,000 jobs had been created. But only about 15,000 new homes had been built, and the housing crunch and rising costs had sent thousands of people to Oakland and Berkeley, seeking cheaper rents and mortgages. Tech’s expansion into downtown Oakland was pushing out the middle class even farther, and threatening to destroy the fabric of working-class cities like Richmond and Vallejo.

The front line of gentrification in the East Bay had, in turn, moved from my old stomping grounds around Fort Awesome in South Berkeley to West MacArthur Boulevard, precisely where my shack was located, one of several remaining pockets of tension and crime near Oakland’s city center. Once again, chasing cheap rents, I had found myself on the barricades of cultural conflict, though now I was too old and wise to be ignorant about which side I was on, even if I was still too poor to do much about it.

Erik had hoped to sell his inexpensive tiny-house prototype to the cities of the Bay, which would produce them en masse and distribute them to the poor. (Oakland did eventually experiment with tiny-house villages, though they hired architecture firms to design them rather than an amateur like Erik. The venture houses less than 5 percent of the city’s homeless population.) Erik had gotten as far as building two prototypes in his backyard before the effort stalled, leaving one of the unfinished structures vacant for me.

The twin building, an identical shed overflowing with tools, rusty bike frames, and wood scraps, stood beside my shack. Between the two was a firepit where someone had spit-roasted a gym sock and where I sat some nights and drank beer. Along a fence was a chicken coop, home to a forlorn cock named Pepper who later that winter would be murdered by one of the dozen raccoons that haunted the abandoned house next door, which had just been sold to a couple of engineers at Google.

“Gimme Shelter”, Wes Enzinna, Harper’s