Imagine land without landlords. With shared ownership and without racialized displacement. Sounds too good to be true. The East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative [EBPREC] is fighting for this future. Baratunde sits down with Executive Director Noni Session and learns how EBPREC is reclaiming their community, and building local ownership through real estate.
Baratunde Thurston 0:00
Hey, I'm Baratunde Thurston and this is How to Citizen with Baratunde. In season two, we're talking about the money, because to be real, is hard to citizen when we can barely pay the bills.
When I grew up in DC in the 1980s, it was known as chocolate city, because it was that black. Then I left dc in the mid 90s. I went off to Boston for college lived there 12 years, New York after that, mostly Brooklyn another 12 years. And in every one of these places, the neighborhoods I lived in the ones that felt so much like my childhood neighborhood, there was something changing. I couldn't put my finger on it until I revisited my hometown, my home block. And chocolate city didn't feel so chocolatey anymore, had more of a caramel flavor. My mother had to sell our home, before we fully left DC, not because she really wanted to not because we couldn't afford the payments. But because it was just too dangerous. This was the peak of the crack wars, and she was worried about the safety of her baby for good reason. So when I went back to look at our family home, my childhood home, we weren't there. The residents were a nice white couple from Iowa. Sometimes I torture myself to this day, and looking up the real estate value of that childhood home, and seeing how much wealth is not in my family. And it creates a little bit of a conflict in me because I've been a part of that change in so many neighborhoods. I've been the new money coming in. And to be honest, I like some of the new stuff. I am a sucker for an overpriced cocktail from the School of mix ology. I love fancy coffee, more foam, more happy Baratunde, that's my jam. But I'm also troubled by the idea that new folks coming into a culturally rich environment are part of the destruction of that very culture. That all this nice new stuff is not for the people who held it down for so long in their neighborhoods. And that's not right. We've got to have a different way of letting people own their community determine that future and have the benefits for themselves. I believe we can improve neighborhoods for the people already there. And I know someone who has an idea of how to do it. Who believes that nice things, including good coffee shouldn't mean displacing long term residents, because it's all about ownership. And she's at the epicenter of gentrification in the US. Oakland, California,
Noni Session 3:03
you ask how Oakland could get into the condition it's in now. No one has had a moment to stop and build a future for themselves. You better believe these hedge funds have 105 100 year plans for themselves. After the
Baratunde Thurston 3:19
break my conversation with third generation West oaklander Noni session. Let me fix my hair. Oh, your hair looks great.
Noni Session 3:35
I mean, you know that the messy Afro is a look, but it's very messy. So I have to work on
Baratunde Thurston 3:43
you just tell Noni session is the executive director of the East Bay permanent real estate cooperative, Eb preK fights gentrification in West Oakland, by buying up real estate in historically black and brown communities, and then collectively owning and managing those properties within the community. Alright, so can you introduce yourself say your name and what it is you do?
Noni Session 4:06
My name is Noni session. I am an accidental community lead movement builder, real estate developer and impact investment. galvanized. When in my actual professional training, I'm trained as a cultural anthropologist who stumbled into grassroots organizing, and here we are today.
Baratunde Thurston 4:27
Okay. Wow. We are clearly going to go on a journey with us nobody, because that was a lot of nouns. You know, we got organizer galvanizers, developer, anthropologist. Whoo, whoo. Okay. Why do you use the word accidental to describe so many of your jobs?
Noni Session 4:45
Well, I'm essentially just this little kid from West Oakland, who was raised on Sesame Street and nature TV shows, and read lots of sci fi before it was cool to read sci fi By and then I majored in black studies in cultural anthropology. And then did my doctoral work at Cornell and Nairobi on the United Nations Development Program. And when I came home after 10 years away for grad school, the city was just crazy.
Unknown Speaker 5:20
West Oakland has been a hot spot for local artists and musicians by Jessica flourish as us as gentrification transforms the neighborhood, the people who have long called at home
Unknown Speaker 5:29
are getting pushed out high rents not only forced out families, but mom and pop shops,
Unknown Speaker 5:34
he and his companies have issued at least 3000 eviction notices prostitution, crime,
Unknown Speaker 5:39
poverty, the illegal dumping the homelessness, we're like second class citizens here.
Noni Session 5:47
And it was quite accidental, because it started with me just volunteering, because I wanted to meet some people, you know, and talk about really interesting things I learned in grad school, and 10 years later, it's culminated in this work that is actually shocks me every day when I wake up. It's, it's quite powerful for me to be involved in it.
Baratunde Thurston 6:12
So where do you live now?
Noni Session 6:14
I live in West Oakland, I actually live in the house that I was raised in. I'm speaking to you from there right now, which is radically unusual, given the extreme and accelerated racialized displacement that's taken place in my city and cities like it. So I'm pretty proud of that.
Baratunde Thurston 6:31
accelerated racialized displacement. Yesterday, can you define that term, please?
Noni Session 6:38
We've lost over 50%, of Oakland, black in legacy population in the last 10 years, with a boom in our population, the ratio of people of color has dropped to such an extreme degree that you can't help but call it racialized displacement.
Baratunde Thurston 6:57
Wow, your family has been in West Oakland for how many generations,
Noni Session 7:02
my grandparents migrated here in the early 1940. So my grandparents, my cousins, my aunt's my uncle's, my dad, my my mom, my sisters, my brothers. And then I have another generation after me as I was a teenage mother. So I now have a very, very, very adult daughter, living her life here as well.
Baratunde Thurston 7:25
So what does it mean to you to have so many generations from your family be based in West Oakland,
Noni Session 7:32
I think prior to this 10 year arc, it didn't mean a lot. I did not understand the privilege of being grounded in a place for generations. And when I compare myself to my counterparts who've moved a lot, or who have had to live squarely in white dominated situations, I realized it was almost as if I was raised in a royal or clustered or elite situation where my identity was reinforced on a daily basis, we were well known, our life was stable and predictable. And it really gives you this grounding, to both claim and imagine a future for yourself that I think a lot of people around me haven't had the privilege to capture in their life trajectory.
Baratunde Thurston 8:23
You use the word wealth to describe what your family gave you. And I suspect you don't mean buried chests of gold or stock certificates. How do you define this wealth that your family left for you in West Oakland,
Noni Session 8:40
um, I think I define it as identity, right? As a well, from which I can gather new creative material, I think that it really drives a lot of the underlying mission and political philosophy of my work now. And that that is the definition of culture and black Americans as one of the clear landless people on this planet. It's one reason that we've had such complications with getting a foothold here, and that we don't have a firm place to retire ourselves to, to define and build for the next generation. We are in a constant state of rebuilding, not just generation to generation, I mean, day to day, month to month, year to year. So that is really the definition of wealth.
Baratunde Thurston 9:34
Can you describe your West Oakland? What does it look like? What does it smell like? Who's in it?
Noni Session 9:40
Lots of oak trees and big, wide, empty streets. You know, I think as a kid, and as black Americans, we still thought we were living in a place that would show up for us and rescue us. So despite Oakland being empty, washed out city, we at least were Left alone to our class identities and our daily goings on. My parents were small business owners, my mother ran a boarding care home for developmentally disabled adults. And so I was really safe on the same streets that most people were not safe on. Nobody bothered this little black kid. I would go to bookstores and hang out for hours, I would go to West Oakland public library to that like quiet, warm, muted space and lay on the floor and read book after book and then skip down these wide empty silent boulevards. It was open space for me, it was a super quiet safe space
Baratunde Thurston 10:39
and describe your West Oakland today.
Unknown Speaker 10:45
You could call this stretch of road homeless lane. It's an encampment that has grown so large, you can see it spilling out onto the roadway. There are hundreds of similar tent cities across Silicon Valley, all within a few miles of the world's most profitable tech companies,
Noni Session 11:00
all of those wide open boulevards, they're stacked neck high with tents, and lots of discarded hoarded goods. But it's sporadic, right? If you don't know West Oakland, Google with its racialized and class algorithms will direct you right around those hotspots of neglect. The funny thing is, the boulevards are still wide open, the skies are still huge. So there's still this hopefulness. Wow, we stand next to Stark poverty.
Baratunde Thurston 11:33
How do you explain the change in the West Oakland of your youth versus your description of the West Oakland of today? What happened?
Noni Session 11:43
You know, it was it was a ghost town when I was growing up because it was in the middle of, of the Reagan years and benign neglect.
Unknown Speaker 11:49
For decades. We have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future, for the temporary convenience
Baratunde Thurston 11:58
of the present. What is what is benign neglect,
Noni Session 12:01
that was an economic policy of the Reagan years, that was when you started to see a lot of money and resources pulled out of urban cities. And that is really what accelerated urban decline and the loss of value in urban communities, which could then be preyed on by speculators, right, folks had a plan for Oakland that most of us were not privy to. It's a hot market. And there's very little care and forethought in planning for lives that have been led here for generations. So it's a fearful, insecure place under the surface of these bright white boulevards.
Baratunde Thurston 12:40
What's a hot market? What does that mean?
Noni Session 12:43
That means that after I watched my neighbors across the street be removed by the share of the house with two tiny eight by eight bedrooms, the house immediately sold for 1.4 million. Yeah, that's a hot market.
Baratunde Thurston 12:57
So what's what's your home ownership situation? Are you renting Are you owning in this home that you're living in yourself?
Noni Session 13:05
Well, interesting enough, in the subprime lending of the late 80s and early 90s, my mother also lost this house, my amazing maternal uncle bought it, to keep it from going back on the speculative market. And we paid all the expenses, but he maintained it as the owner of record until someone could get another mortgage. And that has just been recently me. And I close escrow on my childhood home September 3, of 2020, the whole family breathed the sigh of relief I'm breathing in for you, I can feel the stability under your feet.
Baratunde Thurston 13:47
What do you mean, when you say speculative market, you were able to keep your family home out of the speculative market?
Noni Session 13:56
Well, you know, we're currently living under a financial regime that's been in development for a long time, but is really accelerated, and that everything around you is a commodity, the air you breathe, the water you drink. And so how currency is currently traded, is on a speculative basis of its future value. It is a gamble, or a bet on the future price of a commodity item. It's actually meant to drive up the value. It's the artificial creation of scarcity in order to create excess capital. And so when you speculate on housing, you're buying something you're holding it and reserve from the market, right meaning you're keeping housing away from people often empty, and wait for the rise in its value to create excess profit for yourself. And through that speculation, you're raising the cost and making it inaccessible
Baratunde Thurston 15:01
It sounds to me like what's happened in your area? And it's not limited to West Oakland for sure. I'm from DC, I used to live in Brooklyn, Boston, like, everywhere you look in many parts of the world, housing is not being treated as a place for people to live, but rather, as a place for people to park their money and make the money grow by raising money rather than kids inside of these homes. Is that Is that a fair rephrasing of what you just said?
Noni Session 15:28
Yes, you could, you could name them read and chat, and it would really be reflective of what's going on.
Baratunde Thurston 15:36
So what is the impact on people when housing is withheld from the market for those who want to live in it to those who want to profit from the value of the increasing, you know, financial worth of that housing?
Noni Session 15:49
Well, I mean, you circled us back around to accelerate it racialized displacement. Because not only does speculation become this increasingly tight loop of accelerating the cost of land and housing, but it means that a very specific class and group of people are not only going to be pushed out of their current housing and access to future housing, they then have to lay on the sidewalk as they watch that housing be either held in reserve, or in some manner developed for new populations that are the demand of the current labor market, which focuses in on tech. So a 7000. People scrape and Scrabble for a living. They watch new folks have $50 brunches, right outside of where their children used to play and eat their meals.
Baratunde Thurston 16:41
What's the landscape of affordable housing right now in Oakland?
Noni Session 16:45
What is the landscape of affordable housing? Well, it's the eye. It eats me inside out when people use the language of affordable housing.
Baratunde Thurston 16:57
Tell me why you mad.
Noni Session 17:00
As of 2017, the average black oaklander salary was $36,000. That same year, the average white oaklander salary as $80,000 almost all affordable housing, as it exists right now is not for the very folks who are rent burdened, or on the actual sidewalk sleeping every night. And those affordable housing developers who are trying to produce affordable housing that serves those at that median income of $36,000 are finding that they are hogtied in terms of leveraging state and federal subsidies and bond money. So all of that capital that comes from state federal money bonds still gets clustered among those who are not from the very populations affected by rent burden and rent blight. It's a game.
Baratunde Thurston 18:03
It's a game. It's a game. It's a shell game, if you will. My understanding of shell game is there's some trickery involved, that you're covering up the fact that something's not really under those shells. There's some deception of so bring me to the moment because I can I can feel the energy. You got me all fired up. I'm like, yo, they're not telling this story the right way. But it's the emotional. This has had significant impacts on people's lives and their ability to live. And you took some steps to end that game. So what does the East Bay permanent real estate cooperative do around housing.
Noni Session 18:46
The East Bay permanent real estate cooperative is a democratically led people of color, multi stakeholder cooperative that supports black brown and indigenous oaklanders. And collectively organizing, financing stewarding long term land and housing in Oakland in the East Bay. Although we are not an affordable housing developer, we develop permanent and affordable land and housing for people to live in. Dip back into generation after generation and through our bylaws. we restrict ourselves from ever selling it or using it exploitative Lee. So there's a guarantee of permanence and a future for people who invest in our vision.
Baratunde Thurston 19:34
So you have created a different way for people in a community to own land and buildings and housing in their community. And the result is what? What's different
Noni Session 19:55
The result is the rebuilding of a community What is happening in Oakland, and cities like it is unchecked speculation where the city is allowing folks who actually don't understand community development to stick buildings in arbitrary open spaces, and then sell off the fractions to people who are unconnected to the outcome of the place in which they buy the item. The idea even. And so there is a weird disconnection between where and how you build what and who and what it's built for.
Baratunde Thurston 20:36
After the break, what happens when instead of a corporate developer owning the real estate in the community, it's owned by the people, what actually changes?
Hi, I'm noni. And I'm Greg. We're part of Eb prep,
Noni Session 20:58
the East Bay permanent real estate cooperative. First, we get local residents, you may grade your mom, your neighbor, to invest $1,000 a piece into our collective fun with a lot of people, that's a lot of money,
Baratunde Thurston 21:12
then Eb preK uses that money to buy properties in Oakland and the East Bay. We've already picked out properties where long term tenants are in danger of being pushed out. And once we buy the property to people who already live in work, they're good to stay. I think I understand how your approach is different. It is grounded in the community. It is collective with the community, the ownership sounds like it's distributed among the community, not just in the single hand of one rich corporation or maybe even one very wealthy individual, as is the case with many a building. Why did you choose the co op model? Not the nonprofit model for this land and housing need?
Noni Session 21:54
Well, well, there's a couple of reasons. One is sort of a core underlying philosophical and political reason. Folks like W. Eb Dubois, Fannie Lou Hamer,
Unknown Speaker 22:03
we just thought, you know, if we had land to roll some stuff on man, that would be a help to us, because
Noni Session 22:10
they were not civil rights activists first and then cooperators. They were co operators first and then became civil rights activists.
Unknown Speaker 22:18
So we founded freedom phones, in 1969. The plan of the thing is that it didn't grow to produce. I know, the people just won't know what.
Noni Session 22:33
From the day that change dropped off of us. After emancipation, we knew that cooperative and collective economics were our answer. On the North Carolina coast, we had over 100 hectares of cooperative land, for which over the next 100 years, we were judicially an extra judicially dispossessed of that land. But we've always known the solution. And what I try to communicate to people is that we work on this sort of individualistic rhetoric, but even if you look at hedge funds, you look at speculative development. Those are collectives of people combining their economic and political power to create an outcome. So that's number one. Collective economics is the way of the world, just those of us who are on the ground, scrabbling don't understand that.
Baratunde Thurston 23:25
That's an important point, because I think a lot of folks here collective economics cooperative economics, that's communist Mao with socialist leftist, but a corporation is a collection of people's interests aligned boards of directors, shareholders, so we're all operating as a part of some collective, whether we name it that or not. Exactly, exactly. So tell me what it looks like on the ground. What have you accomplished? What have you done?
Noni Session 23:57
So we're very new, and we have a grand vision. So right now we are the owners of two land and housing acquisitions. So our first is a multi unit building that has teachers and lawyers and activists and gardeners who live there are multiple gardeners, you have multiple gardeners, gardeners, yeah, yeah, you were in Oakland, like urban gardening is the deal, right? No play, um, and they're very busy, active people. One of them is the founder of community democracy project, which is working to change the city charter in Oakland, so that Oakland ders can participate in defining the city budget. Another is a founder of the first people of color cooperative coffee roaster in Berkeley, right. These are folks who are working in and for our community, and now they pay rent at about 120 bucks, when most people are paying 1500 to 2600 for the same square footage. Our second acquisition is a single family home in Berkeley. California that has a detached dance studio. And there were housing to black women artists, one who's formerly homeless with a darter. And the interview was really about their vision, as opposed to them being able to pass a credit check and show us that they hadn't been a victim of other predatory housing situations, which often result in evictions, right. And in addition, those two women who are now living in this amazing, beautiful shingled house in Berkeley, they are now launching a business out of the dance studio for an additional stream of income because they are active members of the arts community, right. This is transforming people's futures. And so our current acquisition, and this is this is our biggest one yet. And we're really going out on a limb to really show the proof of concept for this model. It's on historic Seventh Street, which has been the heart of the gutting of Oakland. And so we're taking this historic corridor that used to be called the Harlem of the West, right, some of the greatest acts in black history, and it was a bustling black business district. It's been a ghost town for 30 years, and people have tried over and over again to restart that corridor. And so we're acquiring Esther's orbit room, jazz and supper club, and we're creating three footprints of commercial ground floor space for a co op, where one part is intended to be a performance venue and a bar. The middle part is a cafe and coffee shop where the young can come to spoken word and open mic and open jam. And the far right space is a fine arts and movement arts gallery. above it, there are three units of cooperative cohousing, where we will be grounding Black Arts, housing cooperatives in to start to ground the community back into the actual physical space of the street. And we have a back parking lot that's part of this acquisition and really wide like a seven foot wide sidewalks. We're going to be grounding the freedom farmers market, which is a black farmers market. It's been displaced again and again over the last like nine years. So Esther's orbit room cultural revival project is the first acquisition among many for what we have named the Seventh Street cooperative cultural corridor revitalization plan. It is a site specific plan that thinks about the people and the places that exist, for which you build the thing, that commodity object.
Baratunde Thurston 27:31
You described people who are living in these cooperatively owned units as resident owners, why is ownership important to them, and to you and to West Oakland.
Noni Session 27:45
I mean, in the most literal sense, land is the ground upon which we define our past and our future. Without land without permanence. The past in the future go up in smoke, they disappear. There's nothing to connect you from before. There's there's very little the ground you to after. So ownership permanence is critical for culture building identity, building the building of futures. You ask how Oakland could get into the condition it's in now, no one has had a moment to stop and build a future for themselves. You better believe these hedge funds have 105 100 year plans for themselves? How long? out do you think the arc is for black oaklanders plan for themselves. So this is a model for how to seam it ourselves as citizens. Structurally, identity wise, we are here we are part. But in terms of having to pick up our bags and move every generation. That is the key to this nation continuing to deny our right to the benefits of citizenship. And it's a losing battle actually. Because if you actually look across nationwide, it's not just black communities that are being eaten alive by this impermanence. We took a southern trip a couple of years ago when we were really ideating and building out this project. And we looked at Midwest cities, we looked at southern cities, there are ghost towns Baratunde. No one is thinking about this widening gap of impermanence and corporate ownership of people's homes or their histories, or their stories of their cultures. So this is a model for folks who want to use their money in a more ethical manner to divest from extractive industries to invest in models that can assure them their modest return, our return is only 1.5%. Right? But it's enough to build hope and a future For people,
Baratunde Thurston 30:02
you shared a bit about what it felt like to reclaim your family home for a member of the West Oakland community. How do they respond with this new possibility, from being unable to afford any living in the community they grew up in, to now having a chance to own and define the future of that community they know and love.
Noni Session 30:30
I think there are stages to it, if you think of like the stages of grief or a healing. So the first response for the most underserved is kind of like disbelief, right? Like you've heard it before. So many organizations, so many nonprofits coming through doing a focus group, putting butcher paper on the walls, and like saying, like, we want your ideas, we're here to support you. And you really never hear from them again. Or maybe you see I'm sort of in the distance, supporting someone who's not you, and probably not as brown as you. And then the next stage, when they see that we're actually doing the things we say we're doing is hope, and excitement, and investment. And then the next page is kind of a stage of dismay, because the arc of a real estate project is a long, gritty arc. And it's slow. And we're moving into the next stage where we're starting to be able to share why this thing takes so long, why it's taken us four years to get to the place where we can have the capacity to raise $50 million of non extractive capital. And so all of the emotions are there, because all of us want to stay here.
Baratunde Thurston 31:41
Well, that leads me to, you know, this is not a problem unique to West Oakland. Are you in conversations with people in other cities? Is there a way for them to pick up this model and work on it themselves? What is the plan?
Noni Session 31:53
Absolutely, we have so far shared in great detail with probably 15 to 30 nascent organizations, nationwide, two or three International. So for example, an organization called brick by brick and kaback, the year before last had really hit a wall. And they flew me out there and I spent a week with them, and sort of like took the project apart. And now they're launching their first project in partnership with the city of Montreal.
Baratunde Thurston 32:27
You're very busy, a lot of cities depending on you to save them, including the one you are a part of. However, I got to ask you this. How do you define what a citizen is?
Noni Session 32:35
A citizen is one who takes ownership and responsibility over their space. But I think a better way to define citizen is how the Quakers define citizen. The Quakers are friends, were a friend, to everyone were a friend to our neighbors, were a friend to our enemies. Were a friend to our land, collective care over a joint space, pick up trash on your street and be nice to the old lady on the bus
Baratunde Thurston 33:04
to get to be nice at old lady on the bus. I mean, who's being mean to the old lady on the bus. This has been so wonderful. Thank you, Tony. I appreciate it so much.
What's exciting about this, to me, is that I've seen what the world looks like. When we let money take over our neighborhoods. It looks like abandoned apartment buildings that are old and crumbling, or empty and abandoned apartment buildings that are new and unaffordable to anyone, or just looks like the same strip mall, everywhere, or the same furniture shop everywhere the same yogurt stand everywhere. That's not culture that's financially rich, but culturally poor. And I'm excited for our neighborhoods, to feel different, again, to be rooted, not just in money, but in people again, I want to live in this world where we can preserve the culture of a community and have it be owned by the people who've lived in that community. So how do we protect that and make sure that the wealth built there, benefits the many and doesn't just fall into a few hands, or a few corporations. Next week, I'm talking to someone who's doing just that, protecting our communities from big business, and she's taking on perhaps the biggest business of them all.
Stacy Mitchell 34:40
We're gonna have a real fight on our hands as citizens about whether we live in a country that we control that we set the rules for or a country where Amazon decides how our economy works. Next week,
Baratunde Thurston 34:53
my interview with Stacy Mitchell and now, our apprentice Sam with some actions you can Do
Unknown Speaker 35:08
wherever you is home. Take a moment to reflect on where you live. How did you end up there? Was it based on real estate speculation, rental prices, family history, relationship ties are something else. really consider the role privilege has played in determining your place of residence. Learn more about gentrification, gentrification is a buzzword, but there's a lot more to it. To learn more, check out the podcast, there goes the neighborhood, watch the documentary city rising, or read the book The color of law. Lastly, invest in communities, not commodities. Check out Eevee prep.org. That's ebprec.org. To find out ways you can invest in community based real estate or started this model where you live. If you're in the Oakland area, you could join the cooperative and become a community owner for just $10 a month. Or if you want to make a non extractive but savvy real estate investment, you could also invest in one of Eb practice projects. And we know there are more new models like this emerging to deal with our housing and ownership crisis. So if you know any other groups, let us know. Email us at comments at how to citizen.com
Baratunde Thurston 36:26
if you take any of these actions, please brag about yourself online using the hashtag #howtocitizen visit howtocitizen.com to sign up for our newsletter, we'll learn about upcoming events, or even more stuff than that. And if you'd like the show, spread the word tell somebody if you don't definitely just keep it to yourself. Appreciate you. How to Citizen with Baraunde is a production of IHeartRadio podcasts and dustlike productions. Our executive producers are me Baratunde Thurston, Elizabeth Stewart and Misha Yusef. Our producers are Stephanie Comb and Allie Kilt. Kelly Prime is our editor. Valentino Rivera is our engineer. And Sam Paulson is our printers. Original Music by Andrew Eapen. This episode was produced and sound designed by Stephanie Cohn. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from IHeartRadio.
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