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Bay Area Low-Income and Homeless Residents Push to Build Own Housing

POOR Magazine, a nonprofit organization wants to build four eco-friendly townhouses.

In the Bay Area, where demands for affordable housing and solutions to homelessness have reached fever pitch, some low-income and homeless residents are taking things into their own hands – by trying to build housing themselves.

POOR Magazine/Prensa Pobre, a Bay Area-based nonprofit arts and education organization founded in 1996 and led by people struggling with poverty and homelessness, wants to build four eco-friendly townhouses in a multi-use lot at 80th and MacArthur for low-income and homeless families.

Muteado Silencio, an Oakland resident who is part of the organization, spoke for the project at a press conference at Oakland City Hall in late December. “We’re not asking you to house us,” he said. “We’re asking you to let us build our own houses.”

The organization’s co-founder, Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, refers to the plan as “a poor-people led solution to homelessness.”

Their plans have garnered the support of a recently elected Richmond City Council member, Eduardo Martinez. “Laying your head down in a safe place is a human right, and as government officials, it is our job to make sure that each and every person who is under our jurisdiction has food to eat and has a place to lay their head,” he says.

Community organizer Francisco Herrera, the only Latino candidate in San Francisco’s most recent mayoral race, has also lent his support.

The plans have hit a snag, though. While they’ve passed zoning requirements, according to Gray-Garcia, obtaining a building permit is proving more difficult.

After reviewing the plans, city examiners are requiring additional safety tests on the building materials. But even if the project passes those tests, it may not get approved for a permit, according to Dunya Alwan, an Oakland-based architectural designer working on the project. “There is quite a bit of discretion in plans review and it appears that the examiners are, despite the visionary quality of it, not amenable to the project,” she says.

At issue in the approval process is an element that the nonprofit considers crucial to the project – the use of straw-bale construction for building the homes.

The vision for the project began with the purchase of the lot in 2011. The organization has since started a community garden at the site, as well as a weekly café where food is priced on a sliding scale.

For the townhomes, the organization wants to use straw-bale construction, an architectural method that uses bales of straw as a building material. Alwan notes that the method has a long history and has been used in the southwestern United States and around the globe.

It’s also affordable, she says, and locally produced and sustainable.

“These natural building materials are basically used worldwide. The building code is designed to help make us safer, but it’s not always in step with the times,” she says. “It’s more in step with certain building conventions that come out of the 20th century.”

Alwan says that the city is encouraging them to look at conventional wood frame construction, which they may have to if the straw-bale plans are rejected.

According to Gray-Garcia, the organization has so far raised about $100,000 from individual donors, enough for one of the four townhomes. She says that they’ll need $2 million to fund the entire project, which would also include a community center and a school on the site.

While being realistic about the possibility of having to shift construction methods, Alwan says she hopes “that we get the chance to work with planning and zoning and to work with the building inspectors to push this as part of a model that we can use in the Bay Area.”

Gray-Garcia agrees, and envisions the project as a “template to be shared with other communities.”

“Me and my mom were on the street when I was 11 years old. We were in and out of motels, and the cardboard motels, the streets, because poor families may not be able to afford to live in houses in this day and age,” she says. “We as poor people need to self-determine our own futures.”

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