Affordable Housing on Stolen Land

by India Christian Price 

I grew up on stolen land.  But as a Black woman in the Bay Area, primarily in the East Bay and partially in the Peninsula, I never fully understood that the land was even stolen, and that’s actually where the problem began. You grow up seeing white people, wealthy people, really damn near everyone except Black people owning homes and having expensive things. And you believe that it may have always been this way, and maybe it should be this way, but there’s always this unsettling undertone that you can’t quite put your finger on.

Growing up poor and Black in the Bay Area is like going to an amusement park and not being able to get on any of the rides. You know that there are all of these opportunities for growth, you know the land is full of gold just like it was during the Gold Rush, but you don’t have access to any of it. You’ve never had any access to it, but you believe that if you work hard enough you just might get a chance to have access to this land, this stolen land that belongs to seemingly everyone but you and anyone Indigenous. But you come to realize you can never work hard enough.

I was nine years old when I first felt the sting of houselessness. My terminally ill mother and I were living with my grandparents at the time. My grandparents had recently lost their jobs as apartment managers. My grandfather had injured his back and the company didn’t want to pay worker’s comp. So my grandparents not only lost their job of 10 years, but their place of residence was also gone in the blink of an eye. Being a Black man in the ‘90s, my grandfather had a very difficult time finding a steady income, and as a result we ended up in Hayward at a dingy Motel 6. I remember at first it felt like the world was crashing down around me. Where I once had my own space, now my mother, my grandparents and I were confined to one small room with two beds. I hated it.

Every night my grandparents would argue about how they would pay their weekly rent—and to make matters worse, I was being brutally bullied at my new elementary school. It really felt like I couldn’t catch a break. There was no freedom. I felt trapped. I remember not wanting to go to school because I didn’t know what to wear to make the kids stop making fun of me. I was so frustrated with life, I took a key and began scratching myself with it until my mother came in the room and immediately began going off on me.

The solace I do remember having during that period of my life came during Christmas Eve. My mom surprised me with three new Beanie Babies: a kangaroo, a penguin and a bear. At the time, Beanie Babies were the new craze, and I was just so excited to even be able to get a gift. My mother, Natalie, always had a way of pulling me out of my dark space. She always helped me see the world as bright and beautiful, even when everything around us was bleak. My mother was the pot of gold that so many of us yearn to reap out of this stolen land. 

We lived in Motel 6 for close to a year, and during that very long year we overheard pimps, johns, sex workers, drug dealers and their users, lovers’ quarrels—the list really does go on. Finally, my grandparents found another job as apartment managers. And my mother, after seven years of waiting on an Oakland affordable housing list, was finally awarded her very own apartment. I remember feeling so excited: I was finally going to have my own room.  It seemed like the universe was finally shining down on my family and me.

And then we moved into our Oakland Housing Authority apartment in West Oakland, and it was the worst apartment I had ever seen. There was garbage piled up to our waist in the backyard, crack needles in the freezer, and I vividly remember the warm welcome my mother and I received after friends and family helped us clean the apartment of all the debris that had been left from the previous tenants: The next day, I woke up to a huge pile of human feces on our doorstep. This is what we were afforded as housing, this is what was awarded to a disabled Black woman and her daughter in Oakland. This was my experience on stolen land. Bullets flew over my head at night, and we lived in constant fear of our car being broken into. During the years we lived in  the Oakland Housing Authority apartment, we witnessed extreme police brutality, street violence, domestic abuse violence and home invasions. I could keep going with the atrocities, but then I’d be writing a book chapter instead of a short article.

Looking back on these experiences, I realize I was fortunate to even have a roof over my head, especially now looking at the current rates of houselessness in the Bay Area. But as a youth, that roof often felt like a prison. There wasn’t a safe space to play outside, and I don’t remember there being many affordable community outlets for children and inner-city youth to participate within.

My mother pushed me as hard as she could, she gave of herself as much as she could. My mother tragically died at the early age of 37, when I was only 19 years old. She left me her lottery winnings: her Oakland Housing Authority Apartment. I remember her biggest worry before she passed away was that she hadn’t left me with enough. She left me with more than what most people were left with. She left me with a place to live, and with strength. 

I would go on to move out of the state to get away from the violence of West Oakland, and pursue my dreams of becoming a nurse. In my early twenties, I believed that working within the medical system could right some of the many injustices my mother faced in that same system. Now in my mid-thirties, I realize that the vision of the future that I see for this once stolen land requires more than a Black girl leaving her home and going to school to become a nurse. It also required me to tell my story, to tell my mother’s story and to tell the story of so many other Black people, brown people, and Indigenous people’s lives in affordable housing on stolen land.

Within my mind’s eye, and hopefully very soon, I can physically envision communities of Black and other people of color working together to create a society where houselessness no longer exists. A space where over-policing is not necessary, but rather where the people police themselves, and where this adage of it taking a village comes back into play. Where there are more community centers for youths to spend their time, like the American Indian Child Resource Center where I worked as a youth. Where there are more community gardens and farms for people to learn how to grow their own food and medicine. Where there is a revised medical system, one in which a young Black woman isn’t neglected to the point of her death, where her voice is valued like all people deserve. I know these ideas are a little far fetched, but it’s a reality that existed long before this land was colonized, and it is my belief that through stories like mine and many others, we will rebuild this reality again.