One day in late March, Nicolas was working at the West Oakland garden where he lives in a tiny house, when three strangers showed up.

The visitors, two older men and one of their sons, told him they’d just bought the 15th Street property. 

The announcement wasn’t a total surprise to Nicolas or his partner Angeles Gottheil, who’ve both lived at the garden since early 2020. They knew the lot had recently been sold for $274,000 in an online auction of tax-defaulted properties—houses and vacant land where the owner hasn’t paid taxes for at least five years. 

In fact, the residents felt some relief. 

When they’d heard about the auction, they knew it would take significant time and fundraising to come up with the money to buy the property themselves, so they reached out to elected officials to see if they could work out a deal. They were dismayed to see it sold anyway, and feared that they’d learn about a corporate buyer coming in to evict them. Instead, it was these three men.

“We all joked about them not being BlackRock,” said Nicolas, referring to the massive investment firm that’s scooped up tens of thousands of homes across the country. “They’re human beings. And they seemed very surprised that there were people living here.” He figured they might be sympathetic to their cause.

Nicolas, Gottheil, and others who tend the garden call themselves the Coyote Bush Collective. They’re affiliated with a broader network called the Landless Peoples Alliance, which seeks to turn neglected and abandoned property, like the 15th Street site, into community gardens and tiny-house villages. They view their work as an attainable step towards addressing the housing crisis, while beautifying land that nobody else seems to care about.

From the outside, the 15th Street site doesn’t look like much. Wedged between two houses on a narrow residential street, most of the lot is screened by an oak tree and a fence. Stepping through its gate, though, you’re greeted by a garden oasis. There’s tons of drought-resistant red salvia, vegetable beds with organic arugula, mesclun, and hot chili peppers, and, of course, coyote bush, the native California shrub that the group named itself after. Gottheil said there are 37 trees on site, and a family of scrub jay birds they’re “obsessed with.” 

Among all the plants are three wooden tiny homes, including one under construction, powered by solar panels and complemented by a composting toilet.

Nicolas shows off corn from the community garden. Credit: Amir Aziz

The collective wants the tax-auction sale to be reversed, so they can keep what they’ve built or raise funds to buy the property themselves.

“It’s clearly forgotten—no one checks on it,” said Gottheil, who began volunteering at the garden in 2015. “It’s been emergency transitional housing for various people over the years.”

Nicolas gave the visitors his phone number but he didn’t get theirs. The buyer’s name is not listed in county records since the title has not been transferred yet, and The Oaklandside was unable to contact them. 

Coyote Bush has been in touch with the county tax collector, who’s said the sale is final unless the buyers pursue a legal process to reverse it. Nobody’s heard from the men since, so for now it’s “wait and see,” Nicolas said.

Hundreds of property owners owe back-taxes in Oakland

The garden, wedged between two houses, is covered by an oak tree. Credit: Amir Aziz

At any given time, there are 700 or 800 tax-defaulted properties in Oakland, said Henry Levy, the county’s elected tax collector and treasurer. A building or empty lot goes into tax default when the owner doesn’t pay property taxes for at least five years. 

There could be many reasons a property owner doesn’t pay taxes. Often there is confusion about who’s inheriting a property when an owner dies, or other issues related to an estate. Or an owner may be unable to afford their property taxes, or unwilling to pay. 

According to the county, owners receive frequent notices of their delinquency over the five years, and can pay off their debt at any time before the sale, to get their place taken off the auction list.

Counties are required by the state to auction off these defaulted sites—typically setting the minimum bid at the amount of back taxes, plus any liens placed on the property by a city, such as for blight or nuisance. The idea is to let those jurisdictions recoup the money they’re owed. 

But Levy said state law gives him a lot of “leeway,” letting him choose not to sell some defaulted properties. “There’s a lot of reasons to pull things off an auction, mainly because there are people living there. We don’t want to aid homelessness.” Likewise if the tax collector believes a site could be used for affordable housing or public open space, he can negotiate with a city or non-profit developer instead of auctioning it.

The Alameda County auction happens every March, and it’s run by a national private contractor called Bid4Assets. All bidders must pay a $5,000 deposit to participate in the auction and are warned that the properties are sold “as is”—it’s on them to confirm the condition. 

This year, there were originally 210 properties on the list in Alameda County, 171 of which were in Oakland. All but 25 were removed by the county before the auction, and just 12 were sold.

How did the 15th Street property become one of those 12?

The site has been tax-delinquent for 25 years, since 1997. It was kept off the auction list in the past—according to Levy because the city was interested in developing housing there, and according to Coyote Bush because they negotiated with the county. Either way, it was put back on the list this year. By then it had accumulated $500,000 in back taxes. The county can lower the auction price, which it did in this case, recognizing that a small, undeveloped West Oakland lot could not sell for that much.

In the months leading up to the auction, county staffers inspect all defaulted sites and post notices there. Levy himself didn’t visit the 15th Street site until after the auction, but said he would have noticed “signs that there were people living there” if he’d gone earlier. The Coyote Bush Collective runs a free store on a set of shelves outside the lot—when The Oaklandside stopped by it was offering zines, wrenches, a frisbee, and a pair of sneakers.  The collective has also hung signs on the fence advertising their existence. 

The Coyote Bush Collective runs a “free shop” on the sidewalk outside the garden. They have plans to open a solar-powered café there, too. Credit: Amir Aziz

“It didn’t really get my attention, so basically I gave my permission” to sell it, Levy said. “I’m sorry that this happened. I would have done something about it and probably pulled it off the auction had I known.” 

He questioned why the collective didn’t contact him until the day after the property was sold.

Gottheil said they’ve been in talks with the offices of city councilmembers Carroll Fife and Rebecca Kaplan, the latter of whom they knew had contacted the county about tax-defaulted properties. They thought the place was on the county’s radar.

Regardless, Coyote Bush believes the county could choose to reverse the sale at this point. They note that there’s a disclaimer on the Bid4Assets site that warns buyers: “Alameda County reserves the right to cancel the sale of a property at any time prior to the issuance of the deed.”

Levy said that’s not the case. “I have no power to cancel the sale,” he told The Oaklandside, referencing state law that says, “The sale shall be deemed complete when full payment has been received by the tax collector.” 

He said the buyers could choose to pursue a formal “recision,” a legal process where they’d be required to prove the county did not reveal critical information about the lot before the sale. 

Previous owner was unaware of property

Flowers and vegetables abound at the Coyote Bush garden. Credit: Amir Aziz

Where are the original owners in this saga? 

County records show that a family with a Walnut Creek mailing address had owned the property since 1990.

Reached by phone this week, the owner said she had no idea she owned the property until a few days ago, and figures it’s the product of an inheritance. She’s never visited the site or heard from the county about back taxes. 

Asked whether she’d get involved with the current circumstances, she said, “I wouldn’t even step towards something I didn’t know about.”

The county says it makes an effort to reach owners before an auction, but Levy acknowledged, “Our systems aren’t really good for notifying people—it’s something I want to change.”

The longer-term history of the site is hazier. Coyote Bush was told by neighbors that there was a house on the lot that burned down. If you dig for two feet, you’ll hit a concrete foundation. But county assessor records have listed the site as “vacant residential land” since 1960.

Who should get first dibs on tax-defaulted land?

“Our daily reality,” said Nicolas, “is being flanked on all sides by million-dollar homes from 100 years ago.”

One of the modest houses next door to the Coyote Bush garden recently sold for $850,000, according to Zillow, and the one on the other side is estimated to be worth that much too—quite a bump up from the $160,000 it sold for in 2012.

With the idea of buying a home an unattainable fantasy for most Oakland residents, the Coyote Bush members are aware that “all around us in West Oakland and East Oakland, there is tons of vacant, privately owned land that people are sitting on and speculating on,” said Gottheil. Until a few years ago, she worked in financial services and rented a traditional, market-rate apartment, but she’s grown weary of “participating” in the for-profit real estate system, she said. 

Angeles Gottheil and partner Nicolas live at the Coyote Bush site and are finishing construction on a new tiny home there. Credit: Amir Aziz

“I don’t make the money anymore, and I don’t think I will ever go back to it, because it’s unsustainable,” said Gottheil, who has a nonprofit iDev Data, which builds data visualization tools to support community resource distribution and mutual aid work.

For around $3,000 apiece, you can throw up a sturdy tiny home in a matter of days, Nicolas said, and use it to house people who can’t afford to live anywhere else.

“That’s what we’re trying to do here, and why it’s so important to preserve it,” Gottheil said. “For the people who lived here before me, and the people who will live here after me.”

“They’re reclaiming land that’s been abandoned and is accumulating trash,” said Bernadette Okereke, co-founder of the Landless Peoples Alliance. “They clean it up and provide organic food for the community, for the homeless. It’s a gathering place.” 

But there are three men out there who just bought a West Oakland property they were told was available and vacant. According to county and state law, it’s rightfully theirs.

Kaplan, the city councilmember, said she’s pushing for a policy that would require counties to offer tax-defaulted properties to existing tenants or affordable housing developers before selling them to private buyers. A similar process already exists for city-owned property, through the state’s Surplus Lands Act. 

“Thousands and thousands of actual homes which could affordably house people are sold every year by counties at tax auction without going through this process—and many get sold to investor/flippers/speculators who often evict tenants and leave properties vacant,” Kaplan said in a text message. 

Recently, Alameda County partnered with nonprofit developers and the city of Oakland to build houses on tax-defaulted lots and sell them to low- and moderate-income families at below-market prices. The 2019 program, Oaktown Roots, ultimately transferred 26 properties to first-time homebuyers, Levy said. 

Other projects are in the works, but working with a nonprofit to convert a delinquent lot into a development can take years and involve complicated logistics, said Levy.

“I’m not sure the public sector is the best place to get these developed,” he said.

While the Coyote Bush Collective is interested in changing the way the county handles tax-defaulted properties, and has a number of other housing efforts underway, they’re immediately concerned with the future of their home base. 

“We’re committed to saving this place, hopefully by convincing the buyers to cancel the sale, so we don’t have to raise $274,000,” said Gottheil. “If they don’t, we’d try to negotiate with them.”