Living in a black hole: Hellarity House

Hellarity House in Oakland, CA, though frequently mistaken for a squat, is actually a house that defies ownership or legal status of any kind. For fifteen years it has been a group living experiment, providing a space where people could live, create art, music, direct action, and filth utterly unfettered by money or the need to pay rent. No one thought it would last as long as it has — all because long-term residents stood up to defend their home when it was threatened by a landlord’s bankruptcy and because they consistently ignored the certainty that the legal system would crush them. In so doing they gleaned loads we could all learn from about life in an anarchist collective and life in the court system.

In these days of nationwide forclosures and evictions, ask yourself: what if everyone facing the loss of their house were to stay and continue to live in their houses despite bank orders? Hellarity demonstractes that with legal creativity, tenacity, and community, people can go on living in their houses for years. The struggle might be scary and contentious at times — it might make those who stand to profit from your eviction irrationally angry and they might resort to physical intimidation or even arson to try to get you out. But if hundreds or thousands assumed the risks to defend our homes,we could declare independence from the oppressive system and live free, not working a job to be robbed for rent.

The name “Hellarity House” came from a phrase coined by Steve Wingnut, who was playing with a devil puppet while ad-libbing a commercial for a sitcom starring Satan and two lesbians who move into a house together, Three’s Company style. Wingnut, slumped on the couch behind the puppet, had everyone in stitches. The tag line for the made-up sitcom was “… And Hell-arity ensues!” The joke fit the scenario of the house in a way everyone there understood implicitly. The name stuck.

The history of the Hellarity House started in the mid-nineties when an activist known as Sand bought a handful of houses throughout the Bay Area with money from an insurance settlement. He had a vision he called “Green Plan” that involved creating a network of eco-cooperative houses that would be oases of alternative living, gardens, and healthy food in decaying urban landscapes. He even envisioned creating a micro-economy within the movement, and therefore encouraged people to earn their stay by doing work on the houses and in The Little Planet, the cafe he helped start on Adeline Street in Berkeley. He occasionally collected membership dues, but he did not see himself as a landlord and did not collect “rent”.

Sand bargained for eco-minded people who were willing to follow his lead, but what the house bred was anarchy, and with it a myriad of ideologies and critiques of anyone seen to be too much in control. However, Sand could not recoup money loaned by creditors, so eventually, driven deep into debt and disillusioned by his experience as an eco-visionary property owner, he declared bankruptcy, at which point the federal courts took over his properties and sold them off.

The official, court-sanctioned story of Hellarity is that Pradeep Pal, the owner of a Berkeley garage, has been suing named defendents of Hellarity since March 2005 for quiet title, court acknowledgment of his sole ownership of the property, and ejectment of residents.

Pal bought the house in late 2004 at auction by outbidding a group that put money together to buy Hellarity and keep it a cooperative, which it had been for nearly ten years prior. Residents brought protests signs and chants to the auctions, warning everyone who bid what they were threatening to destroy, and successfully got the auctions postponed twice, but in the end the courts, with their “procedural biases” that amount to unapologetic discrimination in favor of the socio-economically powerful and well-connected, allowed Pal to turn in his down payment over a month late instead of disqualifying his bid when it became clear he didn’t even have the money.

The house was united in protest against the bankruptcy court’s attempts to sell the house at auction without considering the rights of the people who lived there. There was a constant feeling that the house was under siege after an incident involving real estate agent, who was barred entrance when he came to show the house to a prospective buyer. He forced his way onto the property and assaulted a housemember, then left, vowing to find someone to buy the house and “make sure you get kicked out.”

Hellarity’s case survived a day in court when Pal failed to appear at the hearing on February 28, 2008 and was denied a civilly uncontested claim to the house. The victory however was followed by someone downstairs discovering a fire upstairs at 3:30 in the morning. Residents started to fight the blaze while the fire department was called, they came with hoses and chainsaws to bust open the doors, walls, and floors.

When the immediate crises was over, remnants of two earlier fires were found. One, under the sink in the bathroom ,had melted the flush bucket, still full of water, which had extinguished the fire and dripped through the ceiling downstairs. The other was discovered in a bedroom locked with a padlock. There was a charred broom inside, burnt matches on the floor, and a gas can outside on the lawn. All clear signs of arson.

In the wake of the fire, there may be increased beat cop “awareness” of the existence of Hellarity, and the fact that it is a condemed building, so being seen on the premises is risky. There is reason to fear reprisal from legal authorities who do not appreciate the subtle distinctions between Hellarity and a squat, or the completely unsubtle distinction between people with radical ideas and people who endorse violence and the reckless endangerment of human lives. The cops were cooperative in investigating the possible arson until one such cop saw Hellarity referred to online as a squat and thus had a change of heart. But as ever there is still a collective community struggling to make Helllarity habitable, beautiful and free and clear of legal entanglements.

To this day Sand harbors a special resentment for the residents of Hellarity. Nevertheless, some of Sand’s vision was adopted. People cooked and shared a meal on Tuesday nights and kept the kitchen vegetarian. There has never been a TV in the common areas. There has frequently been a vegetable garden in the back. Hellarity has provided badly-needed greening in the midst of urban decay and personal sanctuary for people with no place else to go, but from the start Hellarity had some particularities that made it less than the stuff of Utopia.

Of the social experiment that was living in the Hellarity House, one long-term resident commented that, “It was inspiring to see that people could exist outside of the capitalist system, because people weren’t paying rent and didn’t own the property and there was an open door where people could show up. On the other hand it was very disillusioning to see people not able to agree to anything, and to see just how parasitic people could be.”

But in the meantime, a flourishing community had developed around the opportunity he was affording people — albeit not the community he had quite envisioned.

Formulating the guest policy was the first of many important learning experiences for the collective. “We made mistakes in the beginning — by assuming everyone would have vegan-friendly skills, were not going to smoke crack in the living room, were going to be quiet after midnight, and were not going to be listening to gangsta rap that says bitch every third word in the common areas,” remembers one former resident. “But that gave me an appreciation for process more than just the end results of things — sometimes things come from process that will have an effect maybe a year down the line — including making mistakes and having to correct them.”

the house evolved into a community space, a space for forming alliances, working on collaborative projects, and sharing skills. The collective transformed what was zoned to be a private home into a commons.

Almost structurally there was a tension between those living upstairs and those living downstairs, as if the slapdash roof-raising the owner before Sand perpetrated without a permit before he sold it had created two different houses hopelessly entangled in the fact that they had to share a shower, since the only shower was downstairs, and share a stove, since the bottom-story addition project had punctured the gas lines upstairs and gotten them shut off. The guests mostly stayed downstairs, and the upstairs residents could never shake the desire to cloister themselves away from that madness.

But process, according to Nightshade, might be the most positive lesson he has taken away from that tension, too. He remembers when Gnome built a room in the upstairs common space that closed it off from the rest of the house, prompting an epic eight hour meeting at which housemates shared the stories of where they had been before they came to Hellarity House in order to explore more deeply what their underlying assumptions were about the house.

Later, the house faced a more divisive challenge – how to respond to the lawsuit being filed by Pal to get them evicted. There was the argument, both ideological and practical, for not participating in government processes in which your cause seems predetermined to lose. On the other hand, it is only because of the efforts of those who took on the legal fight that Hellarity still has a chance of surviving today.

For the last three years plaintiffs and defendants at Hellarity have been exchanging paperwork. Court documents from the discovery process, all available online, document some extremely brilliant DIY legal work that prevented the suit from succeeding on the grounds of procedural default – e.g. because the defendants failed to file paperwork properly – and the case goes on. The next legal hearing for the suit against Hellarity is set for [May 28]. Come if you want, or if you or someone you know is facing eviction or foreclosure, take all you can from what has ensued at Hellarity and start a résistance movement all your own.