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A Roundhouse is Not a Gazebo: Awkward Moments in Radical Real Estate Law


Dorian Payán is Director of Holistic Land Relations at the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), as well as Co-Director of and Apprentice with SELC's Radical Real Estate Law School.

Christine Hernandez is Co-Director of and Apprentice with the Sustainable Economies Law Center's Radical Real Estate Law School.

Alejandra Cruz Olveda is a Staff Attorney with the Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Chris Tittle is Director of Land and Housing Justice at the Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Janelle Orsi is a Co-Founder of and Staff Attorney with the Sustainable Economies Law Center.

This post concludes our symposium on decommodifying urban property. Read the entire series here.


“Alienable?? The law says land must be … [client chokes and stares at us in disbelief] … alienable??” As legal workers practicing under the Radical Real Estate Law School at the Sustainable Economies Law Center, we’ve had many such awkward moments with clients. We’d like to share some here, because they’ve transformed our approach to this work.

We do legal work with several Indigenous- and Black-led groups deeply rooted in collective liberation and racial justice struggles. We call them our “clients,” even when it’s clear that we are the ones learning the most from the relationship. Our legal training makes us prone to searching for clever legal “tools” and structures to decommodify land. We talk of “implementing” easements and land trusts to remove land from the speculative market, in the name of economic justice. But what does it feel like to show up to client meetings with these tools in hand? 

“Awkward” is a nice way of putting it. Our guts tell us it’s something more: To be perfectly frank, it sometimes feels violent. 

Our clients often encourage us to lay down our legal tools, step into their world, and see what they see. Many of us, especially those of us from Black and brown, working class communities, are reminded of the figurative (and literal) fences we jumped as kids and young adults before we were force-fed the logic of the dominant culture that told us that these fences are not only real, but insurmountable. Like seeing a dear, old friend, we are reminded of parts of ourselves that have been lying dormant since we opted to develop our lawyer brains. Whether through their Indigenous cultural upbringings, deep bodily intuitions, or immersion in liberatory perspectives, our clients have a very different understanding of land and their relationship to it. Land is not a “thing” that a human can own. Rather, it’s a web of relationships of which we humans are simply one part. This web of relationships takes care of us, and we take care of the web. Even in the context of urban residential and commercial real estate, this is not a relationship of property, but of kinship. Practicing “radical real estate law,” to us, means letting this worldview be our starting point for any work we do. Below are several anecdotes about how this is transforming how we do our work.

“We don’t want to be landlords.”

A few years ago, the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative adopted a tagline: “Land Without Landlords.” My lawyer-brain responded with: “Technically, the Cooperative holds title to land and is a landlord.” Now I chuckle at myself, because “Land Without Landlords” has since become a powerful force shaping my mind and work. Other clients have visceral reactions to being a “landlord.” Why? I’ve learned it’s about relationships. 

Imagine a tribe takes title to returned urban lands. A boilerplate lease for tribal members could be deeply disruptive of the long-term relationships, care, and custom that may already constitute an informal kind of “law” governing the group. A relationship of landlord-tenant typically connotes opposition, and lawyers reinforce this. Many lawyers think it’s their duty to write contracts that spell out hard commitments and clear consequences for deviation. Does this protect clients? Or are clients better protected by letting relationships and customs guide the arrangement? Is there a balance? 

These are questions we’re navigating with each client, while experimenting with different approaches to co-creating documents. The documents aren’t about creating alienable commodities. They are about creating relationships. You’ll see examples here, here, and here.

  – Janelle Orsi

“The land is eager to speak.”

The Shelterwood Collective, a BIPOC collective of land stewards, recently “paid ransom” on 900 acres of forest, streams, meadows, and former summer camp infrastructure as part of their project to create a healing space for QTBIPOC people that also heals the land itself after many decades of extractive relations between humans and the complex web of forest ecology. Throughout our work with them, they lovingly insisted on including the land itself as a partner. This included a full day in ceremony with the land, listening to its needs, longings, and intelligences, asking how to be accountable to the land itself. What became clear to all who participated in that process was that “the land is eager to speak,” but it needs people who will listen. 

How do you articulate a reciprocal and reverential relationship with land to the very institutions – the Assessor’s Office, Board of Equalization, Internal Revenue Service, etc. – enforcing a commodified relationship to land that’s at the root of the very violence they seek to heal? 

Together we explored creative ways to honor and translate the voices of the land while navigating the immense bureaucracy necessary to maintain the illusion of private property. This tension pushed me to expand my imagination of what’s possible when we center the demands of the more-than-human world itself, and reminded me of what’s possible when I slow down to listen. And it’s a tension that continues to animate our work with so many clients on the frontlines of decommodifying and decolonizing land relations – how to navigate a colonizer’s legal system while creating futures that transcend it.    

– Chris Tittle 

“A roundhouse is not a gazebo.”

Are we caring for our descendants and honoring our ancestors by clinging to the law as a tool for liberation? This is a question that we have been confronted with as we gain experience providing legal support to Black and Indigenous land stewards working to reclaim ancestral land to resist and survive. The legal solutions that we offer, intending to circumvent the oppressive structures burdening these groups, feel like an innocuous work-around for some. There are instances, however, where it seems that the solutions that we have to offer water down the cultural and spiritual legacy of these groups—the healing medicine for us all. 

The Winnemem Wintu tribe of Shasta County is fighting for survival. They care for each other and the land in a manner that boldly affirms the power of love and mutuality over fear and separation, in spite of decades of violence and brutality enacted against them. So what happens when you try to fit this powerful and resilient web of relationships into a legal entity? The response that we’ve received on this front from the tribe’s leader has been particularly illuminating.  The Winnemem Wintu are a tribe with a hereditary leader, Chief Caleen Sisk. Chief Sisk is a woman leader tasked with nurturing the mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing of an entire village, extended tribal family, and their descendents. She often struggles to balance honoring the spiritual legacy of the tribe with acquiescing to the will of the state, reporting to a Board, and adhering to the requirements of the same governments that refuse to recognize the tribe’s existence. Her imperative is to honor the guidance of her ancestors, the land, and listen with her heart to the songs of her people around the prayer circle. She can’t betray what she has been put on this earth to do.

Her son, Michael “Pom” Preston, has reminded us that many of the structures that we find ourselves in are “void of spirit.” We have been providing legal guidance for their plans to prepare the village of Tuiimyali for future residents. One important piece of this plan involves building a Tlut, or customary roundhouse for ceremonial gatherings. An example of the many legal barriers the tribe has encountered with the village project is the feasibility of building a roundhouse given zoning and building code requirements. Our initial research suggested that the roundhouse building plans would need to be altered slightly to account for certain code requirements. Pom explained to us that a roundhouse is made with wood according to a traditional design. Neglecting to follow that traditional design “would interrupt the flow of spirit,” he said. Further, a roundhouse is not explicitly named as an “approved structure” according to local zoning regulations. At one point in our research, someone asked the practical, but devastatingly absurd question: “Can we say the roundhouse is a gazebo?”  For many reasons, the answer is no.  A roundhouse is not a gazebo.

When Chief says “no,” these legal entity requirements run contrary to our principles and dignity, and when Pom says “no,” these building codes will disrupt the flow of spirit…what can we say?  We can figure out ways to apply for permission for this tribe to exist, or we can just get out of the way.  But then…what do we have to offer? I wonder.  It is in this uncertain space and time that we can disidentify from our role as lawyers and return to our humanity. When someone says “no”—a resonant “no”—you have to stop what you are doing, identify the harm you are causing or could potentially cause, and learn how you can repair that harm and truly be of service.  We are grateful for this opportunity for learning.  

Alejandra Cruz 

“Land yearns to hold us as we relate to each other.”

The Law Center’s legacy is in supporting people to create democratic structures when they choose to organize themselves, placing an emphasis on non-hierarchical and consent-based structures, rather than centering questions of entity and tax status. We ourselves practice these structures everyday, making sure we relate to the work rather than just prescribing it. 

Often, place is seen as one of many factors of an organization, when it actually seems to underpin all our work. Place tends to be seen that way because it is constantly categorized as a “thing,” rather than as a complex web of relationships. Our inability to see place as that web comes from our fragmented relationships to each other, which are reflected on the land. Indeed, many of our relationships have been shaped by the way others have shaped the land. Note, the word others can also include systems outside of us that we are coerced to embody.  Extractive economies bring assemblages of people together that shape and raze the land; redlining has shaped land by determining where we can live; borders shape land by constraining how we’re allowed to move. When the Law Center calls for democratic organization of people, it’s supporting people in their ability to make these choices themselves, rather than have decisions and consequences imposed on them. This is what we practice; this is what we preach.

What has allowed us to do the work of Radical Real Estate—and to juxtapose the apparently contradictory terms “Radical” and “Real Estate”—is holding a steadfast vision of how land yearns to hold us as we relate to each other. We navigate private property – not to seek justice in private property as we know it – but to transform our understanding of it, from thinking about property as nets of entanglement to thinking about place as a web of relationships. The Radical Real Estate Law School could not have been formed without the Law Center having first cultivated the poetry of relationships. 

– Dorian Payán