Grassroots House Celebrates 40 Years

By Lydia Gans Special to the Planet
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 12:58:00 PM
Grassroots House members, from left John Selawsky, Henry Norr, Jane Welford, Maya Drooker, Emma Coleman, Andrea Pritchett, Sean Gallager.
Lydia Gans
Grassroots House members, from left John Selawsky, Henry Norr, Jane Welford, Maya Drooker, Emma Coleman, Andrea Pritchett, Sean Gallager.

There are probably few progressive people in Berkeley who have never had occasion to visit the Grassroots House in the 40 years since its establishment as a community space. This Sunday afternoon the house is throwing a party, promising great food and entertainment—and a pitch for much-needed donations.  

Grassroots House, at 2022 Blake St., is a community building that provides office and meeting space for a number of social justice organizations. 

“This house was purchased in the late ‘60s by a variety of activists,” said Andrea Pritchett of Copwatch. “Originally four people put their names on the lease ... so 40 years ago very far-thinking people bought the house and they made it available to the community.”  

It’s called Grassroots House because “there was a community newspaper called Grassroots that was completely published in this house,” Pritchett explained. “When Copwatch came in here in 1991, Tenant Action Project was here and the Berkeley Tenants Union was here, but the other rooms in the house had mimeograph machines, (and) the stuff to print out the Grassroots paper.”  

Over the years as the printing equipment was removed the house was adapted to new uses. A wheelchair ramp was constructed; the inside was carved up into a maze of offices and storage rooms and two former bedrooms in the rear were merged into one large meeting room. It has become a home for a community. Because the property taxes are low and the overhead is minimal it’s possible to provide space at low rents for groups that would otherwise not be able to afford it. Copwatch, for example, pays $150 a month. Nobody lives in the house, it operates like a cooperative, run by volunteers. In taking care of the place, Pritchett explained, “we all have tasks. One group takes care of the kitchen one does the bathroom; we all have tasks like roommates in a coop. It works. We’re trying to keep that spirit alive.” 

Along with Copwatch, the Green Party, International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the Wobblies (IWW— yes, they’re still here) and the Prison Literature Project are long-time tenants. Many other groups meet there. “When the Berkeley Bowl workers were trying to get themselves together,” Pritchett recalled, “they would meet in the back room. Anti-war groups started here, Van Jones’ study group was here—all kinds of little seedling projects that sometimes turn into organizations and sometimes don’t.” 

For 40 years the legal status of Grassroots House has been stable but the activists realized that problems could crop up. As Pritchett explained, “The folks who originally put their names on the lease understood that eventually, because it was privately held—essentially they were just generous hippy types who gave it to the folks—legalistically their names were on it. So if something happened to them, if they passed on, maybe a relative could force the sale of the house and kick all these groups out. So we realized that we had to go ahead and turn this house into a nonprofit.” John Selawsky, a long-time Green Party activist involved with Grassroots House, did much of the work to help it obtain 501(c)3 nonprofit status. This gives it the security of being controlled by the people who are there and also means they can sponsor other groups under their financial umbrella.  

But the new status also creates some financial difficulties. The change in ownership meant a reassessment of the property from something like $40,000 that it was 40 years ago to $400,000 now, resulting in a huge increase in property taxes. There were also transfer taxes and other fees that needed to be paid. The requirements of nonprofit status limit how much they can raise the rents without getting donations from other sources. They also need money to make some urgent repairs to the building, which, at about 80, is showing its age. They are hoping that this fundraising event and appeals to the community will get the house back on its financial feet. 

“I’ve always seen this as a community asset,” said Selawsky, “and I’ve always wanted to ensure that we kept it as a community asset. And we’ve been successful in doing that. Now we have to do the fundraising and the community organizing to make sure that people know we’re here, making sure people realize what we have here is an asset for the activist community and make sure to perpetuate that. This is the only one in Berkeley that I know of.” 

“This house represents the last kind of communal, cooperative houses in Berkeley,” added Pritchett. “They used to be a dime a dozen in Berkeley ... this is probably one of the last ones left. And this is a vibrant, active center.”