The Homeless Black Moms Who Took Over a Vacant Property Had a Big Year

“We had people reach out to us from everywhere, from Portugal and London and the Philippines and Japan.”
November 12, 2020, 4:45pm
Dominique Walker, a member of the Moms 4 Housing activist group, holds Amir Morrow, 1 year old, before announcing a deal the organization reached with Wedgewood, the property owner of the Magnolia Street home the group squatted in for 58 days, at Frank H.
Dominique Walker, a member of the Moms 4 Housing activist group, holds Amir Morrow, 1 year old, before announcing a deal the organization reached with Wedgewood, the property owner of the Magnolia Street home the group squatted in for 58 days, at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza on Monday. (Dylan Bouscher/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

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When sheriff’s deputies showed up to evict Dominique Walker and other Black homeless mothers from the vacant home they'd taken over in Oakland, their movement was just beginning.

By the time they were kicked out in January, the mothers, who called themselves Moms 4 Housing, had already occupied the modest, investor-owned home with their children for about two months and amassed a following along the way. The resulting response from police—some clad in riot gear—only drew more attention to a housing crisis in one of the wealthiest corners of the country. In the months that followed the moms’ eviction, their efforts led to a new California law to prevent corporations from purchasing foreclosed homes in bulk, among other policy proposals related to housing. And their actions also inspired other homeless people to occupy homes in cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles and fight for better housing. 

After Election Day, Walker also became one of two Moms 4 Housing organizers to score a job as an elected official. Walker, a mother of two who now has a home of her own, will also start pre-med courses in January to work toward her goal of becoming an obstetrician-gynecologist.

“It was definitely time to highlight what the new face of homelessness looks like—because it looks like your teachers, your nurses, your essential workers,” said Walker, who was elected to the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, alongside other housing activists. “We looked at who deserves housing here, and we believe all people deserve housing.” 

What Moms 4 Housing has accomplished—and the risks the women were willing to take to get there—built upon a growing tenants’ rights campaign that’s been in the works for years, driven by community organizers and renters nationwide. Their rare, high-profile occupation also echoed the coordinated “takeovers” of abandoned government properties that homeless people carried out in cities including Oakland, Philadelphia, and Detroit in 1990.

“It just reverberated throughout the world,” said Carrol Fife, a founding member of Moms 4 Housing who won her race for an Oakland City Council seat. “We had people reach out to us from everywhere, from Portugal and London and the Philippines and Japan.” 

Fife, who also serves as the director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment’s Oakland office, prevailed after her opponent, incumbent Lynette Gibson McElhaney, conceded in a stunning upset earlier this week. California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna congratulated Fife in a tweet on Tuesday and said she’d “shown that progressives win when they organize, organize, organize.”

Before the Moms 4 Housing movement began, a woman came to Fife looking for housing assistance and then attempted suicide when nothing was available. Women were already regularly telling her how the region’s rental crisis had weighed on them mentally, how they couldn’t wait any longer, and how there didn’t seem to be a remedy. 

“It was my decision to pull all of the women who came to me individually—to pull them together because I believe we’re stronger together— and say, ‘We need to do a direct action, because housing for you in your income bracket does not exist, so what do we want to do about that? We should tell the world about it and see what we can make happen,’” Fife said. 

Then, with Moms 4 Housing realized, the mothers got to work. But they were fighting an uphill battle to stay put in the Oakland residence—eviction threats were swift—and a spokesperson for the company that owned the home at the time, Wedgewood Properties, told VICE in January the company didn’t want to entertain negotiations with “squatters” as long as they were illegally occupying the property. 

“The Moms 4 Housing movement represented the beginning of what has now turned into a wave of radical action to take what we are owed.”

Still, the mothers had supporters. People can relate to barely being able to afford rent or the widespread foreclosures that displaced families in the 2008 financial crisis, Fife said. The fact that Moms 4 Housing was made up of Black women who had previously “been told to shut up, be grateful, or do more” seemed to elicit a strong response locally, Fife said.

“People in my area, in this region, were like, ‘Oh heck yeah,’” Fife said. “This is radical and revolutionary.” 

Between 2010 and 2019, the average rent in Oakland shot up from $1,396 to $2,905—a 108% increase, according to an analysis from RENTCafé, an apartment listing service. And between 2017 and 2019, the city’s homeless population increased by 47%, despite the Bay Area being a bastion of Silicon Valley excess. More than 3,000 people are unsheltered in Oakland while thousands of homes sit unoccupied. 

The moms got Wedgewood to come to the table and sell the place to a community land trust after they were evicted in January. The home will now become a headquarters for Moms 4 Housing and a place for homeless women to transition off the street, Walker said. A spokesperson for Wedgewood said the company sends “best wishes to all.”

Activists’ efforts to promote safe, affordable housing nationwide have only been fueled further by the COVID-19 pandemic, the widespread instability to pay for housing when millions are out of work, and subsequent rent strikes. Walker said she expects that occupations like the Moms 4 Housing campaign will become more commonplace, especially as moratoriums on evicting non-paying tenants expire and leave the newly poor out to dry in a country where it’s almost impossible to afford rent on a minimum wage. 

Already, some of this year’s actions have been remarkably successful. This past spring, a group of Philadelphia activists quietly moved homeless families into vacant homes owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority and demanded that the residences be given to a community land trust. After months of back-and-forth, the city and the housing authority eventually agreed to hand over 50 vacant properties, according to public radio station WHYY.

And in October, the Los Angeles homeless families who took over vacant, state-owned properties to find shelter during the pandemic announced on Facebook that they’d “legally moved into other state-owned properties in the neighborhood” after a seven-month occupation. The group, which calls itself “Reclaiming Our Homes,” said in the Facebook post that their win was made possible by “taking matters into our own hands and standing up for what is right, even if that was illegal.”

“The Moms 4 Housing movement represented the beginning of what has now turned into a wave of radical action to take what we are owed,” Tara Raghuveer, the head of KC Tenants in Kansas City, Missouri, and director of the “Homes Guarantee campaign at People’s Action, a national network of grassroots organizations. “That kind of action often has the effect, or can have the effect, of busting open public imagination about how our systems should work.”