On November 18, a group of Black mothers walked up the staircase of 2928 Magnolia Street, a long-vacant three-bedroom house in Oakland, California, and opened the door. They didn’t need to break the lock, as it had previously been squatted in. They began living inside. They stayed when the company that owned the house began eviction proceedings against them. As the court battle played out, they become icons of the fight against homelessness, a journey that culminated with them being evicted by cops in riot gear early Tuesday morning.
In the 57 days between occupation and eviction, the mothers attracted an immense amount of local media attention, highlighted the inherent injustices of a housing system delivered through capitalism, and became symbols for people around the country and world who are experiencing their own forms of housing insecurity.
The initial choice to illegally occupy a house was an act of desperation that reflected how difficult—impossible, even—it is for working-class people to find housing they can afford in the Bay Area, where luxury condos sit side-by-side with tent cities. The mothers included 34-year-old Dominique Walker, who’d fled domestic violence in Mississippi to return home, but couldn't afford a place to stay—one landlord asked her for an exorbitant $8,000 move-in fee. Another mother was Sameerah Karim, 41, who worked three jobs but still couldn’t afford rent. They were joined by three other mothers similarly experiencing homelessness—Tolani King, Misty Cross, and Sharena Thomas—and their children.
But the occupation was also a protest against these conditions. Under the name Moms 4 Housing, the mothers worked with the guidance of the activist group ACCE Action to bring attention to their cause. It was old school direct action with the idea that in order to change the law you first must break it.
As tech capital has flooded the Bay Area, the housing supply has failed to keep up with the influx of jobs and money. Getting a place to live is so expensive that in some parts of the Bay Area, you’re considered "middle class" if you make $200,000 a year. As wealthy newcomers displaced longtime residents, and as housing scarcity left many unable to afford a roof over their heads, homelessness reached crisis levels. There is a homeless population of over 8,000 in Oakland, up 47 percent over the past two years.
Moms 4 Housing has tried to shift the idea of how someone becomes homeless. It’s not through personal flaws or bad choices, they say, but simple economics. Rather than talking about a "minimum wage" or a "living wage," they’re discussing a "housing wage"—that is, how much someone needs to make without being rent-burdened (i.e., not having to spend more than 30 percent of one’s income on rent). In Oakland's Alameda County, you need to earn more than $48 an hour to afford the median rent. Yet the minimum wage in Oakland is just above $14. The gap between these two numbers, by and large, is what creates homelessness.
One approach to closing the gap has been removing the regulatory restraints to building new housing. The city of Oakland has 9,304 units that were either just built or in construction during 2019. But what this number misses, and one of the Moms’ primary gripes, is how few of these new units are reserved for low-income residents. Only 628 are subsidized affordable housing units. (Last May, more than 4,000 people applied for 28 new affordable homes that came online in Oakland.) The question, for the Moms and for other working class families in the Bay, is: Who are these new units being built for?
This friction point came to a head last Wednesday at Oakland City Hall, during the roll-out of SB50, a state bill seeking to fix the housing crisis by forcing cities to build new units, but which does not make any guarantees on the affordability of those units. During speeches to drum up support, the Moms and their coalition shouted down legislators and stormed the podium. At one point, they confronted Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf in a tear-filled plea. "Trickle down housing does not make it to the streets," the Moms 4 Housing account later tweeted, "to the places where people who need extremely low-to-no income housing and are just as deserving as everyone else."
Another point of contention highlighted by the Moms’ action is the fundamental injustice of having vacant housing as people sleep in the streets. The Moms claim there are four vacant homes per homeless person, and while that statistic is under dispute—accurate accountings of both vacancies and the homeless populations are both constantly moving targets—the fact remains that the house they occupied was vacant while they were homeless. This is an issue in other wealthy parts of the U.S.: In Manhattan, it could take six years to unload all of the unsold ultra-luxury condos while nearly 70,000 people remain homeless in New York City. Across the country, 1.5 million condos and single-family homes are vacant while roughly 552,000 people are without a home.
The owner of the house the Moms are occupying is a real estate company named Wedgewood that owns at least 125 properties in the Bay and specializes in "flipping" them. Its model is simple: Buy a house at a low price, sit on it, maybe add a coat of paint, sell high. Based in Southern California, the company is registered in 18 states. Its office has a literal custom-made Monopoly board on their wall. The Moms have asked for the home to be sold, at cost, to a land trust that will keep affordable housing in the community, but Wedgewood has balked at this. "We have made it clear, since the very beginning, that Wedgewood would not negotiate with the squatters group as long as they illegally occupied the company’s property," said Wedgewood spokesperson Sam Singer.
But Wedgewood is far from the only business using these tactics—maybe not even the worst. In 2018, Oakland’s largest private landlord, Michael Marr, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for rigging bids at real estate auctions. And the effect of these businesses’ vampiric models is obvious. Houses sit empty until a buyer/renter who’s wealthy enough decides to buy or rent. If no one rich enough comes by, the companies have enough capital to let them sit around collecting dust until that day comes. In the meantime, they make money simply by allowing their property to accrue value thanks to the out-of-control market. Near the Moms' house is a home that sold in 2009 for $98,000 and is now valued at $998,000 despite sitting vacant for years.
"They didn’t gild the stairs with gold," Carroll Fife, the regional director of ACCE who’s been acting as rep for the Moms, says of this nearby house. "It’s a manufactured reality, and there’s something that’s intrinsically wrong with this."
The Moms’ campaign has also highlighted the inherent racism embedded in commodified housing. This is a movement led by Black women, in a town where Black residents are being pushed out. Black people made up half the population in 1980 but, as Sam Levin wrote in The Guardian, "that figure could fall to just 16% over the next decade." You can directly tie this latest exodus to the 2008 foreclosure crisis, which disproportionately affected Black and Latino homebuyers.
"At one point in history it was legal for a white person to own a Black person, while it was illegal for a Black woman to have coffee at a white restaurant," said Oakland District 2 councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, one of a growing number of legislators who’ve supported the Moms’ actions, outside of the Hayward courthouse. "But it has been legal for corporations and banks to target Black and brown communities, lend them subprime mortgages, and then in the foreclosure crisis kick them to the curb and profit off of their misery."
The Moms' action isn't really about the specific circumstances that led them to desperation and homelessness. It's a protest asking why property owners can sit on vacant property and amass great wealth while a population goes homeless. It's a protest, too, against inadequate responses to California's homelessness crisis and in favor of legislation that gives its people a "right to housing," a longtime goal of many activists.
"We always sit and talk about history, about what we would have done if we were back in the civil rights movement," Walker recently told reporters. "Well, this is the new civil rights movement."
In late December, more than a hundred supporters packed the courtroom at the Hayward Hall of Justice, a half-hour southeast of Oakland, while an equal number milled the yard of "Moms House" waiting for the verdict in the eviction filing.
Despite not having a legal leg to stand on, the Moms, with support from the community, took this process all the way through the court system. While the judge acknowledged he wasn’t compelled to rule in the Moms’ favor, he said he’d need some time to consider before making a judgement. Everyone went home and waited. Finally, last Friday, the judge’s ruling came down—the eviction would go forward, the Moms would be escorted off the property by the sheriff.
But they didn't go quietly.
On Monday night, tipped off that the sheriff was coming, the Moms put out a social media and text notice asking for help to "film the cops and make sure the moms and children get out safely." Hundreds showed up within minutes, ready to stand in front of the police. When the evictors failed to show, the crowd chanted protest cries, sang songs of solidarity, and took to the bullhorn to tell their own stories of housing insecurity.
"I absolutely refuse to pay these gentrified, inflated prices," said one speaker. "But at the end of the day, that leaves me without a home. So that’s why I’m standing with the Moms, because I relate, I want a home, I don’t want to leave the Bay. I’m born and raised here, my family is here, I shouldn’t have to leave, so it’s very, very personal."
At 10:30 p.m., the Moms sent out the notice that they’d won the night—they weren't out of the house yet. They knew the fight wasn't over, even asked for volunteers to keep a watch on an overnight shift in case the sheriffs arrived. But even one more night in occupation meant one more night with a roof— their roof—over their heads.
"Thank you for successfully defending our home tonight. We will never forget that outpouring of solidarity," they wrote. "We can win."
The next morning at 5:15 a.m., as Walker and Fife were giving an interview on Democracy Now, the Alameda County sheriff's department rolled into West Oakland with dozens of officers in military fatigues, riot helmets, and an armored vehicle. The Moms sent out an emergency text alert, and a number of supporters showed up, but not before the sheriffs busted down the door, handcuffed and removed the Moms who’d been inside (their children had been sleeping elsewhere), and took them away to jail.
The entire action—from the battering ram to the door and windows of the vacant house being boarded up—was caught in front of the TV cameras and broadcast on Twitter. In what could be read as a closing statement of sorts for the action at 2928 Magnolia, the Moms tweeted, "We’ve heard from people all over the world who are inspired by our nonviolent civil disobedience. People who say that our action has shifted their perspective and helped them understand that housing is a human right. We’ve built a movement of thousands of Oaklanders who showed up at a moment's notice to reject police violence and advocate for homes for families."
"What happens next is the next movement," Mom Misty Cross told an interviewer before she was taken to jail. "This is only a piece of it. We’re gonna be out in a minute. We’ll be back. We’ll be right back."
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