Homeless Moms Spark Bill to Punish Landlords for Leaving Homes Vacant

“Many of these affordable homes were snatched up during a foreclosure by corporations who then kept the houses vacant or flipped them for hefty profits.”
February 20, 2020, 4:46pm
In this Jan. 14, 2020 file photo, signs are posted outside of a house was occupied by the group Moms 4 Housing in Oakland, Calif.

The homeless Oakland mothers who illegally occupied a vacant property for months — highlighting the Bay Area’s housing crisis — have inspired legislation to fight businesses that intentionally keep homes empty.

Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat representing nearby Berkeley, introduced legislation Wednesday that would allow California’s cities and counties to fine companies that keep properties vacant for longer than 90 days. Cash from those fines would then fund affordable housing and anti-homeless initiatives, according to a press release from Skinner’s office. Right-to-purchase provisions — laws that give tenants and nonprofits a fair shot at buying properties to keep them affordable before they can be scooped up by investors — are also included in the legislation. The purchase laws would apply specifically to properties facing foreclosure, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, as those properties are often targeted by so-called “flippers” who seek to renovate them and sell them at a higher price.

The lack of such tenant protections was highlighted by the mothers, known collectively as Moms 4 Housing, when they and their children occupied the vacant Oakland property back in November. The moms and kids were evicted in January, but the company that owned the property, Wedgewood, agreed later that month to begin negotiations to sell the home to the Oakland Community Land Trust, a local nonprofit working with the moms that advocates for low-rent properties. (Another Oakland-based group of tenants is similarly fighting to gain control of an apartment building they want to keep affordable; they’ve been on a rent strike since October.)

“Moms 4 Housing shined a light on the fact that while over 150,000 Californians are now homeless, right now in our own neighborhoods, there are more than 1 million vacant homes,” Skinner said in a news release Wednesday. “Many of these affordable homes were snatched up during a foreclosure by corporations who then kept the houses vacant or flipped them for hefty profits.”

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The legislation, if passed by California’s Legislature, would likely face legal challenges from property rights groups that argue owners often leave properties vacant to flip or renovate.

As the San Francisco Chronicle noted, there are actually few vacant properties in the Bay Area — approximately 4,539 homes sit empty, out of more than a million residential properties. However, that’s still enough to house all of Oakland’s unsheltered residents. California is desperately pursuing several solutions to its growing homeless and housing crisis, which was the primary focus of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state of the state address Wednesday.

Cover: In this Jan. 14, 2020 file photo, signs are posted outside of a house was occupied by the group Moms 4 Housing in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)