How a Collective of Mothers Flipped the Script on Housing

How a Collective of Mothers Flipped the Script on Housing

How a Collective of Mothers Flipped the Script on Housing

When the group Moms 4 Housing occupied a vacant house in West Oakland, they were confronting a system designed to exclude them.


At 5:15 am on January 14, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office smashed in the front door of a house in West Oakland. Deputies clad in combat fatigues and carrying battering rams and AR-15s busted into the home, while armored vehicles blocked the street outside.

Their goal: to forcefully evict a collective of black women activists called Moms 4 Housing, who had moved into the house on Magnolia Street with their children two months before.

The house had been vacant for months after being purchased by the real estate group Wedgewood Property Management last summer. The members of Moms 4 Housing are all black mothers with deep roots in Oakland, and they all identified as “unhoused or insecurely housed”; when they moved in to the home, in November, they made public statements tying their occupation directly to the city’s housing crisis. “There are four times as many empty homes in Oakland as there are homeless people,” one member, Sameerah Karim, said at a press conference. “Why should anyone, especially children, sleep on the street while perfectly good homes sit empty?”

Wedgewood had been trying to remove the families since they began their occupation, facing off with Moms 4 Housing in Alameda County Superior Court. Even after a judge ordered the group to leave the building, they continued to resist: They hosted a huge public blockade rally with hundreds of people in front of the property, an overwhelming display of community support. Messages of solidarity poured in from around the country and world.

The next morning, they were unceremoniously cleared out by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. Supporters—who had been summoned via social media and a rapid response network—stood in the street shouting “Shame on you!” as the officers handcuffed and arrested Tolani King and Misty Cross, as well as two of their supporters, and escorted them to Santa Rita Jail for booking. (They were released that afternoon.) Wedgewood’s publicist Sam Singer—who had previously called the mothers “bullies” and “thieves”—declared victory: “Wedgewood is pleased that the illegal occupation of the home has ended peacefully…. That is what we have sought ever since the very start.”

But the Moms 4 Housing campaign had already grown into a movement. After decades of the neoliberal privatization of our cities, housing inequity is one of the biggest issues facing communities across the country. This is especially the case in Oakland, where rampant gentrification and real estate speculation have caused homelessness to explode—jumping 47 percent over the past two years. On any given day, over 4,000 people in the city are experiencing homelessness. And black communities are disproportionately affected: Roughly 70 percent of the unhoused people in Oakland are black, even though black residents only make up about 24 percent of the overall population. This is consistent throughout American cities, as gentrification spurs evictions, displacement, homelessness, and criminalization of the poor and anyone involved in informal economies. The ratio of vacancies in the city to the number of unhoused people has been debated since this campaign’s start because accurate statistics of vacancies and homeless populations are notoriously difficult to come to a consensus on. But there are reliably more empty homes in Oakland—nearly 6,000—than there are people who need them.

That’s why the Moms’ direct action is so significant. Suddenly, a group of activists were presenting what felt like the only way out of this bind: public seizure of unhoused private space. Theirs has been a fight to foreground and reframe the national discourse around housing justice, and it’s working—on Monday, January 20, the Moms announced that the Oakland Community Land Trust would be negotiating with Wedgewood to purchase the property, and that their collective would be moving back in. After an outpouring of negative press and political pressure—including from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who is said to have brokered the deal—Wedgewood was now suddenly interested in negotiating.

“I shouldn’t have to leave here,” Dominique Walker said at press briefing on Monday. “This is the home of the Black Panthers…. we’re not going nowhere. I love this city. We deserve to be here.”

Oakland has a well-documented history of community-built power and organizing. Besides being the birthplace of the Black Panther movement, the city has also been a key community for the Chicano movement and Moratorium against the Vietnam War. Walker is a member of the Black Housing Union in Oakland, a project of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE); Thomas is the cofounder of the grassroots first-aid program People’s Community Medics. And the Moms aren’t the first to protest housing inequity with direct action: The ACCE helped a woman named Gayla Newsome and her family occupy their foreclosed home in 2011. With the help of community organizers, Newsome eventually got her house back.

Walker grew up in Oakland. She has said that, after living outside the Bay Area for 15 years, she returned in early 2019 to find a place that did not resemble the one where she’d grown up—complete with luxury lofts, skyrocketing rents, and stagnant wages. Walker has two kids and, even working full-time, she couldn’t find a place to live. She knew other mothers who were in the same boat, too. When she came upon the vacant house on Magnolia, and neighbors told her it was becoming a blight on the street, she researched the property and found it belonged to Wedgewood. Walker recognized Wedgewood’s name—the company had previously evicted other ACCE members. So she and the rest of the Moms 4 Housing collective decided to move in to the house, without invitation.

Wedgewood Inc., based in Southern California, describes itself as “an integrated network of companies concentrated on real estate opportunities, including distressed residential real estate.” But ACCE has called Wedgewood—whose business model involves gobbling up homes in low-income areas and flipping them for profit—“a displacement machine.” The company has been especially cruel in retaliation to tenants who fight back, in one case suing a working-class couple for protesting after being served with an eviction.

The Moms’ occupation of the house on Magnolia Street points to the fact that real estate speculation is obliterating working-class communities around the world. In Berlin, tenant groups are pushing for expropriation and rent freezes as countermeasures to fight untenable urban development; families in Rio de Janeiro turned to squatting after the razing of favelas in the lead-up to the 2016 Olympics. Organizers in other California cities are also working on similar occupation-style projects.

In the past year, California has instituted some much-needed, though piecemeal, tenant protections. Local municipalities have kicked around proposals to impose a vacancy tax. (Oakland imposed one last year—although pressure from property owners has already forced officials to cut it in half.) Airbnb regulations are constantly in flux. Tenant rights groups, Moms 4 Housing included, are now resisting a controversial California housing bill called SB50: a YIMBY attempt to address unaffordability via upzoning and creating denser housing, in a state where the single-family home is the unsustainable norm. The bill’s critics argue that SB50 will open the door to more unaffordable development and exacerbate displacement.

Meanwhile, the appetite for public housing is growing—especially as Trump threatens to fix California’s homelessness problem his way. National discourse has included proposals for public housing for the first time in years: public housing is part of Bernie Sanders’s housing plank (Warren has a plan, too), and sustainable social housing is baked into both the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act and Ilhan Omar’s Housing for All Act. Housing hasn’t yet been the paramount issue of this presidential cycle, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see it pushed further to the forefront as November approaches.

Wedgewood’s late-breaking decision to sell the Magnolia Street property and allow the Moms to move back in is not a guarantee that the fight is over. “It’s a good faith agreement. It’s nonbinding,” ACCE organizer Carroll Fife said in a press conference Monday morning. In the best-case scenario, the property will be decommodified—moving from private to community control—with Wedgewood getting paid out by the land trust. Wedgewood has already agreed to allow the city, the land trust, and other nonprofit organizations the right of first refusal on other Oakland area properties that the company owns, should they wish to purchase them. The Moms are confident now that, no matter what happens with Wedgewood, their community is ready to mobilize. Especially after the breadth of support they’ve received in the past two months—including, recently, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sanders campaign.

This is still local work. The members of Moms 4 Housing had to fight tirelessly, pursue a court case, and get violently removed from their home, just to get the attention of local power brokers. As Moms member Misty Cross said at the Reclaim MLK march in Oakland after the announcement about the potential sale, “Ask our mayor what changed her heart. We’re still hurting, there’s still pain here. We were taken to jail, dragged out.”

The Moms may have figured out a solution for their own living situation, but—as they’ve made clear—a single victory has never been their goal. At least two of their supporters standing outside the Magnolia Street house this month had just endured the bitter end of their own housing struggle: sisters and organizers Juana and Reina Tello, who had been evicted from their family’s San Francisco home in 2018, after a seven-year battle stemming from the 2008 mortgage crisis. The Tellos watched as their own belongings were removed from that property just a few days before the police raid on the Moms 4 Housing home. Despite their efforts, the sisters have ended up insecurely housed. Now, after all they’ve been through, they say it has been extra difficult to find a new apartment: Landlords don’t like tenants with a history of resisting.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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