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Moms 4 Housing: Redefining the Right to a Home in Oakland

On a recent trip to Oakland, I glimpsed the potential of a coordinated, grassroots response to the housing emergency. Moms 4 Housing is inspiring change: community control of land, redefinition of private property through cooperatives and land trusts, and a constitutional right to housing.

Philip Pacheco/AFP/via Getty Images

Moms 4 Housing activist Dominique Walker standing in front of 2928 Magnolia Street, the house the group occupied starting in November 2019, declaring that housing is “a human right,” January 28, 2020

Exactly one month had passed since the violent, pre-dawn eviction at 2928 Magnolia Street when I landed in Oakland, California, in mid-February. The worn, white house in the west of the city was now penned in by a chain-link fence sheathed in green mesh, and the families who had lived there together for two months were now scattered between Oakland and Berkeley. One mother and child were still couch-surfing, post-eviction, unable to find a place of their own.

When this group of African-American women, who call themselves Moms 4 Housing, first announced their occupation of the long-empty home on Magnolia Street, they declared that housing is “a human right”—and that they were “using that right.” At a press conference just before Thanksgiving, Dominique Walker, Sharena Thomas, Tolani King, and Sameerah Karim condemned the owner of the house, a corporate speculator called Wedgewood LLC, and noted that there were more vacant properties than people living in tents and cars in Oakland. Seventy percent of homeless residents are black.

The moms, including another founding member, Misty Cross, offered witness to the housing emergency, and connected their homelessness to the practices of Wall Street landlords. Their taking of 2928 Magnolia reminded me of “Occupy Our Homes” and the Americans who, a decade ago, refused the marching orders of law enforcement and multinational banks. Yet the transformation of the neglected Magnolia property into a home nicknamed “Mom’s House” went a step further: it ignited a blaze of activism that promised to alter power relations in Oakland’s real estate market.

Mom’s House was a collective effort, but it would not have been possible without Carroll Fife, a friend of the moms and a mother of three who has faced her own periods of homelessness. Fife comes out of the Black Power tradition and now leads the Oakland chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE (pronounced “ace”), a group formed in 2010 to take up the work of ACORN—the national poor people’s association that was destroyed in a right-wing sting.

In the days I spent with Fife and her team at ACCE, I glimpsed the potential of a coordinated, grassroots response to the housing emergency. Compared to neighboring San Francisco, or Los Angeles or New York, Oakland is small and historically progressive—the locus of the Black Panther Party and a richly multicultural working class. So it seemed natural to wonder whether an extended act of civil disobedience by a group of black mothers could inspire change: community control of land, redefinition of private property through cooperatives and land trusts, and a constitutional right to housing.

*

ACCE Oakland occupies a converted industrial garage in gentrifying East Oakland. On my first visit, I was let in by a staffer for billionaire Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign, which had leased the adjoining space. The office is close to the Fruitvale BART station, which came to national attention in 2009 when transit police killed a twenty-two-year-old African-American man named Oscar Grant. Grant’s death provoked mass protests and presaged the national cry of Black Lives Matter. It also changed the way Fife and her husband, Tur-Ha Ak, conceived of their work in the community.

Until that point, Fife and Ak had done activism in the way of their city’s Panthers and Black Power groups: informally and unpaid. They supported themselves and their children with a series of day jobs, only some of which overlapped with their politics. But in the organizing that followed Grant’s death, Fife and Ak made broad connections. Ak, who has a background in security, organized a black-led public-safety group called the Community Ready Corps, and recruited white volunteers to act as “allies and accomplices.” Fife, meanwhile, worked on several progressive electoral campaigns, including Bernie Sanders’s presidential run in 2016, and grew close to ACCE—the only local organizing group that, in her view, was willing to “confront power.”

E. Tammy Kim

Carroll Fife and Tur-Ha Ak in Oakland, California, February 20, 2020

In 2017, when Fife took over the leadership of ACCE Oakland, housing was foremost in its members’ minds. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was more than $2,000, and three hundred homeless encampments dotted the city. As Fife would soon learn, ACCE’s Latino renters often faced threats and harassment, but weren’t often thrown out, “whereas black families are actually evicted, especially black mothers.” (In 2016, renters in majority-black neighborhoods of Oakland were more than twice as likely to receive an eviction notice, compared to majority-Latino neighborhoods.) Vanessa Bulnes, a longtime ACCE member who’d lost her home to foreclosure in 2012 and was now renting a house with her husband, told Fife that she was frustrated by how few African Americans were involved in the group’s housing organizing. Fife committed to focused outreach and suggested that they form a Black Housing Union. She recruited a black organizer named Dominique Walker, who’d just returned to Oakland from Mississippi with her children to escape an abusive partner.

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One day, Walker came to Fife for a regular check-in and didn’t seem herself. “She was shaking,” Fife recalled. “She said, ‘I was evicted. My kids and I are in a hotel, and it’s violent. Men keep propositioning me.’ I was like, ‘How long have you been dealing with this?’” ACCE had helped to secure millions in funding for affordable housing, pass a statewide bill against rent-gouging, and hold banks accountable for lending to slumlords, yet Fife’s own housing organizer was out of a home. They needed to do something.

ACCE was aware of a number of vacant properties in West Oakland, a center of black organizing and now a hotspot of investor-fueled gentrification. The house at 2928 Magnolia had been empty for nearly two years and was recently sold at a foreclosure auction to Wedgewood, a company well known to ACCE Los Angeles: in 2017, the CEO, Greg Geiser, sued ACCE and a working-class Mexican family that had protested its eviction. (A Wedgewood spokesperson told me that ACCE rejected an offer to keep the family in their home.)

Across the country, but especially in California and the Sun Belt, businesses like Wedgewood were snapping up starter homes, either for resale or rental. As predatory financing produced a surge of foreclosures, homeowners became desperate for housing. Research by Maya Abood on behalf of ACCE, Erin McElroy and Terra Graziani at the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, and Aaron Glantz, author of Homewreckers, has exposed how private equity firms and real estate investors, financed by bailed-out banks, immediately pivoted to buying single-family homes after the Great Recession. The number of single-family rentals jumped 67 percent between 2005 and 2015, from 10.5 million homes to 17.5 million. In Oakland and Berkeley, more than a third of rental units are now single-family homes—a category exempt from rent-control under California law. Invitation Homes, the largest renter of single-family residences in the US and, until recently, a subsidiary of Blackstone, the private equity fund owned by New York financier and Trump ally Stephen Schwarzman, is notorious for buying in bulk, failing to maintain their properties, and subjecting tenants to enormous rent increases. (Bulnes, of ACCE’s Black Housing Union, has sued Invitation Homes for failing to make repairs.) Wedgewood’s business model is to “fix and flip” rather than rent: it buys with the goal of selling quickly, and evicts tenants as needed along the way.

In mid-November, the moms moved into the Magnolia Street house and got help from volunteers to repair the sagging interior, stock the kitchen, and drape a tarp over the roof, pocked with holes. They assessed the trees out front and the yard out back—much of the soil in the neighborhood, due to its proximity to the Port of Oakland and a now-defunct army base, was contaminated with lead and chemicals. Wedgewood tried to evict the moms in early December, but their attorney, Leah Simon-Weisberg, obtained a stay. In the meantime, ACCE’s partner nonprofit, the Oakland Community Land Trust (CLT), which, like other land trusts and cooperatives around the country, aims to take properties off the speculative market and make them permanently affordable, offered to buy the house and either sell or rent it back to the moms. Wedgewood responded that it would not negotiate with “squatters” who committed a “break-in” and “theft.”

On January 10, a judge ordered the moms and their children to quit the property within five days. ACCE and the CRC found places for the kids to stay, but the mothers remained. Around 5:00 AM on January 14, Fife and Walker were in a Berkeley television studio being interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Fourteen minutes into the interview, Goodman abruptly interrupted Fife: “Carroll, we just hear that there was a text that says the sheriff is knocking on the door and saying people have to clear out.” Fife and Walker hurried off camera and Ak drove them to Mom’s House.

When they arrived, they found the street overrun—not only by a throng of supporters, thanks to a text-message blast, but also by a ballistic vehicle and sheriff’s vans from Alameda County. A dozen men were dressed in fatigues and helmets and wielded machine guns. Under orders from Sheriff Gregory Ahern and Commander Shawn Sexton, they used a battering ram to knock down the front door of the house—which the moms say was unlocked but the Sheriff’s Office says was “fortified.” Everyone inside was arrested: King and Cross and two volunteer protectors affiliated with Ak’s Community Ready Corps.

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Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

Moms 4 Housing supporters protesting in front of Mom’s House, 2928 Magnolia Street, West Oakland, California, January 13, 2020

Some locals believed that the moms deserved to be punished. Cross told me that she and the other women were repeatedly threatened with physical assault, rape, and the removal of their children. “Squatting is stealing, regardless of who owns the property,” Gene Stangel wrote to the Mercury News. But thousands of others across the country saw the battle for Mom’s House as their own. More than 500,000 Americans live in shelters or on the street; there isn’t a single county where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, Steven Mnuchin, nicknamed the “foreclosure king” for his work at Goldman Sachs before the recession and his subsequent acquisition of OneWest Bank, which unlawfully evicted thousands of people between 2009 and 2015, is now secretary of the Treasury; Wilbur Ross, secretary of Commerce, made a fortune servicing subprime loans.

Alameda County declined to pursue criminal charges against the moms and their allies, but the Sheriff’s Office has refused to apologize for its show of force. Sergeant Ray Kelly, the agency’s public information officer, told me that the Sheriff’s Office has no regrets and that the AR15s and ballistic vehicle were commensurate to the threat posed by “anarchist and criminal elements” among the moms’ allies, based on social media and tips from an informant. Fife believes that the Sheriff’s Office was targeting Fred Hampton Jr., a Chicago-based activist who had flown in to offer support. Hampton’s father, a prominent Black Panther, was killed by the Chicago police and the FBI in 1969.

Footage of the crowd from the morning of the eviction shows only protesters chanting: “Stop the eviction, we won’t move” and “The rent is too damn high.” The next day, the mothers returned to the house to gather their furniture and other belongings, as Wedgewood had promised they could—though Wedgewood disputes this. Cross told me that they arrived to find everything thrown onto the street, in a broken, muddy pile.

As Oaklanders processed the shock of the eviction, calls for accountability spread. Mayor Libby Schaaf, who had refused Sheriff Ahern’s request for backup from the city police but also opted not to appear alongside the mothers, as three city councilmembers had, condemned the show of force. Two days later, she stood with Governor Gavin Newsom in a concrete lot in East Oakland, to unveil fifteen trailers set aside for homeless residents.

Newsom also pressured Wedgewood to make a deal, and on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the parties announced that the company had agreed to negotiate with the Oakland Community Land Trust. The CLT, using a mix of public and private funds, would purchase the property, then lease it back to one or more of the moms, with the promise of keeping it affordable in perpetuity. A few days later, Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas promised to draft complementary legislation: the Moms 4 Housing Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). Oakland’s TOPA was modeled on a similar law in Washington, D.C., which gives tenants priority as potential buyers when their landlord decides to sell their homes.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín introduced California’s first TOPA bill a few weeks later, in front of the 10th Street Coop, an apartment building purchased with public funds by the Northern California Land Trust, a nonprofit similar to the Oakland CLT. James Brooks, a longtime tenant, explained at the press conference how he had organized with his neighbors to prevent their displacement. The newest resident of the coop was Dominique Walker, who moved in after her eviction from Mom’s House. “It feels like this is the beginning of a movement, and it’s going to continue,” Walker said. 

E. Tammy Kim

Dominique Walker and Leah Simon-Weisberg outside Walker’s new apartment in the Tenth Street Coop, Berkeley, California, February 20, 2020

The press conference in Berkeley was one of a dozen public events Walker attended just that week. She and Fife and the other moms were scheduled down to the minute with reporters and housing-related panels, hearings, and ceremonies. Other ACCE business went on as usual: a rent strike at 29th Avenue, in East Oakland, entered its fourth month; residents of several buildings owned by Mosser Capital strategized to fight rent increases and tenant harassment; and members gathered to phone-bank in favor of Measure C, which would fund children’s health services and early childhood education in Alameda County.

All this organizing trickled up to Sacramento, the state capital. In the space of a few days, Senator Nancy Skinner introduced a statewide TOPA bill, Assemblymember Rob Bonta began to draft a constitutional amendment on the right to housing, and Governor Newsom devoted his entire state-of-the-state address to homelessness: “the most pernicious crisis in our midst.”

*

One afternoon, Steve King, Oakland CLT’s executive director, and I took a drive to see some of the fifty residential and commercial properties in the group’s portfolio. He and Justin Tombolesi, the acquisitions coordinator and a former organizer at ACCE, were still in talks with Wedgewood over Mom’s House. Over the years, the CLT has been a key partner of ACCE’s, coming in with capital funds to empower rent strikers or aid members at risk of displacement. That evening, I met with Norma Sanchez and two of her sons, who’d organized with ACCE to persuade their landlord to sell to the CLT. “Tenant organizing is a guide for purchases,” Tombolesi explained.

Last year, the Oakland City Council allocated $12 million to give a boost to the CLT and related nonprofits and coops. Yet even with a moderate amount of capital, socially conscious buyers face long odds. King recalled how, in the early days of the CLT, amid thousands of local foreclosures, “Everyone thought, including the city, that banks were going to be donating houses.” But King and his colleagues soon realized, “We were competing directly with speculators and were at a disadvantage because we were using federal funds.”

More and more housing advocates, disenchanted with “affordable” development and discouraged by America’s rejection of social housing, are turning to cooperatives and land trusts. These strategies remain limited in scope, and risk rewarding investors, but, as Fife told me, “We’re drastically reducing their ability to profit—on a road toward abolishing their ability to profit.” One of the organizers she employs at ACCE, Nicole Deane, added, “The goal is to make it difficult for speculators so they leave Oakland.”

Over the decade and more since the foreclosure crisis, ACCE has watched its members lose their homes, then struggle to pay ballooning rents; it has seen black and brown neighborhoods get richer and whiter. In Oakland, the black population fell 8 percent between 2000 and 2010, and 4 percent more between 2010 and 2014. Ananya Roy, a geographer at UCLA, told me that the “commodification of housing” as applied in Oakland translates into “black banishment.”

In the growing literature on “gentrification,” demographic change is often cast as inevitable: cities, like rivers, carve new paths. But in a place like Oakland, with a rich history of black rebellion against red-lined exclusion, Moms 4 Housing wants to redefine what’s considered natural.

“Everybody in Oakland likes to say, if they’re black, ‘Oh, yeah, my uncle was a Panther. My mom was a Panther.’ It’s a legacy people recall,” Fife said. “We’re reminding people of what made that history: giving people the services they need to sustain their lives. The free breakfast program, the schools, the health clinics—those were real organizing tools that benefited the community.” Housing, she believes, is no different.  

*

Catty-corner from 2928 Magnolia Street is a large, blue home that announces itself as new construction. Its metal house number is hung in the sleek, modernist Neutra font that’s become a signal of moneyed cool; a horizontally slatted “gentrifence” shields the lot from passersby. A short drive away is the Willie Keyes Recreation Center, named after a black West Oakland activist who spent twenty years helping low-income children and trying to rehabilitate what was, as recently as the early aughts, a severely neglected neighborhood. On my last night in town, a group that Keyes had worked closely with, West Oakland Neighbors, invited Fife and Misty Cross to speak.

Fife arrived first and took in the crowd: the room of two dozen West Oaklanders was nearly all white. She sat behind an older woman with a platinum bob who smiled nervously. During the announcements portion of the evening, the woman rose, holding a grey Xeroxed flyer: “STOP TOPA: Taking Our Property Away.” The City Council, she told her neighbors, was mulling a bill that would violate homeowners’ rights. She explained that TOPA was nothing short of eminent domain and yet another sign of the City Council’s “lawlessness.” It was bad enough that some councilmembers had approved of the women who “broke into” the house on Magnolia Street.

Fife’s eyes widened as she listened. The speaker clearly had no idea who she and Cross were, or that the TOPA bill had been proposed in their honor. A few minutes later, it was Fife’s and Cross’s turns to speak. They were introduced by Renata Foucré, the co-chair of West Oakland Neighbors, who “shared a fence with Mom’s House,” she said. The woman with the STOP TOPA flyers, having seen me enter the room with Fife, turned to me in shock. “I had no idea you were coming,” she whispered.

Cross explained how she had come to occupy the house. Long ago, she said, she survived a shooting, which inspired her to become an activist parent in the public schools. For the past few years, though she worked a number of jobs, most recently as a home health aide, she and her children could not find steady, affordable housing, and ended up in a shelter. Cross blotted her eyes as she spoke, and several audience members followed suit.

But this apparent swell of sympathy evaporated when Fife explained that the moms were now negotiating to buy the house—and that Cross and her children would be the primary occupants. An elderly white man in a baseball cap asked Cross whether she could handle the “big responsibility” of a home. How could she possibly manage the payments? Cross responded, with admirable calm, that the moms had thought it all through; Fife added that ACCE ran workshops on this sort of thing. “I was ready for all of the negative talk,” Cross later told me. “It must seem hard for folks to see black and brown folks rise above poverty when we’ve been at the bottom of the totem pole for so long.” I wondered if anyone else in that room had ever been publicly interrogated about their finances.

E. Tammy Kim

Misty Cross and Carroll Fife at a meeting of West Oakland Neighbors, Oakland, California, February 20, 2020

This exchange illuminated the limits of solidarity in addressing the housing crisis. The members of West Oakland Neighbors would presumably support Cross’s renting a cheap apartment or winning the lottery for a spot in public housing: they were YIMBY, not NIMBY. Yet they seemed decidedly less comfortable with the ambition of Mom’s House: occupation and civil disobedience leading to ownership and community control.

Then again, Foucré had come around. She initially had “mixed feelings” about the moms’ occupation, she told me. “‘Is it stealing? What does this mean for other people? What about the owners?’” she thought. But she had seen the home’s previous tenants get chased out and others fall prey to a rental scheme, and then watched the house itself decay. As she heard more from the mothers and ACCE in the course of the occupation, she became a supporter and hung a Moms 4 Housing sign in her window.

The UN Special Rapporteur on housing has called for a global movement to treat homes as lived spaces rather than “a place to park excess capital.” Yet, globally, homes are increasingly treated as commodities. We are so accustomed to trusting brokers, bankers, and landlords to buy, sell, and rent as they see fit that we have stopped expecting our governments to ensure decent, affordable shelter. How is it that social housing now seems less natural than trading in tranches of residential debt?

On March 3, Oakland City Council was forced to hold an impromptu community forum on TOPA, although the bill had yet to be introduced. A local tax preparer had called TOPA “the biggest violation of private property rights Oakland has ever seen,” and invited landlords to fill the chamber. About three dozen showed up, waving picket signs that read “STOP TOPA” and “IT’S A SIEGE.” Fife, Walker, Bulnes, and Simon-Weisberg were there, too, representing ACCE, and Tombolesi spoke for the Oakland CLT. One landlord yelled an obscenity at Walker and made a death-threat against Tombolesi.

Back home, well past midnight, Fife reflected on the landlords’ rage. She pulled up a few photographs from the civil rights era, to remind herself that “the fight to house our most vulnerable residents is the same now as it was then.” “We are witnessing the end of late-stage capitalism,” she wrote on social media, “the system that rewards greed & selfishness. Bad landlords feel a change coming & IT IS!”

In a few hours, she would help Tolani King, one of the original moms, move into her own apartment. And Mom’s House was finally “in contract”: an acceptable price had been reached, not too much above the $501,078 Wedgewood had paid at the foreclosure auction. If all went as planned, Cross and her children would soon have a permanent home. Though it was just one house, Fife said, “It shows people, ‘Here’s a physical reminder of what can happen when you organize.’”


This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

The description of Fred Hampton’s death has been clarified.

E. Tammy Kim followed up on this story after receiving a batch of one hundred and seven emails from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

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