Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The activist group Moms 4 Housing occupied a vacant home in Oakland to draw attention to the city’s affordability crisis. They ended up launching a movement.
On November 18, two women walked in through the unlocked door of a vacant three-bedroom house on West Oakland’s Magnolia Street, set up small bedrooms for themselves and their children, and settled in for an occupation designed to call attention to the Bay Area’s housing affordability crisis.
Over the next few months, this collective of formerly unhoused women grew in size—and power. Calling themselves Moms 4 Housing, the group remained in 2928 Magnolia Street day and night, sometimes protected by volunteer security guards while they slept. National figures emerged to voice their support; housing activists and local community members showed up with signs and supplies. On January 10, a judge ruled that the women were squatting illegally and ordered them out. Still, they stayed—until Tuesday, January 14, when a heavily armed contingent of Alameda County Sheriff’s Office deputies entered the home, pushed their furniture into the street, and arrested two of the women. By morning, the families had been fully evicted.
But on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a new chapter began for the women, whose activism in California’s East Bay has snowballed into a national movement for housing rights: The house on Magnolia Street, once vacant, will soon belong to them.
In a dramatic concession, Wedgewood Properties, a home-flipping company that purchased the house in August, will give Oakland’s Community Land Trust the chance to purchase the property for a market price and to rehabilitate it. The group will be able to stay there officially once the sale is complete.
“This is what happens when we organize, when people come together to build the beloved community,” said Moms 4 Housing member Dominique Walker in a statement. She’s a community organizer who grew up in Oakland, and is raising two children without access to stable housing. “Today we honor Dr. King’s radical legacy by taking Oakland back from banks and corporations.”
The agreement, announced on January 20 in a joint press release from the Oakland Mayor’s office, Wedgewood, and the Moms, was made “in good faith” and does not yet have a written contract associated with it. Along with the offer to purchase the deed to the Magnolia Street house, Wedgewood told CityLab it has agreed to give the Oakland Community Land Trust or other community land trusts the right of first refusal on the approximately 50 homes they currently own in Oakland, and the ones they acquire in the future. The terms of those refusal rights will be negotiated with the city. Neither Wedgewood nor the mayor’s office could elaborate on the timeline for the sale or the drawing of a written contract. The Oakland Community Land Trust did not respond to a request for comment.
To broker the deal, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf had a series of conversations with Wedgewood’s CEO, Greg Geiser; though the mothers initially proposed involving the land trust in early January, serious talks only started after last week’s expulsion from the house.
“Wedgewood made it clear from the beginning they wouldn’t have any discussions or negotiations regarding this issue before the women left voluntarily or were evicted,” Sam Singer, a spokesperson for the company, told CityLab.
For the mothers, this resolution appeared to inspire mixed feelings of relief and resentment.
“Now that we’ve come to this agreement, it shows that all of this was uncalled for,” Moms 4 Housing member Misty Cross said in a press conference. She asked the mayor, the Alameda Sheriff’s Office, and Wedgewood to issue public apologies. She called out the media for asking the wrong questions for months, and for framing the activists as criminal trespassers. Because of the antagonistic response they’d received, she said, they had conversations with their children that “no mother should have.” In the background, a baby cried.
Beyond four walls
Though there’s now a clear path to a short-term resolution for the Moms—who were living in homelessness before moving to Magnolia Street and who became unhoused again after being evicted—the aims of their movement extend far beyond four walls.
“We’re going to keep this movement going, to make sure everyone who’s unhoused has a home,” said Cross. “Regardless of your drug abuse, if you have bad credit, if you are a student and struggling … we won’t stop until everyone is housed, because we want to make sure that this becomes the law. We want housing to be a human right.”
The wide reverberations of their movement show how urgent the housing crisis has become in Oakland. The city has more than 4,000 unhoused residents—a population that grew 47 percent between 2017 and 2019. Along with homelessness rates, housing costs have climbed. Local businesses and longtime residents have been leaving historically black neighborhoods: African Americans made up just under half the city’s population in 1980; today the figure is is closer to 25 percent.
Legislators continue to debate policies designed to address these disparities. A California-wide upzoning measure, Senate Bill 50, is up for another vote this year, after being quashed late last session. If approved, SB50 would legalize multi-family zoning across a state where nearly 80 percent of land is zoned for single-family units. State Senator Scott Weiner, who introduced the bill, says that recalibrating land use will help spur a new wave of construction and bring down housing prices. The Moms 4 Housing profess to advance similar goals—more affordable housing, and less displacement—but they have opposed the measure, sharing fears with other progressive activists that it will embolden developers to build more luxury developments.
Weiner’s latest amendments aim to address those concerns, via inclusionary zoning rules that reserve 40 percent of the affordable housing created by the bill for people living nearby; past revisions instituted protections for areas that are at risk for gentrification. The bill’s fate depends on a “yes” vote in the Senate by January 31. (Schaaf, along with San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, support it.)
Supply isn’t the only problem, the Moms argue. Together with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a grassroots organizing group, they have also tried to bring attention to another facet of Oakland’s housing crunch: its vacancy rate. There are more vacant housing units than homeless people in the city of Oakland, a statistic that stings.
The true meaning of such vacancy rates is complicated; they represent “a snapshot in time, and can describe a number of very distinct phenomena,” as Benjamin Schneider recently wrote in CityLab. A common form of vacancy is a housing unit that’s in the process of changing occupants; other vacant units “might be held as second homes, rented as Airbnbs, or retained as investment properties until the price is sufficiently high. But such properties likely represent a small proportion of a city’s total housing units.”
The house that the Moms occupied since November represents a more insidious form of vacancy, they say: After 2928 Magnolia was foreclosed upon last year, Wedgewood bought it at an auction for $500,000 at the end of July with plans to renovate it; by the time the Moms arrived, it had been empty for months. Seeing a livable space go to waste feels cruel within a housing market that’s increasingly dysfunctional for many longtime residents. To afford two-bedroom housing in the zip code that contains 2928 Magnolia Street, the National Low Income Housing Institute reports that a renter would have to earn $43.46 an hour, or $86,920 a year.
The only demographic category in the Bay Area whose incomes mostly rise above the salary needed for a two-bedroom abode in the Moms’ West Oakland neighborhood is white men, who earn a little more than $100,000 at the median. Black women earn less than half of that—$49,369. While Latinas bring in even less at $39,600.
For many Bay Area residents, the solution to this disparity between incomes and housing has been to relocate to more affordable parts of the region. But the Moms reject that idea. “It’s easy for people to say, ‘Just go ahead and move where you can afford,’” said Cross, who’s been an organizer in Oakland for years. “But when you feel like you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into something, you don’t want to just let it go like that.”
Housing advocates say that real estate speculators like Wedgewood act as a “displacement machine,” exacerbating the city’s vacancies and jacking up prices. The company is “one of Oakland’s most prolific house flippers,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, with 160 sales over the last nine years. But house flipping in the Bay Area is low compared to many other U.S. cities: According to Attom Data Solutions, the San Francisco-Oakland area saw 380 flips in the third quarter of 2019, about 3.7 percent of all sales. That rate puts it at 129th out of 148 U.S. metros. “Wedgewood is a housing creator,” Wedgewood’s Singer told CityLab. “It takes housing that is dilapidated and unused, and turns it into housing for homebuyers.”
Like the Magnolia Street property, many of the homes Wedgewood buys, rehabs, and sells for a profit have been foreclosed upon. An NBC Bay Area investigation found that the business has been involved in 300 lawsuits—“mostly unlawful detainers in which the company was attempting to evict a tenant or former owners living in a home it recently purchased.” (Singer directed CityLab to its comment to NBC: “Wedgewood always follows all legal requirements in connection with its efforts to obtain possession of the properties it purchases.”)
Lawyers representing Moms 4 Housing say that the city of Oakland is part of the housing speculation story. “Certainly the city has allowed these speculators to come in and buy up these properties [without] demanding that they utilize them, [or] demanding that they make them available for rent,” said EmilyRose Johns, a senior associate with the law firm Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta, which is also representing dozens of other homeless residents across the city. “This is heavily contributing to the crisis that we’re seeing right now.”
From private to community ownership
Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland’s city council president, who’s been a strong supporter of the Moms, has proposed another way to move private properties into community ownership: pushing the city to buy foreclosed properties at county auctions. This would “reduce the problem of bidding wars” that in turn drive displacement, she said in a statement. Though a spokesperson for Schaaf said she has not yet reviewed Kaplan’s plan, the mayor’s office’s announcement last week included a commitment to maintaining a registry of foreclosed properties, and to creating a database to track vacant properties.
By including community land trusts early on in the buying process for vacant homes, Schaaf says Wedgewood properties that are currently being bid on in the speculative market have a greater chance of being filled by low-income homeowners. To support the trusts in their acquisitions of housing, Schaaf says she’ll launch an Advisory Board on Community Ownership of Housing, which will be co-chaired by a member of Moms 4 Housing.
While she “does not condone illegal acts,” the Oakland mayor says she respects the mothers’ mission, and “can passionately advance the cause that inspired them.”
Schaaf’s administration is also facing other legal challenges to its handling of the homelessness crisis. Last April, Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta filed a federal lawsuit against the city for storming tent encampments in the city, confiscating and destroying some of the property of the homeless residents, in violation of their constitutional and due process rights.
“During these operations, the City will take and destroy the property of residents or force property abandonment through threat of arrest,” reads the complaint. “As a result, homeless residents are stripped of critical property necessary for safety and survival and of precious belongings. The operations often force homeless residents into unfamiliar areas with less protection from the elements and from those who wish to prey on their vulnerability, less property, and less stability.”
Johns, the lawyer, says she also encourages Oakland residents who object to what she calls the “excessive force” used against the Moms 4 Housing advocates to file a taxpayer lawsuit against the city or sheriff’s department for wasting public dollars.
For those familiar with Oakland history, the military-style tactics used in the January 14 eviction held ugly echoes of the way the city’s law enforcement once dealt with its poor residents, and black women in particular: the violent police escalations that caused African Americans to form the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the city in 1966.
“This city has a rich history in black culture and in resistance,” said Walker, whose grandparents moved to Oakland in the 1950s. “We’re resisting right now, and we’re not going anywhere. We deserve to be here.”