Moms 4 Housing: Meet the Oakland Mothers Facing Eviction After Two Months Occupying Vacant House

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Image Credit: Brandon Jourdan

In Oakland, California, a group of mothers fighting homelessness is waging a battle against real estate speculators and demanding permanent solutions to the Bay Area housing crisis by occupying a vacant house with their children. The struggle began in November, when working mothers in West Oakland moved into 2928 Magnolia Street, a vacant house owned by real estate investment firm Wedgewood Properties. The firm tried to evict them, claiming they were illegally squatting on private property, but the mothers went to court and filed a “right to possession” claim, saying housing is a human right. Their name is Moms 4 Housing. The battle for the house came to a head last week when an Alameda County judge ruled in favor of Wedgewood Properties and ordered the mothers to vacate the house. But Moms 4 Housing has stayed to fight eviction. Monday night, hundreds of protesters gathered at the house after receiving a tip that the Sheriff’s Office was coming to evict the families — a show of support that led the sheriff to abandon the eviction attempt. We speak with Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland office for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and Dominique Walker, a member of Moms 4 Housing who has been living at the house with her family. Our interview was interrupted by news of another possible eviction attempt.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Oakland, California, where a group of mothers fighting homelessness are waging a battle against real estate speculators and demanding permanent solutions to the Bay Area housing crisis by occupying a vacant house with their children. The struggle began in November, when working mothers in West Oakland moved into 2928 Magnolia Street, a vacant house owned by real estate investment firm Wedgewood Properties. The firm tried to evict them, claiming they were illegally squatting on private property, but the mothers went to court and filed a “right to possession” claim, saying housing is a human right. Their name is Moms 4 Housing.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a video by Brandon Jourdan and Marianne Maeckelbergh.

DOMINIQUE WALKER: My name is Dominique Walker. I am one of the co-founders of Moms 4 Housing. And the goal of our organization is to reclaim houses back into the hands of the community and to house unsheltered moms and children. There’s four vacant houses for every one homeless person in Oakland.

We are reclaiming this house from a billion-dollar corporation who bought this house at a foreclosed price. It has been vacant for two years while people are living out on the street.

We felt like this was necessary to take this step. Like, even when I personally tried to go through the proper channels to get help to move and be able to pay this rent, they’re still not affordable. So I feel like it was up to us to organize ourselves to be able to have housing.

MARIANNE MAECKELBERGH: In the last two years, homelessness in Oakland has increased by 47%. With average rental rates in Oakland rising to nearly $3,000 a month, there are few or no options for most people looking for housing.

DOMINIQUE WALKER: There are 6,000 to 8,000 folks sleeping on the streets. And that’s not even accounting for all of the unhoused people and housing-insecure. Homelessness affects your mental health, brain development in children, their physical health. And 28% of the homeless population now in Oakland is under the age of 18.

I have a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old. She’ll be 5 on Saturday. And they have been so happy to have a place to call home.

This is our fridge, stove, kitchen area. We had to do a lot of fixing up this house, and we’re still working on it. This house was not kept up to code.

My children are now so excited to be sheltered. My 1-year-old started walking since we’ve been in the house. And he’s had a baby zone where he can crawl around and stand up and start to take those first steps. And he did that here.

This house was owned by Wedgewood, a company that is a displacement machine. They’re composed of five different companies. They all play a role in the direct displacement of people.

We’re taking a stand, and it doesn’t end with one house. We want to take Oakland back from all speculators. We’re not going to stop organizing until we all have shelter.

AMY GOODMAN: Wedgewood Properties has offered to pay for moving expenses and temporary housing for the women for two months if they vacate the house, a proposal Moms 4 Housing has rejected. The battle for the house came to a head last week when an Alameda County judge ruled in favor of Wedgewood Properties and ordered the mothers to vacate the house. But Moms 4 Housing has stayed to fight eviction. Monday night, hundreds of people from the neighborhood and beyond gathered at the house after receiving a tip that the Sheriff’s Office was coming to evict the families.

PROTESTERS: Stop the eviction! We won’t move! Stop the eviction! We won’t move!

NICOLE DEANE: My name’s Nicole. I’m an organizer with Moms’ House Solidarity Committee. And we just got word that the sheriffs were on their way to evict Moms 4 Housing. And so we sent out a text blast to over 1,800 people. And that was maybe 15 minutes ago. As you can see, we’ve got hundreds of people showing up to defend the house, which is a really beautiful and awesome thing. And so, we’re here, and we’re holding fast.

MOMS 4 HOUSING MEMBER: Thank you for your support!

PROTESTER: We love you!

DOMINIQUE WALKER: People are out here. The community has had enough. We’ve had enough. And this shows you that we’ve had enough, and we’re going to fight back.

PROTESTERS: The rent, the rent, the rent is too damn high! The rent, the rent, the rent is too damn high! The rent, the rent, the rent is too damn high! The rent, the rent, the rent is too damn high!

CARROLL FIFE: The sheriffs had plans to run up in here tonight, and that didn’t happen. They were on the 5:00 news saying that they would be indoors any minute. And then they had another person here saying that they would come in at 7:00, and they didn’t. So I think they understand how — like Dominique said, how the town get down. So, we got report that it was on CNN that the sheriff said there would be no entry tonight. That is definitely reason for applause. And at the same time, we don’t trust the sheriff. … Please go home, if you have a home to go to, and get some rest, because this is still the beginning of a fight.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Carroll Fife, who’s joining us live in the studio, the piece produced by Brandon Jourdan and Marianne Maeckelbergh, as we go now to Berkeley, California, where we’re joined by Moms 4 Housing’s Dominique Walker and Carroll Fife, the director of the Oakland office for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I don’t know if you have gotten any sleep, but, Carroll, that’s you speaking last night. There are hundreds of people who are in front of the house. You say you heard on CNN that the sheriff said, OK, he’s not moving in. But explain what’s happening now.

CARROLL FIFE: Right. We got word from the daughter of Dorothy King of Everett & Jones that she saw it on the news that there would be no entry by the sheriffs last night. They did drive by a couple more times, but they did not attempt to enter the home to serve the eviction notice. So, we’re going into our second day of eviction defense for Moms 4 Housing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Carroll, could you talk a little bit about the scope and the scale of the housing crisis that Oakland is facing, but that many cities across the country have similar problems, if not at the level of the situation right now in Oakland?

CARROLL FIFE: Right. After the housing crisis and the foreclosure crisis of 2008, many homeowners lost their primary residences — their only residences. And so that allowed speculators and the banks that were bailed out by the government at that time to come in and scoop up homes at rock-bottom prices. So, that is still happening, and we’re still experiencing the impacts of the foreclosure crisis, with speculators owning 35% of the housing stock in America.

So, some state that Oakland has the worst speculation crisis in the country. And that’s observable by how high the rents are. You have the median one-bedroom market-rate unit starting at around $2,500 a month. And so, the housing wage, which is different from the minimum wage or living wage, in Alameda County, where Oakland is located, is $40.88 per hour. And that is out of reach for many of Oakland’s working-class people.

AMY GOODMAN: Dominique Walker, you’re one of the women who, with your families, are occupying this house. Explain when you got into it and what is happening right now, how long you’ve been there and what this legal process has been, what your plans are.

DOMINIQUE WALKER: Yes. We moved in to Magnolia Street on November 18th. We’ve been there ever since. And we count that as a win. We’ve provided shelter for our children. This came out of absolute desperation, out of going through every program set up to help families in this predicament. Nothing helped. We were turned away. Programs were — the funding was cut from programs that were set up to help. This was an act of desperation. And it just gives light to the bigger issue going on here all over the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk a little bit about your situation before you decided to occupy this particular property, your housing situation with your family?

DOMINIQUE WALKER: Yes. I moved back to Oakland in April 2019 with my two small children, from Mississippi. And I was working full-time, with a part-time job, as well, and could not afford rents. First, I was staying housing-insecure, living with family members. But most of my entire community has been displaced. I was born and raised in Oakland. And most of folks are either displaced out, at least 45 minutes to a couple hours out, or they’re displaced onto the street. So, I was commuting for hours trying to get into Oakland to serve my community. And after situations didn’t work out living on couches and in rooms, I was living in hotel rooms. And being homeless is very violent.

And I’ve seen the development in my children since they’ve had shelter. My son took his first steps on Magnolia Street, said his first words. My daughter turned 5 in the house on Magnolia Street. It’s an absolute necessity to have shelter. And it’s a basic human right.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the San Francisco Chronicle says almost 70% of the people living in Oakland streets are African-American; however, African Americans constitute just 28% of Oakland’s population. I wanted to talk about one of the young people who are in the house. Let’s turn to Destiny Johnson. She’s one of the kids living in, well, what everyone is calling now Moms’ House.

DESTINY JOHNSON: OK, so what’s the what-what? What’s going on? What’s happening? My mom and lots of other moms, all who have young kids, all who are experiencing some kind of homelessness, took over this abandoned home, a vacant property, a house no one was living in for close to two years. We fixed it up. Now we live in it. We made it a home.

And here it is. And here it is! Now I have a clean and quiet place where I can do my homework. So, in the morning, when the sun comes up, I like to sit on the back steps and read. And it has this little front yard with the trees.

I worry. I do. I worry a lot. I worry for my mom, because she puts herself out there. And I worry for my little sister. She’s only 5. She’s a kid. She doesn’t really understand what’s — what’s going on. And I know she’s already falling in love with having a place to call home.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Destiny Johnson in a video produced by Zween Works. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask Carroll Fife about Wedgewood Properties. What can you tell us about the firm itself and also about the public relations guy by the name of Sam Singer that they’ve selected basically to be their spokesperson on the issue of what’s going on in Oakland?

CARROLL FIFE: I will speak about that because I have to. I hate to give credence and time to such awful individuals and such evil organizations.

Wedgewood Properties has approximately 96 subsidiaries. And they are the real estate speculator that is holding the deed for Moms’ House. They are in the business of buying homes at rock-bottom prices and flipping them. And that is part of the problem why housing is so unaffordable in cities like Oakland. They buy houses by bulk, so 100 to 200 properties per month, if not more, in distressed neighborhoods — their words — and then they flip them and sell them to the highest bidder. So it puts home prices out of reach for many working-class people. So they drive up the cost of rents and the cost of actually purchasing a home, which is why homeownership levels are so low.

And since they are such bad characters, they’ve also hired another bad character to get them out of this situation and make them look like the victim. And that is Sam Singer. And he’s doing everything in his power to villainize and criminalize the mothers. And we’re seeing old stereotypes and old tropes about black women on every single social media site where the moms are. There’s trolls every day that are really working to tear the mothers down. They’ve experienced different levels of violence, one mother in particular. And it’s just — it’s really sad, the levels that they’re going to to criminalize these moms.

AMY GOODMAN: Carroll, in Mother Jones magazine, they write, “In Oakland, where buyers routinely offer hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking prices, there are nearly four vacant properties for every homeless person.”

CARROLL FIFE: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: “It’s not so much an issue of scarcity, but of distribution.” Explain that further. And then explain what the judge ruled and where you see this headed now. I mean, the images of last night, of the hundreds of people who called when some kind of group text went out, within minutes coming to the house. But talk about that, the level of vacancy.

CARROLL FIFE: And that’s what’s criminal about this housing crisis. There are actually places where people can live. But because they’re private, they’re privately owned, it makes it difficult to even crack into what a solution could be, because the private industry doesn’t have to be held accountable. And that is what we’re saying is criminal. It should not be legal for anyone that owns property, particularly corporations.

And we want to make a distinction, because that’s what’s been thrown around a lot, too, is that if an individual mom-and-pop owner of a property left it empty because they’re on vacation, then somehow Moms 4 Housing is advocating taking people’s personal property. That is completely and patently false. What we’re saying is corporations should not be able to hold vacant properties when there is a housing crisis. There should not be people living on the streets when there are places where they can live.

This is — Oakland looks like an entirely different city than it did years ago, and it’s strictly due to corporations that are able to rent-gouge when they have homes for rent and charge way over market for homes that are not worth what they’re actually selling them for.

And so, this is starting a movement where people who are also experiencing housing insecurity, which means they pay more than 30% of their income in rent, are waking up, because they’ve seen this example of Moms 4 Housing define what the market trends are, and saying, “We deserve housing for all, not just for those who can pay the high price tags.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Carroll, what’s been the response of the local political leadership in Oakland? After all, Oakland is famous as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. It was the place where Jerry Brown was a mayor for a while. How have the political leaders responded to this crisis and to the protests, in particular, of Moms 4 Housing?

CARROLL FIFE: It’s actually been mixed. Right? We have city councilmembers who have actually been at press conferences standing with the moms. And we are very grateful for their support and their leadership in thinking of creative ways that they can impact the housing crisis. But we also have city councilmembers who have been silent. And you mentioned the Black Panthers. And unfortunately, it’s our African-American leadership that’s been silent on this issue. We have had support from other community organizations, like the local NAACP.

And at the press conference that was recently held in Oakland regarding a Senate bill that’s supposed to develop additional housing, we heard on the podium that day — hadn’t heard before — that several assemblymembers and several senators also support Moms 4 Housing. But what we’re asking them, including our congresswoman, our governor, is to do more than just say that you support Moms 4 Housing. Make that tangible. Create some kind of — answer a phone call, answer an email and really show up, so there is like a tangible way to show that you are concerned about the housing crisis, not just words.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Dominique, can you talk about what it means to you when you looked outside last night and you saw how many hundreds of people, and what this home means to you and your children, what it has felt like being in this house that was vacant for two years, now for the last two months being there?

DOMINIQUE WALKER: Yes, last night was amazing. It just showed me that it’s still Oakland. We’re still Oakland. We are a town of resistance, and we fight back. And we saw our community have our full backs last night. Within 15 minutes, there were over, I think, 300 people mobilized, in 15 minutes. That’s people power.

It’s just been amazing to have a shelter for my children and to be this example for them. People always ask me — there’s children involved. And I want my children to know that their mother was on the right side of history.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Very quickly, Carroll, what’s the timeline now? Could Moms 4 Housing be evicted at any point?

CARROLL FIFE: Moms 4 Housing could be evicted at any point. And I just think it’s important to say that we need to take speculation out of real estate, and we need to decommodify housing. And everyone that’s showing up over the next two days, up until Wednesday, believes that, too. And we look forward to the fight.

AMY GOODMAN: 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. Is that your understanding, as we’re speaking?

UNIDENTIFIED: They gotta go.

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes.

CARROLL FIFE: Oh, OK. Yeah, I think we gotta go.

DOMINIQUE WALKER: Yeah, we gotta go.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll continue to cover this. Go to democracynow.org. We’ll bring you updates throughout the day. I want to thank Carroll Fife of the Oakland office for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and also Dominique Walker, who’s one of the moms with her kids in the house the sheriff is knocking on right now. She’s with Moms 4 Housing.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we hear from Martín Espada. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: That’s The Roots singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” one of the chants from yesterday’s protest in Oakland.

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