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Police raid on Black moms in Oakland sheds light on growing housing crisis

By Barrington M. Salmon -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Jan 22, 2020 - 12:09:17 PM

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Dominique Walker, Sharena Thomas, Tolani King, Sameerah Karim and Misty Cross have become symbols and icons of Oakland and America’s burgeoning affordable housing and homeless crises after occupying a vacant house in West Oakland for 57 days.

Demonstrators took to streets when police came out to evict mothers who had occupied a home in Oakland, where skyrocketing home prices and rents have left thousands of working people unable to afford a place to live. The crisis in Oakland is happening in other parts of the country and the state of California.

In a recent early morning raid, a legion of cops from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department—including SWAT team members—armed with AR-15s, a tank and a robot used to search for bombs, used a battering ram to crush the front door and arrested the four adult occupants who were later charged with resisting arrest and obstructing a peace officer. The Jan. 14 raid sparked nationwide anger and condemnation.

The quartet were released and Moms 4 Housing announced Jan. 20 that a deal to purchase the home for the group had been reached. According to the group, Wedgewood Inc. will sell the property to a non-profit that refurbishes homes to provide affordable housing. The women will stay in the home.

Mayor Libby Schaaf and the city helped broker the agreement deal. “Huge news: We have reached an agreement to purchase #MomsHouse. Wedgewood will negotiate in good faith w/ the Oakland Community Land Trust (@ oakclt) to purchase the Magnolia Street home for ‘a price not to exceed the appraised value.’ This is what happens when we organize, y’all,” tweeted Moms 4 Housing.

According to the Associated Press, Wedgewood agreed to work with the city to negotiate a right-of-first-refusal program for all its other Oakland properties, a city statement said.

Wedgewood, based in Southern California, has flipped 160 homes in Oakland over the past nine years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, AP reported. The company bought the property in the distressed west Oakland at a foreclosure auction last year for just over $500,000, said AP.


The working but homeless mothers’ act of civil disobedience was one driven by need but the occupation of the three bedrooms, one bathroom, 1,400-square-foot home at 2928 Magnolia Street pointed to the reality that while more than 100,000 homes in Oakland sit empty, more than 30,000 human beings are homeless and living on the street.

Wealthy newcomers have displaced longtime residents, who would have to be making $48/hour to afford the current rents, but on average, for those like the members of the Moms 4 Housing collective, they make about $14/hour. As a consequence, homelessness has spiked to crisis levels, as reflected by the fact that the current homeless population of more than 8,000 people in Oakland, has exploded by 47 percent in the past two years.

The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, Calif. increased by 34.6 percent in one year, jumping from $2,275 to $3,063. The root cause is that money from tech firms has flooded the Bay Area and the housing supply isn’t enough to keep up with the influx of jobs and money. According to experts’ analysis and available data, a place to live is so expensive that in some parts of the Bay Area, a person or family is considered “middle class” if they make $200,000 a year.

The Final Call was unable to reach Ms. Walker or any of the other mothers or their representatives before press time, but during a Jan. 14 discussion with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now, she explained the reasoning behind the occupation.

“… The goal of our organization is to reclaim houses back into the hands of the community and to house unsheltered moms and children,” said Ms. Walker, one of the co-founders for Moms 4 Housing and the mother of two young 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,” she explained.

“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. 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 percent of the homeless population now in Oakland is under the age of 18,” said Ms. Walker.

Skyrocketing rents and unnecessary hardships

A week before Thanksgiving, Ms. Walker, her two children and two other families moved into the house which had been vacant for at least two years. They washed the walls, installed a water heater, hauled their kids’ bunk beds upstairs and decorated the living room with a mix of plants and soft furniture. They also paid the water and electric bills.

“I have a one-year-old and a four-year-old. She’ll be five on Saturday. And they have been so happy to have a place to call home,” Ms. Walker said during the Democracy Now interview. “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.” She said her children were so excited to be sheltered.

Her one year old, she said, took his first steps and uttered his first words after the family moved into the house.

Ms. Walker was taping an early morning interview with Democracy Now and according to news reports, she cut short the interview after learning that deputies were at the house.

“I’m angry because my sisters and our supporters are in handcuffs right now, all because we have the right to housing,” she told reporters shortly after the incident. “This moment is just beginning. We see what we’re up against, but we also see what they’re afraid of, because we mobilized 300 people in 15 minutes.”

This direct action—reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement— forced city officials, stakeholders, the country and the world to acknowledge the commoditization of homelessness; the importance of property over people; the militarization of the police; and a racialized system that disproportionately affects Blacks.

A story written by Rick Paulus of Vice noted that Ms. Walker, 34, fled domestic violence in Mississippi to return home, but couldn’t afford a place to stay. One landlord asked her for an $8,000 move-in fee. Ms. Karim, 41, worked three jobs but still couldn’t afford rent.

Student Minister Abdul Sabur Muhammad has lived in Oakland— birthplace of the Black Panther Party and a resilient city with a proud history of activism and resistance—for the past 30 years. He has witnessed the human costs of the tech industry’s explosive growth in San Francisco, Oakland and other parts of the Silicon Valley.

“When I moved here in 1991, a two-bedroom apartment rented for $600 a month. That same apartment is now $2,500 a month,” said Student Minister Muhammad, who heads the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No. 26B in Oakland. “This began with the housing boom and the tech industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can get from downtown West Oakland to downtown San Francisco faster than you can from West to East Oakland,” he explained.

“The prices of rent and homes have been driven up and Oakland’s homeless rate has skyrocketed. Oakland’s Black population is about 20 percent but they make up 50 percent of the homeless who are popping up in these encampments,” said Student Minister Muhammad.

Indigo Olivier, a freelance writer for Jacobin magazine, observed, “In Alameda County, where this showdown occurred, an $89,600 salary for a family of four is considered ‘low-income.’ ”

Add to that the fact that Black communities have historically been shut out of homeownership, which contributes significantly to generational wealth or lack thereof.

Racism, removal and heavy-handed tactics

Washington, D.C.-based organizer and social justice activist Jacqueline Luqman told The Final Call she was incensed by the approach and method law enforcement employed on women and children.

“The kind of equipment that was brandished to remove some homeless families from a vacant property that had been sitting empty for over a year is the kind of equipment that is used to patrol the streets of Fallujah or some other unfortunate village of Brown people that the U.S. has decided is the enemy and needs to be ‘pacified,’ ” said Ms. Luqman, who is co-host of Sputnik News’ “By Any Means Necessary.”

“But the word is really ‘terrorized,’ because that is what that kind of show of force is meant to do—terrorize the members of the community into not organizing, not resisting the status quo, not standing up for themselves,” she added.

“This is how the money this country pours into the wars abroad also shows up on the streets of America, but only on some streets, like those that the corporate class needs to keep safe from those pesky people who think they deserve things like housing for their future investments. The 1033 program that funds war on our streets against poor with the same DOD (Department of Defense) equipment used to terrorize other countries that are sold as surplus to U.S. local law enforcement to be used to terrorize is citizens. But if we were seen as citizens and not enemy combatants, police wouldn’t serve an eviction notice with an armored tank and riot gear,” said Ms. Luqman.

In cities like Oakland, foreclosed homes have created an opening for a multibillion-dollar market to emerge. Developers use houses as investment vehicles distributed on a large scale with the goal of making a profit—driving up rents in the process. Moms 4 Housing, Justa Causa, the Oakland Tenants Union, the East Bay Community Law Center, the Eviction Defense Center, the Association for Californians for Community Empowerment, the Oakland Community Land Trust, churches and civil society organization and a number of public officials such as Oakland Councilmembers Nikki Fortunato Bas and Dan Kalb, as well as Council President Rebecca Kaplan have pushed back against these tactics.

Prior to the eviction, Wedgewood Properties who bought the property for $501,000, offered to pay Catholic Charities of the East Bay to move the women out and shelter them for the next two months. Ms. Walker rejected the offer, saying it was “an insult.”

Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland office for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and a supporter of Ms. Walker and her colleagues, agreed.

“… That’s what’s criminal about this housing crisis. There are actually places where people can live,” said Ms. Fife, an organizer, educator and mother who has lived in Oakland for more than 20 years. “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,” she said.

“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.”

Ms. Fife said Oakland looks like an entirely different city than it did years ago, and blames corporations that are able to rent-gouge. They have homes for rent and charge exorbitant rates for homes that are not worth what they’re actually selling them for, she added.

Heather Hood, an Oakland resident and vice president and market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, said this crisis has been decades in the making and defies simple solutions.

Residents often exert community control to block the building on new homes or other structures in their neighborhoods, she said. That has exacerbated the problem and contributed to the severe shortage of houses.

Then there’s the astronomical cost of construction and building new homes, the shortage of suitable land on which to build.

“All this makes it so very difficult to build houses, much less those that are affordable,” said Ms. Hood, who is co-chair of the mayor’s Housing Cabinet.

Ms. Hood said a raft of organizations and entities such as CASA (Committee to House the Bay Area) and local and regional leaders have been convening and working on public housing, preserving housing stock, buying houses, creating affordable housing and searching for ways to protect those most likely to be housing insecure or homeless.

Dr. Karen Chapple said what Oakland is experiencing is typical of “high-cost” metropolitan areas such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

“We’re seeing the mainstreaming of the housing affordability crisis. We have an affordability crisis and displacement and incomes are too low,” said Dr. Chapple, professor and chair of City & Regional Planning at University of California Berkeley where she holds the Carmel P. Friesen Chair in Urban Studies. “… I’m a big advocate of preserving older housing stock because new homes are super expensive.”

Dr. Chapple, who co-founded the Urban Displacement Project in 2015, said Oakland has allocated $100 million for housing preservation and voters passed a housing bond the proceeds of which will be used to buy apartment buildings. She cited efforts by the National Housing Trust and a number of U.S. cities which have introduced tax initiatives, bonds and other instruments to address and try to ameliorate this issue.

With the high price of houses and rent triggering displacement and homelessness, Dr. Chapple is not very hopeful.

“I’m not very optimistic. I think we’re at the beginning of a housing crisis that will last for a long time,” she said. “Growing income inability is a daunting problem. It’s so much worse in the last few years. Addressing that is another thing we have to do.”

Ms. Walker and Ms. Fife have vowed to keep fighting to uphold their belief that housing is a civil right. Ms. Fife contends that speculation has to be taken out of real estate and the goal must be to decommodify housing. “Adverse possession” is an option more homeless people are considering. Meanwhile, a movement demanding a right to housing has begun to coalesce in recent months.

“From the grassroots organizing end, this is where collective organizing comes in,” said Jacqueline Luqman, the D.C.-based social justice activist. “This really is a critical moment for Black organizations to practice collectivism. We need to be helping people in our community by educating them to understand the system, work within it and use it to achieve our goals. There are mechanisms to do the same thing those predatory organizations are doing,” she added.

“Companies know where to go to snatch houses but we can learn that too. The community needs to be oriented towards collectivism—pooling resources and buying up houses that are pretty cheap. That will keep predatory investors out of those communities.”