'We Needed to Do Something to End This:' Why a Group of Black Moms Took Over a Vacant House in OaklandIn Depth
In November of of last year, a group of black mothers—Dominique Walker, Tolani King, Sameerah Karim, Sharena Thomas, and Misty Cross—moved into a shabby white house in Oakland that had sat vacant for two years. They called themselves Moms 4 Housing, and they had taken the radical but beautifully simple step of moving into the home, which was owned by a real estate investment company notorious for buying foreclosed homes and then flipping them for a tidy profit. At the time, they, like an increasing number of black Bay Area residents and families, were unhoused, or teetering on the edge of being unhoused.
They wanted a home for them and their children, but they also wanted their action to be a clarion call for change—all around them were empty, and expensive, homes, sitting vacant in the midst of a mushrooming homelessness and affordability crisis that has pushed largely black people and families in the Bay Area out of their neighborhoods, forcing them to move to other cities in search of cheaper housing or too often, into a crowded and unsafe shelter system, expensive motels, the couches of their friends and family members, or onto the streets. They pinned the blame squarely on companies like Wedgewood Properties, the owner of the home they occupied, which had bought the house for just over half a million dollars in July at a foreclosure auction.
“We decided that we needed to do something to end this,” Dominique Walker, one of the co-founders of Moms 4 Housing and an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, told Jezebel. “So out of complete desperation, we wanted to reclaim houses back from speculators. We wanted to provide shelter for our children.” Walker added, “And we wanted to make it very public and bring awareness to the bigger issue, because it was never just about us.”
Walker and the other women lived in the house for two months, raising their children and mounting a campaign to get Wedgewood to sell it to a community land trust.
Ultimately, Moms 4 Housing won—on January 20, days after a much-criticized pre-dawn eviction of the women and their children by the Alameda County Sheriff’s office, the group announced that they and the Oakland Community Land Trust had reached an agreement with Wedgewood to buy the house they had reclaimed, along with other concessions.
Jezebel spoke with Dominique Walker about why she and the other women decided to move into the vacant home, how working families are the new face of homelessness in America, and what she believes needs to happen in order to tackle the housing crisis in the Bay Area and in cities around the country. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: Why did you co-found Moms 4 Housing after you moved back home to Oakland?
DOMINIQUE WALKER: I would hear my family members say, “Oh, I’m going to move to Stockton, it’s cheaper, I’m moving to Vallejo, I’m moving to Antioch, I‘m going to Sacramento.” And I’m like, okay, everybody’s just moving. But when I got home and actually saw the result of the displacement of our people in Oakland, with seven out of ten [homeless people] being African-American, it was very alarming to me.
And then I became homeless. I was staying with a family member back in Stockton. That didn’t work. Then I was staying in a hotel, which was very unsafe and violent. And I was very vulnerable.
It wasn’t a coincidence that this was happening.
I’m talking to people, and the story was similar. It wasn’t a coincidence that this was happening. And we met some like-minded mothers that were also homeless. And we would talk to our community, and they would point at all of these vacant homes. And so we as an organization started researching—who owns these homes, and and why is this situation happening? And we discovered that it is first of all due to capitalism and corporations coming in and profiting off of the foreclosure crisis that’s happening here in Oakland, and [real estate] speculation. And we decided as a group that we no longer want them in our community.
What led you all to take the bold step of occupying a vacant house?
Just working with our community saying that this was not a coincidence. And it was happening to everyone around us that we would talk to, and this city also had become so conditioned and okay with seeing people sleeping on the streets, like with these encampments that are being set up everywhere.
And we decided that we needed to do something to end this. I mean, it’s normalized. So out of complete desperation, we wanted to reclaim houses back from speculators. We wanted to provide shelter for our children.
When you really think about it, what y’all did seems in some ways like the most logical step.
There are all of these vacant houses and all these people who need homes. Why not move people into them?
Yeah. And we wanted to make it very public and bring awareness to the bigger issue, because it was never just about us. Although we are mothers and we will do whatever we need to do to provide shelter for our children, we want to bring awareness to the bigger issue, that it’s not only affecting us.
It’s not only in Oakland. We’ve been hearing from folks all over the world who are experiencing these same issues. And we want to uplift housing as being a human right, because it absolutely is. The United Nations recognizes housing as a human right. We need America and everywhere else to recognize housing as a human right and not only recognize it, but do something make it an actual thing.
And the current systems we have in place are far from enough.
All of the moms went through the system that is set in place in Oakland if you are homeless, if you have children, if you’re looking for shelter.
I went into the place in Oakland that’s set up to help mothers and their children with finding shelter. They told me that the funding had been cut when I came, and I’m like, why would they cut the funding of a program during a housing crisis, when there’s folks sleeping on the street? So we tried to go through the proper channels, and those didn’t work.
We went through all of those programs, and we didn’t find any help. So we feel like a lot has to change. Right now, Moms 4 Housing is setting up a meeting with the governor of California and the mayor of Oakland to discuss policy change. But it only came about after doing this direct action, because on November 18 when we occupied this home, we reached out to our local officials, our governor, our mayor, and they were pretty much silent until it made national news. It just shows the power of people in organizing and coming together, because if not, they wouldn’t have started to change.
What was it like to be in the home for the two months you and the other families were living there?
It was wonderful. It’s so important for children to have shelter. I mean, it’s important for everyone, but for brain development in children especially. My son is one. He took his first steps in that home, and he said his first words.
And I’ve seen my daughter be able to run around and have this freedom and have that security of having a place to call home. And that’s so very important for all children to have.
And it was just amazing. And it was a win for ourselves. It was a win for the people in our community who had had our back. Every step of the way.
And then the eviction by the Alameda County Sheriff’s office happened on January 14.
The eviction that was carried out was absolutely shameful. I’ve never seen anything like it. They came with, I think, AR-15s. It looked like a scene out of a war zone. They had a robot come into the house first, like they do with terrorists, but it was just mothers and children in the house. So right now, our campaign is to hold the Alameda County sheriff accountable for coming into a residential neighborhood with tanks and AR-15s for mothers and babies. I’ve never seen that eviction carried out like that.
They claimed that someone tipped them. I would like to know their sources because every interview that I did personally and every one that the other mothers did leading up to the eviction, we said that we would be nonviolent, like many of the other civil rights movements that have happened. And that was our message. And we sent that message specifically because we know historically how the police come and attack black folks in particular. So we were very adamant about letting them know that we would be nonviolent.
But this is how they came in response to mothers and babies being vocal about being nonviolent.
It really took the outrage over the eviction for both elected officials and for Wedgewood Properties to come to the table.
Yes, it got national attention and it put a lot of pressure on city officials, the governor and Wedgwood to do the right thing, that’s we wanted to do in the beginning. But it shouldn’t have taken all of this for the negotiation of the house.
They wouldn’t even talk to us. They said they wouldn’t speak with us, they wouldn’t sit down with us. And now they’re willing to negotiate in good faith.
We’re skeptical of everyone who’s coming out now to support us who weren’t supporters from the beginning. But it just shows you the power of the people as a movement to put pressure on these people to act. We have the power, there’s more of us than the one percent who has everything. We see what happens when we come together and organize.
It’s such a huge victory that y’all won, to get Wedgewood to agree to sell the house to a community land trust. But when you realize that the land trust will still have to spend at least $500,000 to buy the house, it really highlights the scope of the housing crisis.
It’s a much bigger problem, and then the homes that are selling for half a million dollars are not even livable, they’re not up to code. The house on Magnolia Street, it was unkept. We had to pressure wash the house outside. We had to install a hot water heater. We had to have someone come patch the roof. There was so much a process to make this house a home and to get it up to code. It’s absolutely disgusting to see the prices of these houses, and they’re not even livable.
What more do you think needs to happen, whether it’s organizing or policy, to truly address the magnitude of the housing crisis?
I think that there definitely needs to be policy change and that’s our next step, working on policy change and uplifting housing as a human right in every space that we are in. We will not stop fighting until all unsheltered folks have housing. And that’s our next step. All sides need to come together to stop this, because I mean, commodifying a basic need is ridiculous.
A lot of people say that the one thing that really needs to happen is for the government, whether that’s local government, whether that’s the federal government, to actually step in and once again build affordable housing. Do you agree?
No, I don’t think there is a scarcity of housing here in Oakland in particular. There is not a scarcity of housing. So I don’t think housing needs to be built to be affordable. There’s housing here. So we just got to figure out how to get folks into these homes that are sitting vacant.
One thing that I think your organizing has highlighted is how the housing crisis can’t be disconnected from so many other issues—the lack of good-paying jobs, the high cost of childcare. At its heart, it’s about how unlivable conditions are for so many people.
The new face of homelessness is working folks. Our nurses, our teachers are housing insecure. Our organizers, our community workers, our low wage workers. Folks that you might check out with in the grocery store, you never know are homeless or housing insecure. And a lot of folks are scared to say that they’re homeless because they believe that their children are going to get taken away. And it becomes the issue of, who do we think deserves housing?
I think the living wage you have to make to be able to pay for a basic apartment here is like 41 or 42 dollars an hour. And also, where are those jobs? Everybody isn’t in tech. Those jobs aren’t here. Our minimum wage is fifteen dollars an hour.
When you’re homeless you do have to move around. And if you’re working and homeless, you do have to be able to afford childcare.
And childcare is absolutely ridiculous. The prices are ridiculous. My two small children are in childcare, so I’m working for 40-plus hours a week trying to provide shelter, daycare, and things like diapers. It becomes very difficult and very challenging. And yeah, it’s really hard to navigate and be okay, especially if you’re a single parent to try to do those things.
Displacement also is about destroying history and memory. You talked about coming back to Oakland after being gone for a time and seeing how much had changed.
The displacement is not only affecting folks commuting for hours for work or out on the streets, but it’s the sense of community, everything that Oakland is, is being destroyed. I noticed like when I came home in April of last year, I went to that neighborhood where I grew up in East Oakland.
And I’m like, oh, where’s Jericho? Oh, they moved to Stockton, they moved to Vallejo. So I didn’t have any of a sense of my childhood. When you come home, you expect to see neighbors, their kids have grown, a sense of community feel. And you don’t see that. That’s being destroyed. And then the folks coming in to a different culture are not wanting to, I guess, assimilate.
Assimilate is a good word for that.
They want to change it. They call the police on our drummers, our local churches. Barbecue Becky is a perfect example of people coming in and just changing the culture to fit their own. But there was already a culture here before you got here. We’re losing our sense of community.
Oakland has a rich history of community. My family has been here since the ’40s or ’50s, escaping from the rural south, like they exposed the KKK. And a lot of folks that did migrate here were escaping terrorism in the south and came here and built up Oakland. And now their families are being displaced.
Any last thoughts you want to share?
We also really understand that this is a movement, and we want everybody to join. We have Moms 4 Housing, there could be Teachers 4 Housing, Students 4 Housing. Be a part of this movement, because it affects us all. So this fight is your fight, too.