Dominique Walker sits in a long vacant three-bedroom house in West Oakland that she and another homeless mother — part of a group called Moms 4 Housing — occupied on Monday. Walker became homeless when she moved back to Oakland with her daughters after fleeing a domestic violence situation in Mississippi. (Kate Wolffe/KQED)
The two new occupants of a three-bedroom house on Magnolia Street in West Oakland were busy this week sprucing up the place — the blue cement front stairs still wet from a recent power wash.
But Dominique Walker, 34, and Sameerah Karim, 41, are not the legal tenants. On Monday, they occupied the long-vacant house, which is owned by a real estate investment firm, in a protest against housing speculation and Oakland's growing homeless crisis.
Walker and Karim, part of a newly formed small group called Moms 4 Housing, are not your typical squatters. For one, they’re being loud about it.
“We believe that housing is a human right and we're going to fight for that,” Walker said on Monday, as she stood in front of the house to announce the occupation.
Walker grew up in Oakland, but moved to Mississippi for college. In April, she fled a domestic violence situation, returning to Oakland with her two young daughters. She'd already been burdened with student loans, and went even further into debt after the move, she said.
Back in Oakland, she said she was stymied by an extremely competitive and expensive housing market. Even when she could afford to pay the first and last month's rent in a one-bedroom, her poor credit meant she'd have to pay landlords an “enormous” price to move in.
And so, despite working multiple jobs, Walker has been homeless since coming back to Oakland. She and her daughters have been bouncing between friends and family's houses, and spending some nights in hotels.
Karim, a second-generation Oakland resident with one adult son, is an Oakland Tech graduate studying nursing at Merritt College while also working full time. She became homeless four years ago, she said, when she lost her Section 8 housing voucher after being unable to find a landlord who would accept it.
“I'm working 70 hours a week — I know I deserve a roof over my head,” Karim wrote on her group's website. “I'm doing this so the generations that come after me don't never have to fight for the right to live.”
When the two single moms learned that Oakland had thousands of vacant homes, they decided to take action, insisting that there are more than enough places to go around.
“We want to see all unhoused moms have shelter,” Walker said. Since then, Moms 4 Housing, which describes itself as a small collective of homeless and marginally housed mothers trying to "reclaim housing for the Oakland community from the big banks and real estate speculators," has worked hard to make the Magnolia Street house livable, despite the distinct possibility of getting kicked out by its owners or the city.
“The only crime being committed here is the fact that we're letting people sleep on the streets. That's the biggest crime,” Walker said. “People deserve to be housed. This house being vacant is a crime when we’re facing a housing crisis.”
The house is owned by Catamount Properties 2018 LLC, a subsidiary of the Redondo Beach real estate investment firm Wedgewood Inc., according to Alameda County assessor records. On its website, Wedgewood describes itself as a “leading acquirer of distressed residential real estate.”
“These companies, they don't live in these houses,” said Aaron Glantz, an investigative reporter with Reveal who has written extensively about the nationwide housing crisis and whose book "Homewreckers" was recently published. “They don't live next door to these houses. They don't live in Oakland. They're just interested in realizing return on the investment of this property.”
The property manager of the home, who is employed by Wedgewood, did not respond to a request for comment.
Partly as a result of that discrepancy, Oakland voters last year approved a measure taxing owners of non-occupied properties, which goes into effect in 2020.
“We want to see the end of speculators in our community,” Walker said, claiming that the house has been vacant for more than two years. She hopes Wedgewood will sell it to them at an affordable price, or possibly even donate it. “We want vacant land that is owned by speculators to be given back to the community to which it belongs.”
Although rare, squatters have been able to take over houses in California through a complex and lengthy legal process called adverse possession — also known as “squatter's rights.” But it's only possible if the property owners don't step forward, and requires the occupants to pay property taxes and remain in the property for at least five years.
In the meantime, the two women are in the process of moving into the Magnolia Street house. They've raised funds to pay for a cleaning company and a security guard, and about a dozen community volunteers have come by to help set up furniture and identify the necessary repairs.
Walker says she hopes to make the common areas into an assembly space for the community.
"We're getting everything cleaned out, and then we're going to get some nice area rugs, things to make the children and ourselves comfortable," she said. “It’s mom’s house."