Nearly a Decade Ago, This Oakland Mom Protested and Won Her House Back

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Gayla Newsome was evicted from her West Oakland home in 2011 after it was foreclosed on, but she eventually won it back after occupying it. (Molly Solomon/KQED)

Less than a mile from a West Oakland house that a group of mothers, widely known as Moms 4 Housing, occupied in protest against real estate speculation sits another house, another mom with a similar story.

Gayla Newsome was among the first East Bay residents to begin fighting foreclosures during the financial mortgage crisis with the help of community activist groups which put pressure on banks. They also used some of the same protest tactics that unfolded over the last two months with the Moms 4 Housing group.

That coalition of homeless and marginally housed mothers announced a major victory on Monday following their high-profile, months-long occupation of a vacant West Oakland home. Activists and moms Dominique Walker and Sameerah Karim started living at 2928 Magnolia St. without permission in November to bring attention to Oakland's housing and homelessness crisis, and to protest real estate speculation.

After a legal battle that culminated in Walker's eviction, Moms 4 Housing said a deal had been reached for them to buy the home. Wedgewood Inc., the investment company that owns the home — along with dozens of others in Oakland — agreed to sell it to the Oakland Community Land Trust, through which the moms could then purchase it. The moms plan to make it a headquarters for their movement.

But it’s not the first time people have prevailed after taking over a home in Oakland to protest displacement.

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In December of 2011, Gayla Newsome broke the kitchen window of a house on Adeline Street — the same house she had raised her kids in — after she was evicted following a foreclosure. It’s where she pasted notes with legal language she scribbled down on loose paper at the advice of her attorney.

"Everybody knows this as the 'occupy house,' " said Newsome as she walked through the downstairs of her two-story townhouse in the Victoria Court complex in West Oakland.

Above the sink sits a white ceramic angel, a gift from a supporter during the months-long occupation to keep the house safe. More than eight years later, Newsome said it’s still doing its job.

Newsome originally bought the cream-colored townhouse in 1997 for about $150,000.

“I was the first person to buy one of the homes in this development,” she said.

But things started to unravel around the economic downturn. Newsome lost her job running a local nonprofit. She got divorced, and her two daughters were both in college out of state.

So Newsome decided she needed to take out a second loan. “And I got behind on that second loan,” she said. “So the second lender placed a foreclosure.”

Newsome remembers clearly what happened next.

“So I was at work one day and my daughter called me and she said, ‘Mom, the sheriff is here. And we are outside with two emergency suitcases and they've already changed the locks,’ ” Newsome remembered.

Gayla Newsome was evicted from her West Oakland home in 2011 after it was foreclosed on, but she eventually won it back by occupying it. (Molly Solomon/KQED)

The home was auctioned off to an investor and she was evicted. Newsome was given four hours to collect all her belongings that were locked inside. Most of her things ended up left behind.

She moved into a motel with her daughters in Silicon Valley, where she worked as a technology salesperson. Eventually, she moved back in with her parents.

Around the same time, the Occupy movement was beginning to expand beyond Wall Street, and a new movement was taking place to reclaim vacant property and homes lost to the foreclosure crisis.

Newsome heard about it and got in touch with local organizers, which included Occupy Oakland and Oakland ACCE, the group that has been working recently with Moms 4 Housing.

And she made a decision: She was going to do whatever it took to move back in.

“And I said I've got to take that risk because I've gotta get my house back,” she said.

The occupation took months. Most nights Newsome slept on the floor in a sleeping bag alongside her two older daughters. The constant battle with law enforcement took its toll. Newsome ended up having to take time off work because of stress.

Similar to Moms 4 Housing, the movement around Newsome’s home swelled with supporters, eager to act as eviction defense when the sheriff showed up.

“Whenever anybody — a mayor, law enforcement, homeowner's association — if anybody like that showed up, somebody hit the phone tree,” she said. “And there was like a human barrier.”

And organizers began to take on the banks. For two hours, they shut down the branch of Chase Bank in downtown Oakland where Newsome had her mortgage. Activists flew to San Diego to protest outside the office of Residential Capital Mortgage Income Fund, the second lender.

Newsome made her own personal plea to the CEO of that lender.

“I put it all in a letter to him to explain my total situation,” Newsome said. “And when I wrote him the personal letter, they took the second loan off basically."

She eventually got the deed back and is once again the rightful owner of her house. But she said the fight was bigger than just her.

“This is for my entire West Oakland community,” she said.

Moms 4 housing

Newsome pointed out other homes on her block that neighbors have lost to foreclosure, many of them in the same complex she lives in. Sometimes she doesn’t even realize it's happened until they're gone.

"People who used to live in Oakland, they can't afford to even rent on this block,” let alone be a homeowner, Newsome said.

As gentrification has crossed the bay, Newsome has seen her black and brown neighbors priced out of a changing Oakland. Her own house increased in value by more than four times its original sale price. It’s now estimated on Zillow to be worth just under $700,000. Most of the other homes on her block are going for even more.

"This is a million-dollar block now," Newsome said. "And that's what's going on in this community. That's what's going on."

Newsome has been following the Moms 4 Housing story closely. Earlier this month, she met the moms shortly before they were evicted.

She said while their stories aren't identical, they strike a similar chord. They’re stories of the trauma and pain of eviction, of seeing your hometown change and witnessing how close you can be to living on the streets.

"So people like myself, people like Moms 4 Housing, that's that voice," she said. "Those people finally have a voice."

A voice, Newsome said, for people who are still fighting every day to stay in Oakland.

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