How Moms 4 Housing Changed Laws and Inspired a Movement

Dominique Walker stands in front of a home on Magnolia Street in West Oakland on Oct. 9, 2020. She and three other moms occupied the home for two months in late 2019 and early 2020 to protest real estate speculation that leads to high housing costs in Oakland. She returned almost a year later to celebrate after a community land trust bought the home. It will now become transitional housing for homeless mothers. (Erin Baldassari/KQED)

Nearly a year after a group of homeless moms occupied a house in West Oakland and captured the nation's attention with their protest against the Bay Area's high housing costs, they came back to the home to celebrate.

On Oct. 9, Moms 4 Housing announced the home would soon become transitional housing for other homeless mothers, with services on-site to help with jobs, credit readiness and permanent housing.

"This is officially moms' house," said Dominique Walker, one of the moms who occupied the home.

She said the date marked her son's second birthday.

"He took his first steps in this house," she said. "And it's so important for our children to have that space to pull up and begin to take their first steps."

But it was only the first step for the moms' movement. The women — all Black, working mothers — became a symbol of the Bay Area's housing crisis. And their rallying cry, "housing is a human right," added fuel to an already simmering fire among activists, who are demanding a different vision for housing in this country.

KQED's new podcast SOLD OUT: Rethinking Housing in America looks at what it would actually mean to make housing a human right. Listen to episode five below. Read the transcript.


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The House the Moms Built

On Jan. 20, Wedgewood Properties, the company that owned the house, agreed to sell it to the Oakland Community Land Trust on the moms' behalf. The trust finalized the deal in May, buying the home for $587,500 with donations they raised from supporters of the moms' movement.

The deal was announced less than a week after the moms had been evicted from the home they had occupied for nearly two months.

But it was only the first in a string of changes sparked by their protest, including: a new state law, a proposed amendment to the California Constitution and two proposed city ordinances. Moms 4 Housing also had a broader impact that goes beyond the law — they inspired others to use activism to push for change.

"The actions that Moms 4 Housing took were bold and courageous like the lunch counters in the South, like the marches in Selma, like the lone protester in Tiananmen," said Carroll Fife, the director of the Oakland chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and the lead organizer of the occupation. "It was an act of civil disobedience to highlight the inequity, the violence and the terror of this system of housing."

Fife is now running for a seat on the Oakland City Council.

Supporters of Moms 4 Housing rally in front of the West Oakland house the group occupied for several months before being forcefully evicted in January. A community land trust has since agreed to purchase the house and allow the women move back in.
Supporters of Moms 4 Housing rally in front of the West Oakland house the group occupied for several months before being forcefully evicted in January. A community land trust has since agreed to purchase the house and allow the women to move back in. (Molly Solomon/KQED)

Here's some of what the moms' inspired: 

  • More homes available for affordable housing: In January, a spokesman for Wedgewood said the company would give the right of first refusal for all its properties to the city and the Oakland Community Land Trust whenever it sells a home in Oakland. So far, the land trust hasn't purchased any of Wedgewood's more than 100 homes in Oakland. But Steve King, executive director of the Oakland Community Land Trust, said they are talking to Wedgewood about a few of those properties.
  • Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act: Two proposals in Oakland and Berkeley would require property owners who want to sell a building to first offer it to the tenants living there. Owners aren't required to accept the offer, but if they get a better, higher offer, they would be required to allow the tenants a set number of days to match it. At the celebration outside the home on Oct. 9, City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas said the coronavirus and economic recession had delayed plans for introducing the measure to the City Council, but she planned to put it forward after the election. And, at the State of the City earlier this month, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said city officials planned to gather more input on the proposal before advancing it early next year: "We think this is really critical to provide some stability for tenants in Berkeley to ensure longtime ownership in the community and to preserve the economic and cultural diversity of the city."
  • Homes for Homeowners, Not Corporations: The governor signed a new law this year inspired by the moms. Senate Bill 1079, authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, is aimed at making it less lucrative for corporations to buy multiple properties at once during foreclosure auctions — and then let the properties sit vacant. The new law requires homes to be sold individually, which, in theory, gives families and individuals a better shot at buying the home. After initial bids are received, tenants, families, local governments, affordable housing nonprofits and community land trusts will be given the opportunity to match the highest bid. The new law also increases the fine cities can levy on blighted properties from $1,000 per day for the first 30 days to $2,000 per day, with a maximum of $5,000 per day after the first 30 days. In a statement, Skinner said "SB 1079 sends a clear message to Wall Street: California homes are not yours to gobble up; we won’t tolerate another corporate takeover of housing."
  • Proposed constitutional amendment would make housing a right in California: Earlier this year, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, proposed the Housing is a Human Right Act, which would have been the first step to enshrining a right to housing in the California Constitution. The bill died early in the legislative session. It was too big and too complex to get it passed during this year's chaotic session, which was overwhelmed with responding to the coronavirus pandemic, Bonta said. The bill would need a two-thirds supermajority to get placed on a California ballot. It would then go to voters before it could become part of the state constitution. But Bonta said he's already working to bring it back next year: "We need to be looking at housing differently than we are now. Because it's not working right now, and it's a fundamental need for every single human being."
  • Tons of activism: In March, homeless mothers and families took over several vacant properties in Los Angeles owned by Caltrans. In May, two homeless women occupied a vacant house in San Francisco's Castro District. They said they were inspired by Moms 4 Housing, Also in Los Angeles, a group of tenants in an affordable apartment are fighting for the city to acquire their building through eminent domain, because the landlord said he planned to more than double some tenants' rents. Leslie Hernandez, a tenant and organizer at the building, told KQED, "We saw what the moms did and that's how we knew we could win eminent domain. They inspired us. We said, 'If they can do it, we can do it, too.' "

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