The man just upped my rent last night
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon).
No hot water, no toilets, no lights
(but Whitey’s on the moon). — Gil Scott-Heron, Whitey On The Moon
Few things in this world are more terrifying for a mother than not being able to provide a stable roof over her children’s heads. That terror is amplified when you’re a Black mother raising children in Oakland, California—a beautiful Black city being decimated by leadership invested in racialized displacement and committed to masquerading gentrification as progress.
In Oakland, a city with the principled struggle for Black liberation in its veins, structural violence is clear and sustained. Homelessness has increased by 47% in the city in the last two years. 37MLK, a community of approximately 20 elder Black women who are unhoused, is providing much-needed shelter for some of the city’s most vulnerable and targeted population.
Additionally, prior to Mayor Libby Schaaf sending authorities to raid and bulldoze “The Village,” also known as “The Promised Land,” to the ground on February 2, 2017, volunteers at the unhoused encampment started a health and healing clinic, provided home-cooked meals and hot showers, as well as other activities and necessities for people in need of support.
So, when Dominique Walker and Sameerah Karim—and later Tolani King, Misty Cross, and Sharena Thomas—decided to occupy 2928 Magnolia St. in November 2019, it was because they’d had enough of not having enough. In a city rationing out plenty to wealthy, white developers migrating from Silicon Valley, they understood, as former Oakland mayoral candidate Cat Brooks said, that occupying the empty house was not simply radical; it was rational.
Because these mothers needed, first and foremost, for their children to be safe.
Walker has experience fighting to free the land. The lead organizer of the new Black Housing Union, she is a trained organizer working with The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE Action), after having previously worked with Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi, a community collective birthed from the Jackson-Kush Plan and rooted in a vision of self-determination and economic justice. The 34-year-old unhoused mother of two escaped intimate partner violence in the Deep South, only to come back to her hometown—where there are four times as many empty homes as there are people without homes—and not be able to afford housing.
“This came out of absolute desperation,” Walker said in an interview with KALW. “These are the times we’re living in where your only option is to occupy a house or live with your children on the street.”
On January 14, tensions escalated as militarized police forces descended upon 2928 Magnolia St. with battering rams, AR15s, tanks, and a robot intended to terrify the mothers into submission. But there are few things more terrifying for a Black mother than not being able to provide her children with a roof over their heads—and they stood their ground. East Bay MUD dug a trench around the home, effectively blocking the mothers from bringing in a moving truck, and notorious real estate company Wedgewood, who owns the property, had movers dump all the families’ personal belongings in the street. Two of the mothers and two of their supporters were arrested.
“This just goes to show that it’s not just that Wedgewood doesn’t care what happens to us: they hate us,” Walker said at the time. “They hate homeless Black mothers and children…The people of Oakland will not allow this in our community. We will rise up to reject this hate and push these racist speculating profiteers out of our community for good.”
Encroaching On A Community
Wedgewood is part of an ‘integrated network’ of companies that lends people money to buy homes. According to Moms 4 Housing press release, those companies also buy up “distressed debt,” ultimately foreclosing on those properties and forcing people from their homes. Then Wedgewood comes in and buys up the houses when they’re cheap and ‘flips’ the house for a massive profit.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Wedgewood announced that they would sell the home to the Oakland Community Land Trust; in turn, the women would be able to purchase the home from the trust. But the moms don’t trust it.
Moms 4 Housing has every right to be skeptical. Oakland has one of the fastest rent escalation rates in the United States. According to a VICE report, the city has “9,304 units that were either just built or in construction during 2019, but only 628 are subsidized affordable housing units. Additionally, last May, more than 4,000 people applied for 28 new affordable homes that came online in Oakland.”
This is generations-deep economic violence, as evidenced by how swiftly the mechanisms of white supremacist capitalism activated to evict the moms and their children from the empty dwelling they turned into a home. It is clear now, more than ever, that militarized police forces will violently come after Black women and children on command. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, and the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership says that’s why the freedom work that Moms 4 Housing is doing is so critical and so revolutionary.
“There are two really important aspects to the struggle of these women in Oakland,” Taylor tells ESSENCE. “The first is that in framing their campaign as ‘moms’ for housing, they have brought even sharper attention onto the crisis of housing inequality in the U.S. That mothers have to resort to so-called illegal tactics—such as home occupations—to provide shelter for themselves and their families exposes yet again the cruelty of capitalism in our country.
“It also highlights the particular nature of the housing crisis in Northern California where the costs of rents and certainly homeownership have dramatically outpaced the rate of inflation and the average wages and salaries of ordinary people in the area,” Taylor continued. “This, of course, has a disproportionate impact on African American families who suffer from greater rates of unemployment, under-employment, poverty and as a result—housing insecurity.
According to Taylor, Moms 4 Housing’s focus on a “housing wage” is one of the most critical contributions they have made to the ongoing struggle for housing justice in the United States.
“For many years, US-based worker movements have focused on a ‘living wage,’ which has been pegged at $15 an hour,” she explains. “The sad truth is that $15 is not a wage that can actually afford ordinary people any kind of sustainable housing security. Housing wage captures the rapidly rising costs of housing and makes a demand that we be paid enough for shelter—an astounding demand in a country that describes itself as democratic and just.
Making it plain, Taylor insists that “Moms 4 Housing has refocused the national debate on the need for housing justice and have sharply and clearly articulated a roadmap for achieving some of it.”
The Moms 4 Housing Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act
April Thomas, a spokesperson for Moms 4 Housing shared exclusively with ESSENCE that Oakland council member Nikki Fortunato Bas will be announcing the Moms 4 Housing Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would create protections for Oakland residents to stay in their homes through a first right to purchase.
“In Oakland’s housing affordability and homelessness crisis, the majority of residents are renters, and displacement of tenants is a major concern,” Thomas tells ESSENCE. “This proposed ordinance would incentivize the transfer of property ownership to tenants, community land trusts, or nonprofit affordable housing developers. It would help curtail the speculation and maintain the ability of people in all income categories to stay in Oakland.”
Moms 4 Housing fought back against SB50, the state bill proposed by State Senator Scott Weiner that failed to pass this week. Though Weiner claimed the bill would provide more housing by “allowing multi-family zoning across a state where nearly 80% of land is zoned for single-family units,” it did not make guarantees about the affordability of those units,” City Lab reports.
And making sure that the community stays in the hands of the community, and not exploitative developers is key to Oakland’s future.
“I’ve often heard Misty say that she deserves to stay in Oakland and be part of the community because she’s put her blood, sweat, and tears into building it,” Thomas said. “She’s involved with the school board, parents advocacy groups, ACCE and other forms of organizing. Dominique is a full-time community organizer. Sharena founded and runs an organization called People’s Community Medics that does rapid response to scenes of accidents and violence, often before police or EMTs arrive. Tolani has raised four kids, two of them still with her—kids she didn’t give birth to because their parents died or they needed a home.”
This is what community looks like.
No Place Like Home
The fight to free the land, nurture it, and protect it from exploitation as white supremacist capitalism destroys the earth is critical. This is a housing revolution and Moms 4 Housing is in the trenches. Still, at the core, this is a movement grounded in and led by Black mothers’ love—for their people, for their community, and, most importantly, for their children.
“It’s more comforting knowing that you can go to school, come back, and go home,” Misty Cross’ 12-year-old daughter Destiny told Amy Goodman in a Democracy Now interview this month. “You can go to sleep and your mom can cook for you. You can have dinner at the table and…put up a Christmas tree. We haven’t done that in a long time.”