Keeping Homeless Families Homeless, By Force

When our housing system’s primary function is to enrich capitalists rather than provide for humans’ basic needs, it’s no surprise that developers would rather deploy a small army complete with guns, a battering ram, and a tank to remove homeless families from an empty home, as they did earlier this week in Oakland, California.

Police dispatched from the Alameda County Sherrif’s Office showed up dressed in military fatigues and with armored vehicles to arrest two mothers who had been living at 2928 Magnolia Street in Oakland, California early in the morning on January 14, 2020. (East Bay DSA / Twitter)

On the morning of January 14, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office sent a small army to 2928 Magnolia Street in Oakland, California. With the house flanked by police dressed in military fatigues and an armored vehicle standing nearby, the sheriff’s men arrested two mothers after breaking the door down with a battering ram in a pre-dawn raid.

The two women are part of a collective of unhoused and marginally housed mothers called Moms 4 Housing. They, and two other mothers, had been occupying the vacant house with their children since November, though the property has remained empty for years. More than just a way to take shelter, the mothers’ residency in the empty home was a protest against the larger housing crisis that has gripped Oakland, which has some of the fastest rising rents of any city in the United States.

The home was bought in a foreclosure auction by Wedgewood Inc., a real estate investment firm that boasts of being the country’s largest “fix and flip” company. Hundreds of people had gathered the previous night after being alerted that the sheriff’s department was on their way to enforce the eviction notice.

Oakland has experienced some of California’s most rapid gentrification in recent years. The enormous influx of tech profits from neighboring Silicon Valley coupled with decades of segregation, disinvestment, and redlining have created a perfect storm to displace working-class families, particularly in majority-black communities. In Alameda County, where this showdown occurred, an $89,600 salary for a family of four is considered “low-income.”

Black communities have historically been shut out of homeownership, which contributes significantly to generational wealth or lack thereof. Decades of housing discrimination, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, were followed by “a long period of predatory inclusion.” In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, black homeowners were twice as likely to be given a subprime loan. “This historic collapse in black homeownership is an important part of why the wealth gap between black and white Americans is larger today than it has been in decades,” says Taylor.

In cities like Oakland, those foreclosed homes have created an opening for a multibillion-dollar market to emerge. Developers use houses as an investment vehicle, distributed on a large scale with the goal of making a profit — driving up rents in the process.

Wedgewood, which ended up with 2928 Magnolia in its portfolio, buys some 250 foreclosed homes a month. According to their website, the company “was built on the flip business and since 2009 has been actively engaged in the nonperforming loan market.” The company has also been accused of wrongfully evicting tenants on three separate occasions. After filing a “right to possession” in court on the basis that housing is a human right, Dominique Walker, one of the mothers arrested Tuesday, had her claim denied.

Among the demands coming from Moms 4 Housing was to resell the property to the Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT) at the price Wedgewood purchased it for, half a million dollars, to ensure that the house remains permanently affordable. Community land trusts as a form of common stewardship over land emerged during the Civil Rights Movement in the rural South. OakCLT provides “community ownership of land and resident control of housing” in order to remove property from the speculative market.

Oakland, once considered “undesirable” in the Bay Area, has become a relatively new frontier for developers and tech workers alike to settle. As a result, the city has seen its black residents pushed out: between 2001 to 2011 the black population dropped by 25 percent. But in a city where empty houses outnumber the homeless four-to-one, these property arrangements can only be maintained through force.

Two days after the raid, Misty Cross, one of the moms arrested, recounted the experience on Democracy Now!:

Once the sheriffs actually made their way through the door to get in a little bit, they sent in a robot that came in to roam around the home to see if there was any explosives or weapons of some form. I later found out that the tank that they had outside [had] a detection on it that can shoot people and detect weapons on site, just by like a metal detector. So it would shoot at anything that had some form of weapon on them. I just still am like traumatized from it.

Private companies like Wedgewood, who have a legally enforceable deed to empty properties, have no obligation to enter into negotiations with these mothers — they can simply call the county to send a small battalion of heavily armed officers.

A movement demanding a right to housing has emerged recently. Elected officials like Rep. Ilhan Omar have begun to take that demand up. We’ll need much more of such organizing. Otherwise, the kind of asymmetrical warfare that we saw at 2928 Magnolia against people whose only crime is needing housing will only grow.