When Dominique Walker and other homeless mothers moved into a vacant home in Oakland this November, they were standing for more than just themselves.
The mothers and their supporters call themselves Moms 4 Housing.
The house they are occupying is a property on Magnolia Street that Oakland-raised Walker saw sit empty on her block for over two years.
“This came out of absolute desperation. 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,” Walker told KALW.
The Magnolia Street home is owned by Wedgewood Inc., a Southern California-based corporation that flips homes. Wedgewood currently owns 125 properties in the Bay Area, according to NBC Bay Area. (This number does not account for Bay Area homes the corporation has already flipped and sold off).
Oakland City Council members Nikki Fortunado Bas, Rebecca Kaplan, and Dan Kalb support the mothers. They have threatened to explore acquiring the home if Wedgewood Inc. refuses to negotiate with the mothers.
But representatives from Wedgewood Inc. aren’t listening. In a public statement on Sunday, Dec. 29, Sam Singer said, “We will not meet or negotiate with the squatter’s organization that broke into our house and is illegally occupying it.”
Wedgewood has taken the mothers to court to evict them from the home. On Monday at the Hayward Hall of Justice, Judge Patrick McKinney II said he would need more time to consider his decision.
Moms 4 Housing’s argument for remaining in the home is that housing is a human right; our already limited rental housing stock should be used for housing, not corporate profit.
Opponents have argued that this is an ethical argument, not a legal one. I agree—our current system of private property is not ethical.
Following the 2008 foreclosure crisis, corporate ownership of our rental stock increased significantly as banks bought up working class Americans’ homes.
More Americans than ever before entered the rental market. By this time, decades of underbuilding had created an unprecedented housing shortage in the Bay Area. These, combined with other factors, created a perfect storm. The inherent power imbalance between landlords and tenants was exaggerated, and corporations now have more power to extort exorbitant rent from their tenants than ever before.
“Before the housing bubble burst, we talked about whether low-income people could afford to buy or rent,” writes Assistant Opinion Editor Tess Townsend of the Sacramento Bee. “Now we talk about whether people can afford rent, or, if not, find a safe place to sleep in their car.”
The system isn’t working. When children are sleeping on the streets, the government has a responsibility to intervene.
One way to do this would be through expropriation—the suggestion of the Oakland City Council members. Expropriation, also called “eminent domain,” is when the government takes property from a private owner. The government must pay the owner the fair market rate for the property and prove in court that they are taking the property to provide a public good.
Eminent domain is used in few circumstances in the United States, and as far as I can tell it has never been granted for use in seizing a corporate-owned property for use as affordable housing.
Expropriation has, however, been used for less ethical purposes. The policy is well known for its use in American highway construction. Our highway system was a flawed project that led the way to vehicles becoming the United States’ primary driver of carbon emissions. Furthermore, when constructing our highways the government chose which land to expropriate in a way that benefited white homeowners at the expense of black Americans. Today black people are more likely to suffer negative health outcomes because they live close to highway pollution, and many highways were constructed to divide black and white neighborhoods, furthering housing segregation.
If we made an argument that this dastardly, segregationist project was a “public good” justifying expropriation, surely we can do the same for affordable housing.
Outside of the United States, there are examples of eminent domain being used successfully for this end.
In June of 2019, Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau made headlines for expropriating a vacant corporate-owned home.
Barcelona has a policy explicitly outlining a process for city acquisition of vacant corporate properties. If a corporation that has many homes in its portfolio leaves a home vacant for two or more years, the city can claim it and use it as municipal housing for up to ten years. Mayor Colau used a rental registry, which keeps track of all the rental properties in a city and the landlords that own them, to determine that the home was kept vacant. Tenant advocates have been pushing for a similar rental registry to be implemented statewide for years.
I hope Moms 4 Housing and their children come out of this situation with stable housing.
Regardless of the outcome of their court case however, the mothers have reignited a movement and forced us to reckon with what it means to provide “housing as a human right.”
The direness of our housing crisis requires bold solutions. It’s time to consider that those solutions might be beyond current legal precedent.
Should corporations be more entitled to a home than our children?
Supporters of Moms 4 Housing can text (510) 800-7810 to receive updates on their case.
Sasha Perigo is a data scientist and fair housing advocate writing about the San Francisco housing crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @sashaperigo. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.