Armored vehicles rolled up to an Oakland home in the dead of night, Monday, and equally armored sheriffs deputies — appearing for all the world like a paramilitary force — acquired their target.
Dominique Walker, a community organizer, and two other founding members of advocacy group Moms 4 Housing captured the Bay Area’s collective imagination for weeks as the formerly homeless women occupied a corporate-bought home in Oakland, brandishing civil disobedience to push for the simplest of needs: a roof.
But in the Bay Area’s tight housing market, seeing families pushed from their homes is all too common. Some who stood shoulder to shoulder to defend the Moms 4 Housing that night had fought battles of their own with less media attention.
Only two days before, two women among those standing defiantly in Oakland saw their belongings carted out from their Bayview home by movers, ultimately headed to the dump. Only two days before, Juana and Reina Tello saw the end of a seven-year saga that in many ways mirrored the plight of the Moms 4 Housing.
Only two days before, standing outside 1778 Newcomb Ave., the Tellos may have finally said goodbye to their years-long home, for good.
Just like the Moms 4 Housing, they resisted.
Roots in activism
Juana Ines Tello and Jesse E. Tello were joined in more than just marriage, they were joined in activism.
They were long-time members of the Mission Coalition Organization, which fought for the Mission and Latinos to have a say in City Hall’s priorities for the future. And since the 1970s, the Tellos had volunteered at various homeless kitchens and shelters, like St. Anthony Dining Room, and also Martin de Porres House of Hospitality, which is nestled into the bottom of Potrero Hill.
That commitment to giving caught the eye of Safeway managers — the grocery store is across the street from Martin de Porres — and eventually led to jobs for both elder Tellos, where they began union organizing.
The couple’s daughters, Juana and Reina Tello, who are now 33 and 37, respectively, had the seed of outreach and activism planted in their hearts early on. That seed swelled, and grew.
San Francisco natives who attended Lowell High School and Thurgood Marshall, respectively, Juana and Reina each eventually joined PODER, a Mission-based advocacy organization that has defended its community since 1991. Juana later joined San Francisco State University, where she’s a lecturer in the health department.
The pair have collectively attended most notable civic actions of their adult lives. The Monster in the Mission, high-profile evictions, you name a collective action, and the younger Tellos were there.
Soon they’d use those skills to defend their own home.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, the Tello family bought a home in the late 1990s with a shaky loan. When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, many of those subprime loans were revealed to be scams, not worth the paper they were written on.
In California alone, nearly 1.5 million default notices were sent out from late 2007 through the end of 2011, according to a report from the Center for Responsible Lending. That’s a key step in home foreclosure.
The Tello family was among those foreclosures. They still haven’t recovered.
Echoes of Moms 4 Housing
Juana and Reina told me this story as we walked around their neighborhood. While it’s undoubtedly a target for gentrifying forces, some elements of the old neighborhood still lingered.
On my way, I walked by Oakdale Avenue where a homey was selling some totally genuine (I swear!) 49ers swag — the uniform of any discerning San Francisco native. The Tellos old home is also a beeline from City College of San Francisco’s Evans Campus, where Bayview residents learn real-world workforce training every day.
“So many people on our block have also been forced out,” Juana told me Friday.
We met there at 1778 Newcomb Ave., in front of their baby blue home. Where once people laughed and barbecued on the sidewalk, there were now “No Trespassing” notices taped to the door.
Some years back, Jesse, their father, was injured at work and fell behind on his loan payments. The Tellos tried to renegotiate with their bank to no success. Aurora Loan Services sold the house to Fannie Mae.
They didn’t face immediate eviction, however. Instead, they organized.
“Had it not been for people all over the city, we would’ve been evicted much sooner,” Juana said.
They held rallies. Neighbors — San Franciscans — blocked the sheriff’s deputies with their bodies.
In Oakland, the Moms 4 Housing used a sophisticated text message system to push out mobilization messages to any volunteers who wanted to help. That’s how Juana and Reina got the call. In San Francisco, Juana and Reina asked their own community for help in a similar way, using a text message tree of 20-per-group. They also appealed the foreclosure by legal means.
Still, the constant cat-and-mouse game took its toll.
Juana recalled seeing an eviction notice posted on her door her first day of grad school at SFSU. Reina told me she explained it honestly but in the least scary way possible for her daughters, who are now 7 and 11. But one day, one of Reina’s daughter’s friends was evicted themselves, just a few blocks away.
“That heightened their fear,” Reina said.
Fighting their evictions but still preparing for the worst, the family packed up all their belongings but continued living their lives. Sometimes they’d unpack again, feeling secure after no movement from the sheriff’s office for months.
But the eviction notices would appear again, as if The City suddenly remembered their existence. The family began to fear Wednesdays, the day when sheriff’s deputies post eviction notices.
Wednesdays equaled dread.
In June 2018, still living on Newcomb Avenue, Jesse Tello died after suffering a stroke.
In September 2018, the sheriff’s deputies came to evict the Tellos.
They caught them unawares — it was a Thursday.
Evictions for all
Armored vehicles rolled up to the San Francisco home in the morning on Thursday, Sept. 21, and equally armored sheriffs deputies — appearing for all the world like a paramilitary force — acquired their target.
The Tello family.
The sheriff’s deputies came at their door with force. Juana and Reina were cuffed in front of Reina’s two young girls. Reina remembers being trapped in a sheriff’s deputy vehicle, surrounded by paddywagons and other vehicles that looked to onlookers like they were conducting a major drug bust. Reina feared for her children.
“I was screaming at the top of my lungs to let them know I’m OK,” Reina told me, her face darkening as we stood at Newcomb Avenue, right where it happened. Responding to her screams, the sheriff’s deputies “laughed at me,” she said.
Where the Moms 4 Housing will go is still unclear. But for Juana and Reina, the answer for a long time was “nowhere.”
“I’ve been couch surfing for a long time,” Juana said. Reina, on the other hand, was lucky enough to eventually find a studio apartment in Sunnyside, but its $1,845-per-month price tag isn’t sustainable, she said.
And after their eviction in September 2018, their belongings were locked inside their former home. The Tellos stood outside on the Saturday before the Moms 4 Housing were evicted and watched their possessions carted out in bags. Juana was told by loyal neighbors that her San Francisco Giants and San Francisco 49ers memorabilia — signed balls, signed helmets, swag from decades of fan love — were likely already carted out by Realtors with access to the property.
The pair also face a unique challenge: Landlords frequently Google them, and cite their previous activism as a reason not to house them. Their credit history was also wrecked by their activism and subsequent legal battle to keep their home.
This is doubly frustrating, as there are 46,000 vacant homes in the San Francisco Bay Area, recent news reports have shown. We have the space to house people, but we don’t have the collective political will to match homes with those who are housing unstable. Juana and Reina get that — they may organize to push for a registry of vacant homes, soon, which is already an effort underway at City Hall.
The Tello family sees the spark of a movement in Moms 4 Housing’s effort. “We know it’s the role of government to enforce property rights, not human rights,” Juana said. But that can change. “It’s important for people to know they shouldn’t be giving up.”
The two women and their family are far from victims — in fact, they are warriors. Much like their parents, they’re already inspiring the next generation to rise up for their community.
When Moms 4 Housing put out the call for help via text message, Reina was conflicted about leaving her two daughters behind. She had pinky-sworn she would sleep near them that night.
“My older daughter said ‘Mom, just go. These are women who need you,’” Reina recalled.
The Tellos joined dozens of others defending the Moms 4 Housing, reaching out from San Francisco to Oakland, united across Latino and black communities, echoing the same pain, echoing the same loss, echoing the same love, together.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.