The house on 2928 Magnolia Street in West Oakland, California, is an unassuming three-bedroom with a faded-out porch and white siding gone slightly gray with time. For two years, like an estimated 46,000 other homes in the area, it sat empty. But even in its unused state, the obscure physics of the market pumped and laundered through it the kind of abstract “value” you can monitor on real estate sites like Trulia and Zillow, which tracked a steady upward trend for the property over the last five years. In the summer of 2019, the house was purchased for $501,078 by Catamount Properties 2018, one of 98 limited liability companies active in the Bay Area that have been traced back to a home-flipping giant named Wedgewood Properties.
Over those same two years that the house was vacant, even with thousands of new units under construction (overwhelmingly marketed to high-earning tenants), the number of unhoused people in Oakland—nearly 70 percent of whom are Black—reportedly grew by 47 percent. Numbers across the Bay Area have secured it the grim distinction of having the third-largest unhoused population in the country, behind only New York City and Los Angeles. Moreover, nearly half of all rental households in Oakland are “cost-burdened”—meaning they spend more, often a lot more, than 30 percent of their total income on housing—including 64 percent of Black households, compared to 42.7 percent of white households.
This is what the housing, affordability, and displacement crises in the Bay look like in real terms, and these are the conditions that pushed Dominique Walker, Tolani King, Sameerah Karim, Sharena Thomas, and Misty Cross—a group of unhoused or precariously housed Black mothers who organize under the banner of Moms 4 Housing—to move into the vacant property on Magnolia Street on November 18. It was as much a political act as an act of necessity. When you become a refugee in your own hometown, and when you have exhausted all options—government assistance programs, homeless shelters, crashing on couches—what is a mother to do?
“We’ve worked multiple jobs. We pay taxes into this city,” Cross told reporters in late December. “We barely get the time to spend with our kids because we’re trying to make sure they have a stable home.” And that is what they were trying to do for the 57 days they occupied the house: They were being good parents, mothers who refused to accept as some immovable law of nature that one company’s return on investment is more important than people’s most basic need for shelter. They cleaned up the house, painted it, paid the gas and electricity bills. Together, they made a home for themselves and their children. “My son took his first steps in that house,” Walker told The New Republic. “He said his first words.”
But earlier this month, a militarized squadron of deputies from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office rolled down the residential street at dusk—accompanied by SWAT officers, AR-15s, and a BearCat—to evict the Moms. The highly publicized raid was broadly condemned and only served to further strengthen the Moms’ resolve. What appeared to be a brutally heavy-handed end to the saga was actually the beginning of something bigger.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, news broke that a deal had been reached between Moms 4 Housing, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office, and Wedgewood that would allow the Oakland Community Land Trust to purchase the house—a move the Moms had been pushing for. But as the Moms have said many times, this was never just about them or that one house: “We will not stop organizing and fighting until all unhoused folks have shelter,” Walker told the press on the steps of City Hall.
The housing crisis, at its core, is a social crisis. And the Moms’ successful occupation exposed the inherent antagonism between moral necessity—the basic right to have a home, to have a place to care for your family and community—and the logic of the market. It has forced a conversation about whether the latter must always win and if the public can live with that.
Out of the dystopian haze that keeps so many poor and working people in this country resigned to a system that has no place for them, Moms 4 Housing and their supporters marshaled a fierce moral vocabulary around how to define and measure justice, value, need, and even what it means to be a “good mother.”
“[As] a city, as people, we’ve reached our limit,” Azucena Rasilla, a lifelong Oaklander, recently wrote. “For those who tell us to move elsewhere—somewhere we can afford—my answer to you is this: No one should have to make hundreds of thousands of dollars just to be able to stay in their hometown, near family and everything they know.”
I grew up on the other side of the state, in Orange County. But as I’ve followed the story of the Moms’ struggle, I can’t help feeling a familiar, stinging pain in the boarded-up part of my heart where home used to be. As it did for so many others, the Great Recession reached its sad, hollow crescendo for my family when we eventually lost our house.
Once you’ve felt that fear, it never really goes away. And a vulturous frenzy of rising costs of living, low-wage jobs, government-aided corporate plunder, and real estate speculation have ensured that the economic “recovery” over the past decade has all but institutionalized this fear as a perpetual fact of everyday life for millions of people in the United States. “Unlike earlier periods of widespread homelessness and displacement such as during the recession of 2008,” Brian Goldstone wrote last year for The New Republic, “what we’re witnessing today is an emergency born less of poverty than prosperity—occurring not despite but precisely because of the economic boom.” In the wake of the recession, while many struggled to keep up with costs of living, Wedgewood Properties (a company that’s no stranger to ousting tenants) and other shadowy entities have been buying up more of the country’s housing stock than ever before, reselling at exorbitant rates, and making a killing.
The relentless pressure of these economic forces has pushed to the surface—and onto the sidewalks—the human cost behind the growing “prosperity” in communities like West Oakland. It’s a systematic style of violence that takes many forms: billboards sprouting around your neighborhood depicting sleek new developments and starting rent rates; the callous shrug of a bank representative who tells you there’s nothing they can do; the brutal thud of a battering ram during an eviction; the anxious anticipation of regular sweeps of homeless camps; the slow degradation of daily life as individuals and families spend months, even years, without stable housing. In their political struggle to affirm that housing is a human right, the Moms 4 Housing have exposed the unbearable cruelty of an economy that denies so many people their most basic needs.
But the Moms are not simply showing the system its wrongs; they’re advancing a positive vision for the future: Against the reformist chorus directing them to just “wait, wait ... wait,” they took immediate action to address an immediate crisis. And against the brutal directives of a capitalist status quo that would have them suffer in isolation, the Moms have claimed an expansive and communal vision of motherhood.
In the long American tradition of criminalizing modes of Black survival, the criticisms the Moms have faced inevitably put their individual choices, never the system, on trial. As Dani McClain, author of We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, told me over the phone, “There’s always some way that it’s contorted into, you know, we’re ‘welfare queens,’ or we’re ‘getting one over on the system,’ or we’re doing something that frames our parenting as something other than just rooted in love and care and nurturing.” The Moms’ struggle to do what is right and necessary for themselves and their children lays bare how dominant cultural notions of what it means to “be a good mother”—from idealized expectations of the time and attention one can give one’s child, to the sacrifices one is capable of making, to the security and resources one can provide—take for granted certain privileges that are systematically denied poor people, especially poor people of color and poor Black women in particular. (Shanesha Taylor, Kelley Williams-Bolar, and Tanya McDowell are just a few of the many working-class and unhoused Black mothers who have faced the threat of prison and losing custody of their children for crimes like trying to get their kids a good education or going to a job interview without being able to afford childcare.)
The occupation of 2928 Magnolia Street was a loving act of good mothering, a seizing of the means of caretaking that racial capitalism so regularly denies Black mothers. By doing that, the Moms have not only shown how society’s deepest conceptions of what it means to be a “good mother” are always anchored to the presumption of material and racial privileges; they have also revealed (and rejected) the harmful prescriptions of capitalism’s rugged-individualist model of motherhood. Rather than be drained and broken on their own, they came together as a community of care, forging the kind of mutually supportive extended-family structure that has historically made life more manageable for poor and working-class people, queer folks, and communities of color. “This is a story of people who organized,” McClain said, “who decided that they [and the community that rallied around them] were going to engage in this action together; they were going to, for as long as they could, raise their kids together in this home, and they were going to take the risk and shoulder the weight together.”
What began in that house in West Oakland was a struggle to define who we are and want to be. When waiting on reforms can mean sustained misery, degradation, and death, Moms 4 Housing have demonstrated that it is not only possible but necessary to act now. Against the brutally enforced prerogatives of the market, they’ve insisted on a more just hierarchy of needs—housing, dignity, safety, family, community—and advanced a more liberatory vision of caretaking and society than the one we had before.
But they are also, at the most elemental level, just doing what they can to be good parents. “Kids need space and stability for proper child development; when you’re moving from place to place and staying on couches, they can’t learn and grow,” Walker told The New Republic. “The right of children to safety and stable housing outweighs the right of corporations to profit. I hope any mother would do the same that I’ve done to protect her children.”