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Homeless Mothers, Activists Take Over Vacant Oakland House

Above Photo: OAKLAND, CA – NOVEMBER 18: Sameerah Karim, left, Dominque Walker, second from left, Sharena Thomas, and Tolani King, right, of the group Moms for Housing, are photographed on the steps of a house on Magnolia Street on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. Members of the group have taken over the unoccupied home and plan to live in the residence. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Group launches new movement to reclaim empty homes

OAKLAND — Sick of struggling with homelessness under a system they say hasn’t helped them, two Oakland mothers took matters into their own hands Monday — by taking control of a vacant West Oakland house.

In front of a crowd of supporters, community members and media, 34-year-old Dominique Walker and 41-year-old Sameerah Karim moved their belongings into a house on Magnolia Street that they say has been sitting empty for two years. It was the first step in what they hope will snowball into a larger movement to take back vacant, investor-owned houses in the neighborhoods where single, working mothers like themselves grew up but can no longer afford.

“This is my home,” Karim, a second-generation Oakland resident, said of the city.  “I was born and raised here. I deserve to be here.”

The women, who founded a collective called Moms 4 Housing to support their mission, do not have permission to be in the house and declined to say how they got inside. The home has functioning water and power, they said.

Representatives from the city of Oakland and the Oakland Police Department did not respond to questions about what legal ramifications, if any, the mothers might face.

The property is owned by Catamount Properties 2018 LLC, according to the Alameda County Assessor’s Office. That company is part of Wedgewood, a Redondo Beach-based real estate investment company that does business throughout the Western U.S. and Florida. “The flip business is the backbone of Wedgewood,” according to the company’s website. Wedgewood did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Karim and Walker hope the owner will negotiate a deal that will allow them to buy the home. In the past, activists, such as those with Oakland Community Land Trust, have been able to strike deals in Oakland that allow a property’s current residents to buy out the owner at an affordable price. But that’s a difficult outcome to achieve — the landlord must be convinced to sell, and the residents must be able to come up with the money to buy.

Frustration with ineffective city and state policies on homelessness have culminated in this movement to occupy vacant houses in Oakland, said Fernando Echeverria, a project manager at the East Bay Community Law Center. But it’s not likely to be a sustainable solution, he said. Even residents residing in a building legally typically can’t scrape together enough money to buy the property without help from a nonprofit. But city, state and federal policies can make it easier.

“This is a good time to start having this conversation,” he said. “How can we incentivize landlords that have these properties who otherwise wouldn’t sell to these types of folks? How can we make these opportunities available?”

If the owner or the police try to force them out, Karim and Walker have a volunteer liaison who will handle any communication with law enforcement.

“Housing is a human right,” Walker said. “And today, I’m using that right.”

But neighbors had mixed reactions to Moms 4 Housing taking over a home on their street. One neighbor, who declined to give her name for publication, said her heart breaks for the women and their children. At the same time, the situation worries her.

“My concern is what happens when the owners come through,” she said.

Another neighbor, who also declined to give his name, said he saw the owner of the property showing it to potential tenants just last week. He called the Moms 4 Housing members “trespassers.”

“I resent the fact that I had to save up 25 years for a house,” he said. “Nobody told me I had a right to a house.”

Moms 4 Housing is responding to what members say is a parallel crisis: There’s a proliferation of vacant homes in Oakland, and at the same time, the number of people living in the city’s sprawling tent encampments or in cars and RVs on city streets is exploding. There are 4,366 vacant parcels in Oakland, according to the city. Voters approved a tax on those unused parcels in November, in an effort to encourage owners to move people in to empty dwellings. At the same time, there are 4,071 homeless residents in Oakland — up nearly 50 percent from two years ago, according to the city’s homeless count.

Those empty properties could be better used to house people like Walker and Karim, said the activists on Magnolia Street on Monday.

Walker, who is bringing her two children, ages 1 and 4, to live in the Magnolia Street house, works full-time as a community advocate and does app-based food delivery to earn money on the side. She has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and has been homeless since April, when she says she fled domestic violence in Mississippi and moved back to her hometown of Oakland.

Karim, who is taking classes for a nursing degree at Merritt College while also working three jobs — in logistics, as an administrative assistant and in inventory — hasn’t had a stable home since she lost her Section 8 voucher about five years ago, because she couldn’t find a landlord willing to take it. Those years of homelessness took an immense toll on her, Karim said.

“You need shelter to be sustainable, to go out to work and be productive and take care of your family and your mental state,” she said. “Without that, everything just goes awry. You start to fall apart.”

Karim’s adult son no longer lives with her, but will come to the Magnolia Street house to visit, she said.

The crowd of community members gathered Monday to support Moms 4 Housing included civil rights attorney and 2014 Oakland mayoral candidate Dan Siegel, as well as activist and 2018 Oakland mayoral candidate Cat Brooks. Brooks told the audience how years ago as a single mother of a 4-year-old girl, she bought a house not far from Magnolia Street for $149,000 — and had mortgage payments that were less than the rent she’d previously paid.

“It is an absolute travesty that that is no longer an option for single mothers, single fathers, single parents, for families of four and five — that they cannot afford housing in the city of Oakland,” she said.

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