Misty Cross stood on the porch of 2928 Magnolia St. in Oakland, Calif., addressing a crowd of supporters that filled the sidewalk and spilled into the street. She linked arms with Dominique Walker, her housemate.
“I didn’t know this lady before this,” Cross said, gesturing to Walker. “I didn’t know her. We built a bond — our kids play together. This was just a building. We made it a home when we occupied it.”
The crowd cheered, while thousands more watched along on social media. That day, Dec. 26, 2019, the two women had learned they were getting to stay, at least a bit longer, in the house behind them. It was encouraging news for Moms 4 Housing, the movement they had launched just about a month earlier, when they had illegally entered the vacant home and made it theirs.
In the days that followed, the crowd on Magnolia Street would grow, requiring the women to speak into a megaphone for their voices to be heard. In the weeks that followed, they would face significant challenges to their agenda. They would make national news and become the targets of harassment online. They would get recognized in the neighborhood by strangers and become known as just “the Moms.” One of them would get arrested.
But by the end of it — after pressuring California’s power players, starting a dialogue about the intersectionality of the housing crisis, and striking a surprising deal — the Moms would be widely viewed as victorious.
Another video posted on the Moms 4 Housing Facebook page, this one from Nov. 18, 2019, shows a man with a hose pointed at the house on Magnolia Street. “We’re busy power washing #MomsHouse, because we take care of our home,” the caption reads.
That day, the house, owned by Wedgewood Properties, became home to a group of housing-insecure single mothers and their children — and a source of legal contention.
“This Mothers 4 Housing squatters case was a straightforward situation of illegal entry and illegal occupation,” argues Sam Singer, a spokesperson for Wedgewood. “The squatters who broke into Wedgwood Properties’ home at 2928 Magnolia St. were illegally occupying it. They had no legal or ethical defense for their actions.”
Moms 4 Housing is tight-lipped about its early days of organizing before the occupation and the specifics that led the group to occupy that particular house at that particular time. It has also, pointedly, avoided laying out who, exactly, makes up its ranks. Throughout their time occupying the house at Magnolia Street, news outlets would report that different women were or were not living there. A volunteer working with the women says this was by design, as some involved were concerned about retaliation at work. The Moms 4 Housing website does not name its founders, despite including photos of some of the women with their children.
But it is clear about the collective’s mission. “Housing is a homele. The Moms for Housing are uniting mothers, neighbors and friends to reclaim housing for the Oakland community from the big banks and real estate speculators,” the website says.
Those “speculators” would be Wedgewood, a company that bills itself as a “leading acquirer of distressed residential real estate.” Wedgewood purchased the Magnolia Street house in a foreclosure auction on July 31, 2019, for $501,078.
According to Singer, “Wedgewood planned to renovate and rehab it as soon as possible and put it back into the housing market, thereby improving the neighborhood, the community and the city.” He says the company had just gained legal possession of the home the week the Moms moved in, who claim it had been sitting vacant for over 18 months.
While all of the women were in different states of housing insecurity, Cross, who identifies herself as one of the group’s co-founders, said there were some common threads that ran through their experiences. All of them were single mothers who had lived in Oakland for years and now saw the city they grew up in slipping away, with construction-dotted streets they could no longer recognize filling with houses they couldn’t afford.
“Most of us have went through the 2-1-1 process,” she said, referring to the county’s non-emergency line that can help in housing crises. “We’ve been through the county services or the 14-day stays in a hotel. Just all the funds have been depleted,” Cross said. “We’re still working. We’re still doing all this stuff, but we can’t find housing.”
It’s a process that Cross, an Oakland resident for nearly four decades, has been dealing with over the past six years, while juggling multiple jobs and raising two daughters. For help, she ended up turning to the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action. That’s where she met the other women in the same situation, including Walker, an ACCE Action employee.
“They've all reached out to me at different times last year, like, ‘Carol, I need your help,’ in ways that moved my heart being that I don't have any resources to give,” explained Carroll Fife, the director of Oakland ACCE Action. “All I had is my ability to organize. So I said, ‘I don't have anything to give you, but I can organize. So let's figure out what we're going to do.’”
“We almost lost hope, like ‘there’s nothing that we can do,’” Cross said. “And as we started talking and brainstorming together, we came to find that there things that we could do once we started standing together; there was bigger things to come as we joined our forces versus us just going in separate.”
The changes in Oakland aren’t just anecdotal: Over the past 20 years, the city has seen a significant shift in its population makeup and housing costs.
“The city lost 25 percent of its black population — over 33,000 people — from 2000 to 2010,” said Chris Schildt, a senior associate with research and action institute PolicyLink. In 2015, Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development commissioned PolicyLink to study the city’s housing situation. Schildt says the trends they saw then, including “skyrocketing rents,” a growing number of low-wage jobs, and a rush of speculators flipping properties for profit, have only increased in the years since.
“What Oakland is experiencing is happening everywhere,” Schildt said. “Each place has its own unique challenges, but almost everywhere are the same root causes: a legacy of racial discrimination in housing policy and investments, investors seeking to profit off housing rather than actually house people, and a government that has failed to build the affordable housing we need.”
And, as black single mothers, the Moms are a part of populations that disproportionately experience homelessness. According to a 2018 assessment from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), African Americans are overrepresented in the nation’s homeless population. Another government report from the same year notes that of families experiencing homelessness, many are led by single mothers, who then face high rates of “conflict and violence.”
Both Cross and Walker described having lived in “unsafe” and “violent” situations before the “Moms’ House.” It’s part of why they’re so bothered by another count: 5,898, the number of vacant houses in Oakland, per U.S. census data. When they moved into the Magnolia Street house, they hoped to bring attention to this statistic, and how more homes are being left vacant while homeless numbers have increased.
“We had to dig and figure out and do the research on what was the root cause of how this was still happening,” Cross said. What struck them was the number of properties sold to speculators, who would flip them and sell them at higher prices.
“Speculation is driving up the housing costs for everyone,” Fife said. “So it makes it completely inaccessible to people who are on fixed income or have no income, and it makes it even more challenging for people even who have means. So it puts purchasing a home out of the reach of most working people.”
The Moms put in bunk beds for the kids and installed a water heater. They started developing daily routines.
“Now, I have a clean and quiet place where I can do my homework. So in the morning, when the sun comes up, I like to sit on the back steps and read,” Cross’s 12-year-old daughter, Destiny, said in one video.
Walker said the home was where her son spoke his first words and took his first steps.
They were present on social media from the start, posting photos of their families on Facebook and reaching out to local legislators on Twitter. As their following grew, they set up a text-alert system. Despite drawing attention to the otherwise quiet, residential street, Walker said their new neighbors accepted and encouraged them.
The mothers spoke of their desire to purchase the house from Wedgewood at the market rate. According to Singer, Wedgewood was always “willing to talk and listen,” but it refused to negotiate with the women while they were in the house. According to Singer, Wedgewood only learned of the Moms’ move from the media.
In early December, they received an eviction notice. The Moms, backed by ACCE Action, were prepared. They took the fight to court, arguing that housing is a human right, and gathered more than 18,000 signatures on an online petition. They hosted news conferences on the front steps of the house and even in the living room, where, standing in front of a Christmas tree, they were flanked by members of the city council, who spoke out in support of their movement.
The occupation started receiving more and more attention. Cross said she would get recognized running errands in the neighborhood, recounting one story of a homeless man who “busted out crying” when he realized she was one of the Moms. Fife says they started hearing from people across the U.S. and then around the world.
But the spotlight also drew more negative attention.
“We had to have conversations with [my daughters] to let them know that kids will probably talk about you,” Cross said. “Kids will probably try to tease you about being homeless now that your story is out, and that it’s okay to feel emotional in that time.”
And then there were the critics online. The Moms were careful about security from the beginning, with someone stationed at the house’s front window almost constantly since Day 1, but now they were receiving death threats. Threats of being hanged. Threats of being raped.
“It's a real sign of disrespect, the way that we have been slandered throughout the websites, the way that people have chose to judge instead of reflect on the big message that we're sending out,” Cross said. She became frustrated with media coverage “dissecting” their lives and what she saw as misinterpretations of their occupation.
“We are not sending a message for people to go take on homes,” she said. “We are telling people if you feel like you have to take means into your own hands to do whatever you have to do to house you and your family, then do so, but we are not telling people to go and just take homes.”
Through it all, their case moved forward. That emotional news conference the day after Christmas, helmed by Cross and Walker, came after their eviction hearing was delayed for a few additional days.
“We have an opportunity,” Walker said at the time. “The world is watching Oakland. Oakland has a history of resistance. That’s what we got on our shoulders.”
But 10 days into the new year and more than seven weeks after the Moms had moved in, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that the women had “no valid claim” to the home. The Moms were told to leave within five days.
After the ruling, hundreds gathered in solidarity with the Moms on Magnolia Street, staving off the inevitable. At that point, four mothers, including Cross and Walker, were living there with their children.
On Jan. 14, followers received a text just after 5:30 a.m. “Sheriff is banging on the door right now,” it read. “please come to 2928 Magnolia Street right now to witness and film.”
The Alameda County officers arrived with an armored vehicle, dressed in military fatigues and carrying guns. They used a battering ram to break through the front door and sent in a robot to search for threats. Four people were arrested: two of the Moms — including Cross — along with two supporters. According to Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, the department saw this as a “tricky situation.” He said the operation cost “tens of thousands of dollars,” which they would potentially bill to Wedgewood.
“Man, I’m fighting this fight, period!” Cross declared, before leaving to reunite with her children. The Moms hosted a barbecue later that day for supporters and then, for the first time in weeks, headed to separate places to spend the night, away from the cameras and the crowds.
Cross said the days after the eviction were largely spent regrouping and figuring out what Moms 4 Housing would look like from here, as well as where their families would now live. The day after the eviction, the belongings they left inside the house were tossed onto the street.
“We were just traumatized at going through this whole process,” Cross said. “We cried many a days and tried to pull ourselves back together and support one another, so that we didn't lose hope, so that we didn't lose the focus about this.”
That following Monday, Jan. 20, supporters’ phones buzzed again. “Huge news: We have reached an agreement to purchase #MomsHouse.”
According to a statement from Schaaf, whose office had helped negotiate the deal, Wedgewood had agreed to sell 2928 Magnolia St. to the Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT) at a price “not to exceed the appraised value.” The company said it would also work to implement a “right of first refusal” program on all its Oakland properties to negotiate similar deals with the OakCLT and the city’s Housing and Community Development Department.
“We are honored and inspired to collaborate with the City of Oakland on reasonable, thoughtful, and organized actions to address the issue of homelessness and housing,” Wedgewood said in a statement following the announcement.
That afternoon, the Moms gathered outside City Hall. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and they planned to participate in a “March to Reclaim King’s Radical Legacy.”
But first, they addressed the deal.
The Moms are skeptical. The agreement with Wedgewood, which is in “good faith” and nonbinding. The rush of support after everything that happened from politicians who, they said, had ignored their messages before the eviction. The constant questions from the media about where they are living now, which they say shouldn’t be the focus.
But they also understand the power of where they stand right now, and they’re determined not to let the moment pass.
Councilmember Nikki Bas called the Moms’ activism “the start of a new civil rights movement.” The following week, she introduced the “Moms 4 Housing Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act,” which would give residents a first chance to purchase properties from landlords before they go on the market. Similar legislation has been in effect for decades in Washington D.C.
Walker called the bill a “step in the right direction.” But the Moms want more.
They want legislation barring evictions in the winter, like theirs. They want legislation to make housing a human right. A bill to that end had actually been introduced by California Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D), but was blocked by the Assembly Appropriations committee. For the Moms, the fight continues.
Moms 4 Housing “was just a name that we came up with because we’re moms actively working to try to do this. But the whole statement was to focus on housing for all,” Cross said. “We’re trying to build the power back into that people. Rebuild what they’ve broken. To let people know it’s okay to tell you a story and not feel ashamed, or have to feel like you’re being judged.”