The House on Magnolia Street
How a group of homeless mothers took on a housing crisis
“Mommy, you don’t need to push me. I know how to swing now!” Aja hollered across the Eastshore Park playground as she kicked her legs back and forth, carrying her 5-year-old body higher. One-year-old Amir, beanie pulled down over his ears, sat up in his stroller and watched his big sister. “You’re doing good!” their mother, Dominique Walker, called back from a park bench. Big silver hoops hung almost to her shoulders, and wide stunner shades covered her eyes.
Eleven days earlier, about 30 Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, including a half-dozen from a tactical team wielding AR-15 rifles, arrived in an armored vehicle to evict the 34-year-old Walker and her children from a property on Magnolia Street in West Oakland. The house had been foreclosed and sat vacant for two years before Walker and a group of homeless and housing-insecure single black mothers took up residence in November.
Two blocks away from the playground, down Grand Avenue, 20- and 30-somethings browsed a farmers market, where you can buy kombucha on tap, organic root vegetables, and dim sum. A few blocks in the other direction, black Oakland natives often host cookouts on weekend afternoons like this one. Two years ago, a white Stanford-educated environmental scientist called the cops on one of these black family barbecues. An image of the caller — a woman, shades on, cellphone pressed to her ear, 911 operator on the line — became a meme.
Across MacArthur Boulevard, under the Interstate 580 overpass, a group of homeless men had set up a short line of tents beside a bus stop, using the freeway for shelter as they panhandled. Encampments like this have become a regular sight in parks and parking lots. The city’s homeless numbered 4,071 at last official count in January 2019 — up 47 percent from just two years prior. The median price of a home in Oakland has surged to over $700,000. The median renter now pays about $3,000 a month. Families who can’t afford these prices have no choice but to leave.
In April 2019, Walker fled domestic violence in Jackson, Mississippi, and returned home to Oakland. Her family, like many others, migrated to Oakland from the Jim Crow South. Black residents made up a plurality of the city’s population from the 1980s to the 2000s, but back on the 700 block of East Oakland, her old neighborhood, Walker saw a real estate market where predominantly white households and investors were effectively pushing out black families who had been there for generations. “This is where my family found refuge from sharecropping and the KKK,” said Walker. “We’ve been here ever since.”
On streets where Black Panthers in leather jackets and berets once clashed with Oakland police, the potential for racialized class war lingers. In recent years, a number of condominium construction sites burned down under suspicious circumstances. Reports of anti-gentrification arsons swirl. A 45-year-old Oakland man was convicted for setting at least one of these blazes, though they’ve continued while he’s been incarcerated. In July, a real estate developer dressed up as an elf and wearing a “Make Oakland Great Again” hat attempted to shoot $1,000 out of a leaf blower into a homeless camp to coax the residents to relocate. Lawmakers have struggled to find effective solutions. In December, Oakland City Council President Rebecca Kaplan proposed docking a cruise ship in the city’s port to serve as emergency housing.
Walker had originally planned to move back in with family and enroll at the University of San Francisco to become a health practitioner. But when she returned, all of her relatives had moved out to distant suburbs. At first, she stayed with an aunt in Stockton, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Oakland. Then she moved in with an uncle in Antioch, a bit closer, but still an hour outside the city. She looked for apartments and found one she liked, but the security deposit plus the first and last month’s rent cost $8,000. She called 211, the nonemergency line that connects families to service programs, but got the runaround. Eventually, she ended up crashing at hotels and with friends. She reached out to Carroll Fife, the executive director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), for help. “I deserve to be here,” she said. “They call me ‘Oakland’ in Mississippi.”
Around the same time Walker moved back to Oakland, other single mothers — mostly staff or activists in the ACCE network — had also been asking Fife for support. Tolani King, an adoptive mother to four, lost her day-care business in the recession and then lost her Section 8 housing voucher after a false arrest. She beat the case, but it ended up costing her $5,000 in legal fees. Without Section 8, King stayed with her great-aunt, but after she passed, King lost the roof over her head. Since 2018, she’d been living out of her car with her two youngest children, waking up at 5:30 a.m. to work a full-time job at the McClymonds High School breakfast program.
Misty Cross, an elder-care provider and mother to four — three daughters, ages 5, 12, and 16, and a son, age 20 — had been moving from place to place for years. When her son was just 10 months old, his father died in a car accident. Then, in 2006, Cross was shot multiple times. She died but came back to life on the operating table at Highland Hospital. She remained in intensive care for a month — a tube in her throat. She couldn’t see her children, or walk, or speak. Over the years, she’d stayed with various family members and sought assistance from Section 8 and other programs. “I just felt like I was running into dead ends,” she said. She tried moving out to the suburb of Vallejo for a time, but the gas, tolls, and child care added up. She eventually moved back to Oakland, where she lived in shelters and out of her car.
Fife told Walker, King, Cross, and other women, including Sameerah Karim, Merika Regan, and Sharena Thomas, the same thing: There wasn’t anything affordable in Oakland — and they should get organized. The women met, formed a steering committee, started strategizing a campaign, and brainstormed a name for their group. The first one they came up with — Moms 4 Housing — stuck.
Instead of going back to school, Walker took a job creating a black housing union with ACCE. When she was out canvassing, she started noticing vacant lots and homes. On one block in West Oakland, residents pointed Walker to an eyesore, a white three-story home with pewter blue accents sandwiched between two pea-soup green houses and surrounded by overgrown bushes: 2928 Magnolia Street. Moms 4 Housing did their research and learned that the structure was one asset in the sprawling portfolio of a house-flipping company called Wedgewood.
Walker and Fife had been discussing the possibility of occupying a vacant unit for some time. They wanted to draw attention to the homelessness crisis — and in particular, according to Walker and other members of the movement, the theft of homes from black and brown communities by wealthy corporations. “This is a movement to recognize housing is a human right,” said Walker. They knew it would require careful planning, so they sought legal advice.
Trespassing is a misdemeanor. Housing activists who have occupied Oakland properties have been charged with conspiracy — a felony that can carry a sentence of several years in jail and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Given these risks, the moms don’t discuss how their plan developed, how the decision to move in was made, and who, specifically, made it. “There were layers set up to protect the moms from certain charges,” Fife explained. Walker was also careful not to go into too much detail: “Everything was done with a specific strategy to bring awareness to corporations hoarding homes — not people, not mom and pop.”
On November 18, Moms 4 Housing started moving furniture into 2928 Magnolia Street. They launched a Twitter account and a website and sent a press release to local media. (Their first tweet: “Homeless moms are taking vacant properties back from real estate speculators TODAY in West Oakland. Come to West Oakland Farm Park at 11 to learn more. #Moms4Housing @ABC7 @KPIXtv @KQED @mercnews @oaktribnews @eastbayexpress @kpfa @sfchronicle”.) Television cameras arrived shortly after. The @moms4housing account gained more than 1,000 followers within hours.
The group spent the first week fixing up the property, which they took to calling “Moms House.” Volunteers fixed broken windows and carried furniture for the women and their children. The mothers power-washed the blue cement steps, to the delight of the neighborhood, and brought in laborers to tarp off a leaky roof and mold-infested breakfast nook. They bought and installed new appliances and a water heater. They contacted an electrician. They called in plumbers. They got a landscaper.
Walker became the primary occupant of the three-bedroom home, but it belonged to all of them. Karim moved in with her at first, but when she stepped back from the movement, Cross took her spot. Each mom had her own room. With money fundraised from supporters, Fife bought two of Cross’s daughters Demi, 5, and Destiny, 12, a triple bunk bed so they could share a room with Aja. The girls posted a notice, drawn with colored pencils on their door: “GIRLS ROOM, DO NOT DISTURB.” Aja celebrated her fifth birthday in Moms House. During their time there, she told a reporter she wanted to paint the outside of her new home gold “with glitter” and the inside orange because it was “Mommy’s favorite color.”
“They were always smiling and running around and being free,” Walker said of the kids. “And that’s how all parents want their children to be — just to be children and to have some sort of stability and everyday structured environment where it’s not changing every single night.”
The moms placed a donated couch in the living room, which they designated a shoe-free “Baby Zone.” Amir would crawl around the space, latch onto the couch, and try to stand himself up. He took his first steps in the Baby Zone and spoke his first words in the house. When the holidays came, the moms got a tree — something you can’t do in a shelter, hotel, or car. “Our kids started to open up a little bit more, started to smile a little bit more, started to talk a little bit more,” Cross said. “It was just regular. It just worked.”
The group held strategy meetings, discussing everything from their vision for the organization to how they could support one another and make sure the children were happy. They usually met in the Baby Zone, but the heating didn’t work, so they convened in whichever spot was warmest. Even though the moms worked multiple jobs, they’d sometimes sit down and share a meal. “We all became a family,” Walker said.
Moms House was usually full, with supporters coming and going. “I think for a lot of people, it was like a community center,” said April Thomas, the group’s communications coordinator. “I always felt lucky to be there.” But sometimes the traffic overwhelmed the mothers. Reporters with cameras would knock on the door late at night. The group never knew when or if the police might arrive. Supporters took security shifts to keep them safe. Tur-Ha Ak, who worked security for the group, said a strange van came by a few times to scope out the house. One night, according to Ak, two men broke into the garage and stole some things stashed there.
Every few days, the group held a press conference at Moms House. From the start, Moms 4 Housing understood that the press could make or break the movement. They needed journalists to see them as dedicated mothers working multiple jobs. Instead of debating the wonky details of housing and homelessness policy, they needed to tell a simple, visceral story about children living on the street while family homes owned by corporations sat empty. “There are four times as many empty homes in Oakland as there are homeless people,” Karim said at a press conference held outside the home in November. “Why should anyone, especially children, sleep on the street?”
In December, Moms 4 Housing learned that Wedgewood Properties had contracted Sam Singer, president of a public relations firm who advertises himself as a “master spin doctor” and “top gun for hire.” Singer has worked with many corporate clients — Visa, Ford, Disney — and he once helped craft a communications strategy that portrayed a $19 billion pollution fine levied by an Ecuadorian court against Chevron as fraudulent and corrupt. The oil company eventually won a $96 million countersuit against the Ecuadorian government. “A reporter once told me that Sam Singer is known as the guy you go to when you’re in really deep shit,” Thomas told me. That month, Walker received an eviction notice.
“Carroll, we just heard that there was a text that says the sheriff is knocking on the door and saying people have to clear out. Is that your understanding, as we’re speaking?” Amy Goodman, host of the independent news program Democracy Now!, interrupted Fife during a live interview on the morning of January 14. “Oh, OK, yeah, I think we gotta go,” Fife replied. She and Walker, who was also in the studio for the interview, removed their earpieces and microphones, cameras still rolling. Behind the scenes, Tur-Ha Ak hustled the women off set. They hopped into his car and sped toward Magnolia Street.
The day before, more than 300 supporters had gathered on the sidewalk in front of Moms House with signs and flowers, locking arms and singing songs late into the evening. It was a diverse crowd, the majority of whom were women. At one point, two children no older than 10 led a call and response that went: “Whose house?” “Moms House!” Fred Hampton Jr., son of the Black Panther Party leader killed by Chicago police in 1969, flew out to show his support (in Illinois, there’s an ongoing campaign to save Hampton Sr.’s childhood home, which was recently repossessed and is currently slated for auction). That night, in anticipation of an eviction, the moms stayed up. Cross didn’t eat. “We had to have talks with our kids about what was about to happen,” Cross said. They made plans for their children to sleep somewhere safe with family or friends. “No mother should have to have those kinds of conversations with their kids.”
At 5 a.m. the next day, just as Walker went live on Democracy Now!, dozens of Alameda County sheriff’s deputies showed up with the armored vehicle, wielding assault rifles and a battering ram. They blocked off Magnolia Street with yellow tape and approached Moms House. A notice posted on the front door stated that the moms were participating in a nonviolent act of civil disobedience and that the women would not resist arrest but would remain where they were.
“Sheriff’s office! If you refuse to leave, you will be arrested for violation of a court order and obstruction of justice,” one of the sheriff’s deputies announced when he reached the door. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! His knocks could be heard all the way down the block. “Sheriff’s office!”
The officers understood the sensitivity of the situation, according to its spokesperson, Sergeant Ray Kelly, and had reached out to Moms 4 Housing prior to the eviction to persuade the women to leave the home. But the moms were intent on staying, and according to Kelly, the department was also concerned that anarchist groups on the periphery of the movement might be looking for a confrontation. The weapons, armored vehicle, and tactical gear were meant to prepare officers for a worst-case scenario. “The optics on that were never going to be good,” Kelly said. “We wanted nothing to do with this, but we have an obligation as the sheriff’s office to enforce the eviction order.”
Cross, dressed in a green hoodie with a quilted design on her chest in the shape of the continent of Africa, and King, bundled up in a winter jacket with the hood up, retreated upstairs, passing two posters: one that read, “Housing For All,” and another, “Moms 4 Housing #SaveMomsHouse.” When the moms and their supporters refused to walk out, officers took a battering ram to the door, which had no lock and had been secured with a two-by-four for weeks. “It’s Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. We’re here for an eviction. Anybody inside the residence please come to the front door.” Cross went back downstairs, took a seat on the couch, and started broadcasting on Facebook Live as the deputies broke down the door to that room — which was unlocked, according to the moms. “It’s a lot of force,” she said to her followers watching online. “I’ve never seen this happen before.”
“We’re trying not to arrest anybody,” an officer in body armor said to the women. “If you guys would like to leave now, this is your last chance to leave before we place you under arrest.” He paused for a response. “Are you guys refusing to leave? You guys want to be arrested instead of just walking out peacefully?” The women remained seated and silent. “Start bringing the bodies in and start picking them off,” he said, directing three officers beside him.
“We don’t want to arrest you,” one of his partners, a man in a cap and tactical glasses, said.
“We don’t want to be homeless,” King replied. “I’m trying to comb my baby’s hair for school. It’s nowhere for me to go.”
As the officers led King and Cross through the battered door and onto the porch, the mothers saw a crowd of supporters gathered at the end of the block. The crowd broke into the chant from the night before: “Whose house?” “Moms House!” “Whose house?” “Moms House!”
“What happens next, Misty?” a journalist asked Cross.
“What happens next is the movement,” she said. “We only a piece of it. We’ll be back. We’ll be right back.”
That week, through their attorneys, Moms 4 Housing made an agreement with Wedgewood that the women would be allowed to return to the house to get their things. But in the days after police carried out the eviction, Wedgewood didn’t honor the agreement, according to Moms 4 Housing. They say the company took their furnishings, housewares, clothes, and other belongings — the triple bunk, Baby Zone couch, tutus, princess costumes — stuffed what they could into garbage bags, and threw them onto the street. Singer, Wedgewood’s spokesperson, didn’t address this claim but wrote via email, “Throughout the process, Wedgewood did the right thing…. Wedgewood is sympathetic to the plight of the homeless and is a major contributor to shelter programs, inner-city youth, and the disadvantaged. The company hears what the individuals who were illegally squatting at the Magnolia Street home are saying — but it does not respect nor does it condone the theft of its property.”
When the moms came to collect what remained, the triple bunk had been dismantled in such a way that it could not be put back together.
In a 2015 presentation at the Advantage Real Estate Forum in Boca Raton, Florida, Wedgewood CEO Gregory Geiser described distressed housing markets as “hot and sexy.” Wedgewood owned 98 shell companies, 31 of which operated in the Bay Area, holding at least 125 properties, according to an investigation by a local NBC affiliate. The company had a Monopoly game board, which was rebranded “Wedgewood,” affixed to the wall of its headquarters in Redondo Beach, California.
When I visited Moms House, the windows, doors, and garage were boarded up. The black tarp covering the leaky roof flapped in the breeze. A chain-link fence had been erected around the perimeter. Someone had used a tomato can to prop up a sign that read:
Moms 4 Housing <3”
Just across the street from Moms House is a blue-gray home renovated with raw-lumber fencing next to a small, one-story bungalow with bars over its windows. Down the block, a “For Sale” sign advertises a teal property with a stone-and-pebble walkway and a baby palm tree in the front yard. Across the street from that house sits a two-story complex with a “BEWARE OF DOG” sign pinned to the fence. Beside it, an empty lot.
After the eviction, Walker found housing at an apartment building owned by the Northern California Land Trust on Tenth Street in South Berkeley. When the apartment’s prior landlord tried to sell the building, the tenants, mostly older black residents on fixed incomes who would have lost their housing if the deal had gone through, organized. They purchased the complex with support from the land trust, a nonprofit legal structure that keeps housing affordable by placing limits on the resale value of units while retaining ownership of the land. Moms 4 Housing had discussed doing the same with Moms House.
When the eviction made national headlines, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf reached out to Gregory Geiser, head of Wedgewood, to make a deal. A week before their eviction, the moms had confronted the Oakland mayor at a press conference. The mayor described the encounter as “intense” and “raw.” “I could just feel how much trauma these mothers have been through,” she said. The mayor did not use her Oakland Police Department to remove the women or assist Alameda County with the eviction. But the moms still felt that Schaaf didn’t help them until the national media forced her hand.
Under that increased scrutiny, Schaaf and Geiser began negotiating the transfer of 2928 Magnolia Street to the Oakland Community Land Trust, with the intention of making Moms House available and affordable for the mothers. Wedgewood also indicated that the company was open to adding a right of first refusal onto some of its other properties in Oakland, which would allow existing tenants to purchase their units at the asking price when they went up for sale. Meanwhile, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against the moms. “Pressure bursts pipes,” Walker said of these victories. “That’s what happens when we come together.”
Lawmakers seemed emboldened, too. Two weeks after the eviction, Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Bas announced the Moms 4 Housing Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would give renters the first right to buy if their home went up for sale. An addition to the bill would provide community land trusts, co-ops, and affordable-housing developers the first right to purchase vacant homes and buildings — a measure intended to protect property from speculation. The same day, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib introduced a slate of seven sweeping housing bills in Congress, branded the “People’s Housing Platform,” which aim to tackle homelessness, public housing, and tenant rights, among other issues.
“Did you guys hear about Moms 4 Housing?” ACCE representative Vanessa Bulnes asked the crowd at the Capitol Hill press conference announcing the package. The crowd cheered. “That’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take radical action and changes like that to get the community talking about it.”
Schaaf acknowledges that “institutionalized racism has played a huge role in the housing crisis and the disproportionate impact on African Americans,” meaning that “if you are white, you are more than twice as likely to own a home than if you are black.” The city recently passed a law banning criminal background checks for potential tenants because they discriminate against formerly incarcerated people. The mayor also touts the Keep Oakland Housed initiative, designed to help families at risk of displacement remain in the city. “I am hair-on-fire about putting a ballot initiative on the California ballot in November to create a constitutional amendment to mandate the government work to end homelessness,” the mayor told me. Schaaf supports the goal of making housing a human right but expressed concern that a rights-based framework didn’t resonate as well as other ways of addressing the issue, based on preliminary feedback from focus groups. “The devil is in the details,” she said.
Then the details started falling apart. Wedgewood insisted on a price nearly $90,000 higher than the appraisal offered by the land trust and the value at which the corporation purchased the property just six months earlier. Moms 4 Housing balked at the offer and does not believe the corporation should turn a profit on the home. Wedgewood still owns Moms House.
Without the house on Magnolia, Cross and King are back on the street. King still gets up at 5:30 to serve breakfast at McClymonds, and on holidays, when she doesn’t have work and her kids are out of school, she drives around aimlessly. One night, she drove the family around town until sunrise because she didn’t have anywhere else to go. “I’ve been sold this lie of the American dream. I’ve worked hard, hard, and harder my whole life. I deserve a good life here in my hometown of Oakland,” King said. “Even after what we’ve done with Moms 4 Housing, my family is still struggling. I’m still sleeping in a car. Everyone says they want to help, but no one in power is willing to challenge the systems that forced my family into homelessness.”
On an evening in January, I met Cross in downtown Oakland, and she led the way to Bento House, where she occasionally gets lunch. I explained I wasn’t going to eat because my mom was cooking dinner. “And you better not ruin that appetite,” Cross responded, “because it’s a sign of disrespect when you don’t eat when we cook, I’m telling you.” I laughed. “I wish my son would not come into my house and not eat, because I’m sure gonna have a fit. Even if he gets married, I’m still gonna get jealous: ‘What do you mean you’re full? Just eat some more. You can’t be full,’ ” she continued. “That’s what’s keeping me moving, is my kids.”
A week before the eviction, the father of Cross’s three daughters died. During the Moms 4 Housing media frenzy, she wore sunglasses to most rallies and press conferences. “I was just there, existing,” she said. “I’ve been getting dealt the hard hand from the beginning.”
With her children, Cross lives out of her car and sleeps in a shelter for battered women in Alameda, a city bordering Oakland. They have an 8 o’clock curfew and have to sign up for laundry and showers. They’re cautious around other residents, some of whom suffer from mental illness. When I asked what that’s like, Cross said, “Shit, like jail. You have to wake up when they tell you to. You have chores. You have to eat when they feed you — or you don’t eat. When you sleep in the dorm, they walk by to patrol. You’re not at your own will. You’ve got a curfew. You have to get permission if you want to stay out on weekends.” After being displaced so many times, Cross has become numb to it all.
But as she picked at her salad, her mood shifted. “A lot of family members died in these streets from guns,” she said, referring to the 2006 shooting that nearly took her life. “Maybe God kept me here for a reason. Maybe he kept me in this position that he did so that I can, I don’t know, do this work?” Cross wants Moms 4 Housing to put forward a California ballot initiative to make housing a human right, but there isn’t consensus around that strategy yet.
About an hour into dinner, Cross checked her watch. Curfew was approaching, and it was time to get back to her kids. She got a to-go box for her leftover chicken and sushi. “There’s a lot of our people out there that want to tell their story,” she said, standing on the sidewalk beside her car. “We just opened up that pathway for them not to be judged, not to feel embarrassed about that.”
Then she pointed at the sedan. “Like, we work! Do this look like I’m homeless? But if I open up my trunk, you would be like, ‘Whoa, lady.’ Everything is in here. But yeah, no one will ever know the path you walked until you tell your story. I tell mine because I was at that point where I couldn’t talk. So for me to have a voice? I’ll give it my all, and that’s just it.”