On November 18, 2019, in west Oakland, California, Dominique Walker and Sameerah Karim started moving their families into the vacant three-bedroom home at 2928 Magnolia Street (Holder and Mock 2020). They pressure-washed the exterior, patched the roof, installed a water heater, and added a refrigerator and stove. It was a new beginning for both women—single Black mothers who had experienced homelessness due to the cost of housing in Oakland, despite working full-time. The only problem was, they were neither leaseholders nor owners: The house was owned by Wedgewood Properties, described by its own CEO, Greg Geiser, as the largest “fix-and-flip” company in the United States (Dreier 2016). Historically Black neighborhoods are being gradually eroded in Oakland, with a roughly 50% decline in Black Oaklanders between the 1980s and today. One would have to earn $43.46 an hour, or $86,920 annually, to afford a two-bedroom home in the ZIP code where the Magnolia house is located, while Black women in the area earn an average of $49,369. The city also had more than 4,000 unhoused residents in late 2019, representing a 47% increase since 2017 (Holder and Mock 2020).
Tellingly, 70% of houseless Oaklanders are Black, while Black Oaklanders make up 25% of the city’s population (Kim 2020a). But despite the formidable barrier of housing costs, available supply isn’t the issue. According to Moms 4 Housing’s website, there are four times the number of empty homes as there are unhoused Oaklanders. The culprit is speculative investment, which transforms homes into vessels of wealth storage and leaves thousands of properties empty as the owner-investors wait for the land to appreciate, or evict tenants to “flip” the home.
Working with Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland chapter of Alliance of Californians for Community Action (ACCE) and founder of the organization’s Black Housing Union, Walker, Karim and several other activists founded Moms 4 Housing and initiated a highly publicized occupation of the house on Magnolia Street. This direct action follows in the spirit of San Francisco’s Homes Not Jails and ACORN’s1 squatting campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, which began in Philadelphia and spread to other cities (Borgos 1986). The campaign scaled up to target not just individual claims to occupy abandoned property, but also became a “protest against the failure of the nation to provide decent and affordable housing” (ibid., p. 439). In this tradition, the Moms employed a dual strategy consisting of pragmatic and symbolic building takeovers, producing both functional homes and media opportunities (Corr 1999).
Their demand was simple: for the owners to sell the house to the organization at a fraction of the cost, or return it to the community (Martin 2019). As Walker explained:
This home was stolen from the Black community in the subprime mortgage crisis, and it’s been sitting vacant for years...We tried working through the system to find affordable housing. We both hold down multiple jobs and take care of our families. But this system doesn’t work for people; it only works for banks and corporations (ibid.).
Wedgewood’s spokesperson, Sam Singer, countered that the occupation of the house constituted an act of “theft,” (Hahn 2020) and their lawyer Francisco Gutierrez described the women as “trespassers” (Solomon and Wolffe 2019) and argued that the mothers had “no legal and ethical defense of their actions,” (Hahn 2020). These statements raise questions not only about the ethical foundations of Wedgewood’s claim of ownership, but also about the notion of fee-simple private property in general.
The construction of private property
Private property is a fairly recent cultural construct, and one at once deeply connected to dispossession and colonial settlement and to modern citizenship (Bhandar 2014, 2018), integral to American values of individualism and self-sufficiency. In John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), the philosopher established life, liberty, and property as the three fundamental “natural rights” to which (white male) humans are entitled. In the New World, this meant that whoever came across a piece of land not being cultivated using European agricultural methods could claim it for his exclusive use. This logic, based on the premise of God-given rights and a mandate not to “waste” land, became the guiding principle of colonial settlement (Haddad 2002; Duchrow and Hinkelammert 2004).
Locke’s philosophy of property was informed by the reordering of land ownership from a traditional system based on customary-use rights to a new paradigm of fee-simple ownership that emerged in 17th‑century England and Wales through the Enclosure Acts (Polanyi 1944). During this massive social transformation, the meaning of property changed from a complex layering of various usage rights to a conception of land as a discrete object that could be rented, sold, or willed (Blomley 2003). In similar fashion, the American colonial project used surveys, maps, and the rhetoric of “improvement” to dispossess Indigenous people and their land-use traditions in the New World and build great wealth (ibid.). Many immigrants who arrived were ironically escaping the vagaries of enclosure themselves and were enticed by the prospect of possessing their own homes and livelihoods (Linklater 2013).
Eventually, the Lockean justifications of ownership based on use became immaterial to the private property regime. Speculators emerged early on, and many Americans who were eligible to own property remained tenants (Wright 1981). The social status of the tenant farmer in the country’s early days foreshadowed that of the urban renter. In the colonial era, only “freeholders”2 could vote, which accounted for about 75% of adult white males, and 10–20% of the entire population.3 Tenancy was prominent in New York’s Hudson Valley and northern Virginia, where it was not just a temporary stage of life but rather “an integral part of the North American landscape” (Humphrey 2008, p. 163). Jefferson attempted to remedy this, first, by proposing suffrage for tenants; when this met with opposition, he devised the Land Ordinance of 1785. This initiative entailed a massive land survey in order to create a grid system for town platting, with the goal of molding each white man into an independent yeoman farmer, an American archetype that later informed the consumer appetite for the single-family home (Garb 2005). The Jeffersonian dream of freedom and equality through homesteading applied exclusively to white men during this early era and, even for them, was only accessible to unindentured individuals with substantial savings and farming skills (Wright 1981).
The Manifest Destiny project in the 19th century aimed to claim large swaths of land for the young country in order to challenge competing claims by other countries and to remove Indigenous residents. New settlement always entailed a racial and/or nationalistic element, with a white “tipping point” signaling victory over the non‑American other (Frymer 2017). Legislation like the Preemption Act of 1830, the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, and the Homestead Act of 1862 approved squatting and provided low-cost land for white settlers in order to further the goals of Indian removal. While Black men and women were theoretically allowed to claim land under the Homestead Act, a number of informal restrictions, tactics and obstacles thwarted this in practice. This denial of Black land claims was in addition to the collapse of the promises and policies proposed during Reconstruction, most famously of 40 acres and a mule. Frequent debates arose over race and access to these property ownership opportunities during the westward expansion of the 19th century.
Unequal access to property
Unequal access to property, which was itself stolen from Indigenous inhabitants, was compounded over the years though racist practices like redlining, restrictive covenants, and realtor codes, which impacted Black households more than any other group (Gibson 2007). In a 2016 survey, 65% of renters said they rent because of financial circumstances, with Black and Latino tenants far more likely to cite this reason. Today, 36% of the population live in rental homes, which is the highest number since 1965.4 Over 47% of all renter households are cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their income for rent, including 83% of extremely low-income households,5 with 72% of this demographic paying more than 50% of their income for rent. Housing tenure inequities are inextricably tied to race, with Black, Latino and Native American households considerably more likely to rent than White and Asian households, and to experience extreme cost burdens (National Low Income Housing Coalition 2016).
Meanwhile, rental housing has become a major investment asset class (Fields and Uffer 2016). Complicated institutional arrangements among landlords, creditors, investors, and managers obfuscate decision-makers and entities that hold responsibility for its management (Wyly 2013). Ensuring that investment returns meet their target levels often requires removing long-term renters through tactics like reduction of services, deferred maintenance, “renoviction,” and harassment (Fields and Uffer 2016). The foreclosure crisis of 2008 dealt a major blow to Black and Latino communities, while simultaneously presenting a lucrative opportunity for investors to add single-family homes to their portfolios. In Los Angeles alone, 53,000 properties had been foreclosed by 2012, and they were primarily located in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Many of the homes were purchased by large financial institutions and turned into investment rental properties (Katz 2018)—or, in Wedgewood’s case, renovated and flipped.
Disrupting corporate ownership of communities
In early December 2019, the Moms received an eviction notice (Solomon and Wolffe 2019), and responded by filing six claims of right (to possession) to the house in court (Kim 2020b). The judge issued a tentative ruling in favor of Wedgewood but agreed to hear the Moms’ argument. The Moms’ attorneys positioned their defense within the framing of housing as a human right, evoking its recognition in international law (Solomon and Wolffe 2019). The judge ultimately ruled against the Moms, and they were removed by the Sheriff and arrested (along with several supporters) in a spectacular display of force emblematic of both the over-policing of Black communities and law enforcement’s de facto role as a protector of private property. The lockout eviction cost the taxpayers of Alameda County over $40,000 in personnel costs, and Wedgewood also failed to follow the law about storing evictees’ belongings by dumping them onto the sidewalk (Kim 2020b).
Yet the Moms prevailed in the court of public opinion. Shortly after the eviction, the house on Magnolia was sold to the Oakland Community Land Trust—a community-based nonprofit designed to own land and to keep housing on the land affordable—and some of the original Moms will reside there. Wedgewood properties has also agreed to give the land trust the right of first refusal on their entire Oakland portfolio (Holder and Mock 2020).
Moms 4 Housing has inspired housing-justice activists around the country, including LA‑based Reclaiming Our Homes, which occupied 12 city-owned houses at the beginning of the Covid‑19 crisis (Hahn 2020), and a recent direct-action campaign by homeless people in Philadelphia that resulted in 50 homes being deeded to a community land trust.. Carroll Fife is currently running for Oakland City Council, while Dominique Walker is running for the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. California recently passed a law prohibiting bundle foreclosure sales and giving tenants the right of first refusal.
The Moms 4 Housing action isn’t just about housing—it’s also about disputing and disrupting corporate ownership of the community itself. Whereas landlords and investors treat each parcel as though it is a discrete island that holds capital, its intricate spatial context is both what makes it unique and irreplaceable to the user and what creates its monetary value. Its implications have never been incorporated into policy on a wide scale. This theory of land’s socially produced value and unearned increment was most famously addressed almost 150 years ago by Henry George and continues to inspire the renewed interest in, and proliferation of, community land trusts today.
Wedgewood’s argument that occupying property is theft, when the creation of property itself was theft, should lead to a broad critical questioning about what property is. What value does it hold as a cultural construct when its primacy has enriched the few at the expense of many? Do these concepts of property interfere with broader rights to housing, to our neighborhoods, and to the city, in favor of speculative profit-making?
- Bhandar, B. 2014. “Critical legal studies and the politics of property”, Property Law Review, no. 3, pp. 186–194.
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