Illustration by Ryan Tran

Four houseless mothers and their children moved into a three-bedroom home on Magnolia Street in West Oakland on Nov. 18, a space left vacant for over two years. They installed a water heater, decorated the rooms and even paid the electric and water bills. 

At 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 14, they were arrested and evicted from the home by police armed with rifles, battering rams and armored vehicles. 

The families are part of Moms 4 Housing, a Bay Area houseless activist group.  

“There are four times as many empty homes in Oakland as there are homeless people,” said Sameerah Karim, one of the mothers at a press conference outside of the home. “Why should anyone, especially children, sleep on the street while perfectly good homes sit empty?”

These women faced military grade aggression when they’re part of one of the only groups advocating for the protection of Oakland’s houseless community. The organization has taken over vacant homes in the past. The Magnolia Street home was the latest to garner national attention. 

Three hundred supporters gathered outside Magnolia St. in West Oakland after Moms 4 Housing sent out a text stating the police were on their way to evict the families. Police did not show up that night and instead waited for the crowd to disperse.

In Oakland, private property is more protected than families seeking shelter. In 2018, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness put the number of total family households experiencing houselessness at 6,702. But empty houses are snatched up by developers whose deep pockets lure the city far from its duty to protect residents.

The home the moms occupied is owned by Wedgewood Properties, a large firm based out of Redondo Beach that makes billions flipping homes nationwide. Since the eviction of the three families on Jan. 14, the group purchased the property from Wedgewood through nonprofit organization Oakland Community Land Trust. 

Before selling the property, Wedgewood offered to pay for shelter for the mothers and their families in an attempt to get them out of the home. The mothers did not take the offer and were insulted by the intent. 

Wedgewood is representative of a new trend in the housing market in which anonymous owners purchase properties in bulk and dominate the market. These anonymous owners function under LLP, LLC or LC entities. According to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau survey, more than 3 million homes and 13 million apartment buildings operated under these entities. 

LLP, LLC and LC are business structures that do not require naming property owners or investors.

The trend in anonymous ownership in the housing market makes it increasingly difficult for cities to identify owners of vacant buildings. Some California cities considered adopting a vacancy tax to address the problem. In Oakland, a $6,000 flat rate vacancy tax is placed on homes that are in use fewer than 50 days a year. 

People that have the money to own vacant buildings are more than capable of paying a fine. The money cities would earn from taxing vacant buildings would be used to increase funding for initiatives such as affordable housing.  

The vacancy tax that Moms 4 Housing advocated for was adopted by Oakland, and California  would benefit from its statewide implementation. But the California government hasn’t done more than introduce Band-Aid solutions. 

On Jan. 16, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a plan to deploy 100 trailers to California as a temporary fix to the houseless crisis. 

Fifteen of those trailers are headed to Oakland and are expected to house 50-70 individuals. The deployment of the trailers is a clear publicity stunt on the part of Newsom’s team. Little information is known about the trailers except that they will be available by the end of March and can each hold up to 11 people. 

The publicity stunt will help less than one percent of California’s houseless population of 150,000. Many applaud this move by Newsom and his team as a step in the right direction in addressing the state’s housing crisis, but California doesn’t need another “step,” it needs a substantial plan of action that will propel the state forward. 

A common excuse for not addressing houseless populations in California is a lack of funding. Implementing a vacancy tax in every city in California would bolster city funds and eliminate the ultimate excuse for ignoring the largest houseless population in the U.S.

Those in a position to help can donate to organizations like Moms 4 Housing that unapologetically push the houseless situation into the national and international spotlight. Moms 4 Housing is holding the government responsible for its inaction and individuals should help where they can.