How to Beat Back Gentrification 

Rents in Oakland, California, are climbing at the staggering rate of 34 percent per year — the biggest increase in all of the Bay Area. On the periphery of San Francisco, Oakland is part of the most expensive housing market in the country, where billionaires are displacing millionaires, and a second wave of gentrification is feeding unprecedented urban decay in some parts of the city.

The bubble-fueled economic growth in Silicon Valley and San Francisco has brought thousands of high-income earners to Oakland, who have been buying up properties in flatland neighborhoods, benefiting from a relatively cheaper housing stock caused by government disinvestment since the 1980s.

To make matters worse, speculative real estate companies have implanted flip operations throughout Oakland and the surrounding cities. They are buying up properties quickly with cash, doing minimal rehab, and then quickly putting them back on the market at a far higher price, ready to be purchased by tech workers, feeding off ten years of misery caused by the foreclosure crisis. Meanwhile, the banking industry, with equal enthusiasm, lends to these capital-endowed newcomers and denies homeownership to most Oaklanders.

It’s no surprise that the impacts of this crisis are disproportionately borne by working-class communities of color and low-income residents. Nearly fifty thousand eviction notices were filed in Oakland between 2005 and 2016, with many cases going undocumented due to landlord harassment. Most dramatically, Oakland’s black population has decreased by close to half, one of the most devastating examples of the real estate exploitation of the black community.

Black people in Oakland make up 70 percent of the homeless population, which has, in total, increased by 47 percent in the past two years. Homeless encampments have grown to such an extent that, according to the UN, Oakland now has some of the same slum conditions as Pakistan, Mexico, and Brazil. Amid these staggering rates of homelessness, there are reported to be close to six thousand vacant homes in Oakland alone.

It is in this context that, at the beginning of November 2019, a group of organized black homeless mothers and their children occupied a vacant speculator-owned house at 2928 Magnolia Street, in the historically black, working-class neighborhood of West Oakland. The occupation led to a two-month standoff with the house-flipping company Wedgewood, who had bought the property at a foreclosure auction the previous year.

The key organizers of Moms 4 Housing were all born and raised in Oakland. Coordinating with organizations such as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), socialist groups such as the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, and, most significantly, their neighbors, the Moms became the nucleus of a powerful movement taking on real estate capital in the Bay Area.

The group’s organizing was inspired by tenant struggles that had been ongoing throughout the city in the preceding years, and that had successfully de-commodified other speculator-owned properties. This de-commodification movement had created such momentum that it had even won a $12 million municipal fund solely for community land trust and co-op acquisition of properties, championed by a recently elected socialist council member.

Following these examples, the Moms demanded that Wedgewood sell the house in question to the Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT), but they were met with staunch resistance.

In the first week of January, militarized units of the Alameda County sheriffs stormed the small home and arrested two of the mothers and their supporters, serving Wedgewood’s eviction notice in the process. Governor Gavin Newsom intervened in support of his political ally, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf. His interest was in blocking the movement from expanding and in protecting the political establishment’s weaning credibility. He promised “good things” for the Moms — code words for liberal containment.

The Moms, however, took care to make good things happen for themselves. On MLK Day, less than a week after being evicted from the vacant home they had occupied, Moms 4 Housing leaders announced at a press conference that they had come to an agreement with the house-flipping company. Due to the damage done to its own reputation and potential loss of investor confidence, Wedgewood was forced to concede and agree to sell the property — as well as its other Oakland holdings — to the OakCLT. The company was beating a retreat out of the Bay Area.

The victory highlights a key strategic pillar of the Moms’ highly publicized two-month campaign: the OakCLT can be used as a means of putting properties back into the hands of the community from which they was taken. The victory provides a rare example of an actual reversal of the process of gentrification, where the efficient machine of real-estate extractivism has faltered in the face of collective action.

Actions like those of Moms 4 Housing have garnered attention across the country, including from figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who commented that the Moms’ action worked to “challenge many of the operating tenants that the United States was founded on, including racism, but also the protection of capital over human beings.”

It’s a principle reflected in Bernie Sanders’s Housing For All platform. As mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, Sanders helped establish the country’s first municipally funded community land trust, which grew into the Champlain Housing Trust and now owns up to 10 percent of the housing stock in Burlington. Imagine what it would mean for every major city to de-commodify 10 percent or more of their housing stock — as a start.

Both Bernie and the Moms understand that keeping workers together in the same neighborhood allows people to build a social world and recognize themselves as part of a class with its own interests. It’s the only way to stop the deterioration of community bonds symptomatically represented by the tent cities all throughout California. While a new phase of social housing construction is needed, such an agenda will do little to change property relations in the private market, where the vast majority of the working class currently lives.

With society now facing deepening crises surrounding the coronavirus, the Moms are a model for how to create thoughtful and coordinated action led by those most vulnerable. Now, other tenants in California are following the Moms’ example, engaging in rent strikes and taking aim at the speculative market.

In Oakland, as in the rest of the country, the choice is between more gentrification — with its militarized evictions — or more community ownership. The victory of Moms 4 Housing shows that the de-commodification of housing is still possible, and still worth fighting for.

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