Homes Not Hotels
In mid-March, as the contest between hoteliers and Christian ministries was prenatal, in the El Sereno neighborhood of East Los Angeles, where the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans, owns 163 vacant homes, thirteen expropriations by the new homeless peoples’ group Reclaiming Our Homes began putting landownership in jeopardy. The first occurred the weekend before L.A.’s shelter in place order, with more emerging in the days up to the March 19th order. Starting the 19th, California Highway Police were posted nightly to prevent further reclamations; Captain Denis Ford told Liam Dillion, according to a Twitter post, “The CHP has been directed at the highest levels to assist Caltrans with ensuring that the houses that are state owned by Caltrans and are vacant remain vacant.”
The timing, between the pandemic entering into broader awareness and the strict enforcement of shelter in place, was perfect. One of the Reclaimers, Martha Escudero, told Sarah Jaffe for Dissent, that “[w]hen she heard about Moms4Housing this winter, she began talking to friends about whether something like that would be possible in L.A.” Another Reclaimer Jaffe spoke with, Benito Flores, remarked on his group’s response to the pandemic, “if we were going to do something, it had to be now.” Escudero’s friends had connected her with Eastside Cafe and the statewide community organization Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), who introduced her to fellow Reclaimer Ruby Gordillo and Flores, the latter of whom had been organizing with both the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action and the United Caltrans Tenants—whose members had been active for decades in housing struggles impacted by the 710 freeway corridor project running through El Sereno. Those groups and others, including LA and Pasadena Tenants Unions and DSA Los Angeles, coordinated support for the Reclaimers in advance of their first occupation, with each showing up with groups of members the day of. ”We’ve been seeing a lot of support from the neighbors,” Escudero told Jaffe.
Since then, homeless people organizing with Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism in the Vancouver, Canada metro area have occupied two vacant public buildings, with reference to COVID-19. Police evicted them from the first, a former Rec Center, the same day. The second, a former school building, remained in squatter’s possession from April 18th to 19th. Fourteen people were arrested when the police shut the action down. In Chicago, IL, “[o]n April 1st, a group of rent strikers, residents of tent cities and community members reclaimed a building owned by Deutsche Bank,” according to a report on It’s Going Down. Anonymous authors explain the logic of the action, saying, “rent strikes unmask the fundamental violence of rent, building occupations become acts of self-determination that shatter the illusion of private property.”
Like the first known case of COVID-19, we can track the latest current of homeless tenants militancy back to a campaign begun in November. One Monday morning, word came through that an event publicized as the “Moms for Housing Breakfast & Toy Drive,” one of a dozen acts in the East Bay Housing Justice Week of Action, was a pretense. The invitation for the November 18th, 2019 toy drive had asked attendees to “[b]ring a toy, bring a friend, and show unhoused and marginally housed women and children some love and solidarity,” but in their inaugural tweet, the new group Moms 4 Housing announced that “Homeless moms are taking vacant properties back from real estate speculators TODAY in West Oakland.” By now, almost anyone who has heard of the Moms has also, thanks to them, heard that in Oakland there are four vacant homes for every homeless person. Many also now know that, according to conservative estimates, between 2017 and 2019 Oakland’s homeless population grew 47 percent to at least 4071 people, 70 percent of whom are black.
The Moms House door was battered through almost two months later, Tuesday, January 14, around 5:30am. Armed and armored Alameda County Sheriff’s brought out two of the Moms, Misty Cross and Tolani King, handcuffed. Sherrifs also arrested two supporters, Jesse Turner and Walter Baker. In a mass text, the Moms reassured supporters that they had relocated their children when they got word that “the Sheriff was moving in.” The Friday before, a judge ruled to evict Moms 4 Housing on behalf of corporate house flipper Wedgewood Properties, who had refused demands to sell while the home occupation continued.
Preparing for eviction, the Moms’ House Solidarity Committee arranged defense shifts 6am to 6pm on Monday the 13th, assuming that the sheriffs would evict during their regular hours. In the morning, more than a dozen supporters physically blocked entry, others served food and drink, and many came just to warm the atmosphere, bringing the crowd to around 100. At 7pm that evening, supporters were texted “URGENT get to 2928 NOW sheriffs are in their way.” Within half an hour people again crowded, numbers soon swelling beyond 300. The Sheriff’s evicted before the next defense shift.
On Martin Luther King Day a week later, Moms 4 Housing made the surprise announcement that they’d begun negotiations with Wedgewood to buy the home through Oakland Community Land Trust.
Between expropriation and eviction, the campaign gathered immense popularity. It’s message is best summarized not by the more common #HousingIsAHumanRight but by #EvicttheSpeculators. Iit’s the way the Moms lived the latter that got them so far, earning their reputation for beginning a new movement, or, as we tend to think, a new wave of an old movement.
Homeless tenants evicting capitalist landlords was the revitalizing ingredient catered to the palate of the moment. The Moms took further, from outdoor to indoor, from public to private, the land occupation tactic of the already well regarded Oakland-based campaign led by and for BIPOC homeless Oakland mothers, The Village (written about by one of us in “Rent and Its Discontents” for the rightfully dissolved Commune). Momentum behind The Village bridged into Moms 4 Housing directly. The morning of the 24th, The Village staked camp in front of City Hall, to protest homeless encampment sweeps. More than 75 people defended people in 15 tents. Early on the 25th, around 50 cops tore through tents, arresting 19.
Moms channelled popularity not only because of their message, the moment, or the momentum. Their campaign was waged by a sufficiently powerful articulation of social forces. This articulation helps explain their success and the difficulty of repeating it—except through comparable or larger scale coordination, such as that by Reclaiming Our Homes. The Moms House Solidarity Committee was coordinated by ACCE staff. An ACCE attorney, Leah Simon-Weisberg, represented the Moms in court. And from the start the Moms had support from “progressive” and social democratic forces such as City Council President Rebecca Kaplan and Councilperson Nikki Fortunato Bas, plus other influential community leaders and organizations, like former-Mayoral candidate, Cat Brooks, and Community Ready Corps for Self Determination.
In this situation, the Moms widened their target from real estate capitalists, like Wedgewood, to politicians who aid them by promoting market-rate housing development, including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, State Senator Scott Weiner, and Governor Gavin Newsom. Schaaf and Newsom ultimately brokered between the Moms and Wedgewood, but only after the Moms disrupted a January 7th press conference for the pro-development legislation SB50, and after the Sheriff’s eviction of the Moms brought public indignation toward Wedgewood, county police, and the political establishment to a fever pitch.
With the moment still warm from this fever, pandemic struck. Then so did L.A.’s Reclaimers, who, once in physical possession of the state-owned properties, could not be removed, apparently because of the social coordination and public legitimacy of their actions and the fact that no private interest was involved. It’s unclear what role L.A. County court closures played. By contrast, three homeless occupiers in Sacramento, members of the Sacramento Homeless Union, who’d taken over another Wedgewood property, were unceremoniously removed by police for allegedly trespassing on March 29th. Neighbors called the cops on them, not having been won to their side.
Moms 4 Housing’s example is not easily followed. Few among the homeless have access to the spectrum of campaign resources that ACCE or the Reclaimers’ coalition brought to the table. But not every home reclamation needs to be fought so intensively. The Moms’ and Reclaimers’ fights have been deliberately calibrated to apply policy pressure. To expropriate housing for all the homeless, for each highly visible reclamation neighborhoods must support many more less visible. Such support is difficult to organize while sheltering in place. Few regions have networks of tenants’ solidarity as dense or integrated as in Los Angeles and the Bay, though the present wave of housed tenants’ council organizing and rent strikes may be changing that.