Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:06)
Welcome to season two of the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. To launch this season we visit California, the epicenter of a national homelessness crisis and the place where a group of mothers are standing up against real estate investors.
news clip: (00:26)
"Moms 4 Housing say they want to reclaim vacant homes and let homeless women live in them."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:32)
In 2019, there were nearly 568,000 homeless people in the United States. Most of them were living in shelters and more than a third lived in the streets, abandoned buildings, or other places.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:46)
California alone saw its homeless population go up by 16 percent last year. It's one of the places where rapidly rising housing costs continue to drive the crisis.
news clip: (00:56)
"Troubling new numbers for the city of Oakland. Some data showing more than 4,000 homeless people are living in the city right now."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:04)
Last November, two homeless mothers in Oakland decided to occupy a house owned by a private investment firm. The house had been sitting vacant for nearly two years.
news clip: (01:14)
"We are reclaiming this house from a billion dollar corporation."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:19)
The women are part of the collective of homeless mothers. They helped co-found Moms 4 Housing. To talk more about this movement, we're joined by Dominique Walker. She's one of the mothers reclaiming the Oakland property and one of the founders of Moms 4 Housing. Dominique, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Dominique Walker: (01:36)
Thank you. Thank you for having me here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:38)
I understand that you grew up in Oakland. Um, tell me about your relationship with Oakland, the place that you call home.
Dominique Walker: (01:45)
I love Oakland. Um, born and raised. My family has been here for a generation since the migration from the South. Growing up in Oakland was amazing. Um, it was like right outside of San Francisco, so it wasn't really like city city? A lot of my friends, we played outside. We got into plum trees and did those kinds of things. It was a sense of community.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:10)
And I heard that you attended Castlemont High School. I know Castlemont High School has a real spirit. What was that like?
Dominique Walker: (02:18)
I love Castlemont. I start organizing at 14. We ended up co-founding the high school that I graduated from, which was the school of social justice and community development.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:28)
What do you think laid the foundation for you to be an organizer at such an early age?
Dominique Walker: (02:33)
I don't know if I would call it a rebel spirit, but my grandparents sure thought it was because I was raised by my great grandparents until I was a teenager. So the spirit of the Panthers, I feel like is in me and I would hear my grandmother talk about the Black Panthers and the breakfast program and how she would only date a Panther and things like that.
news clip: (02:56)
"Summary with a major political objective. That is, we want land, bread, housing, clothing, education..."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:05)
And what did you do when you finished Castlemont?
Dominique Walker: (03:08)
Um, I went off to college. I went to Tougaloo College in Mississippi, it's a small HBCU, and it was difficult, um, because I am the oldest and I had to take care of my two younger siblings. So trying to navigate college and then trying to parent from afar. It took me awhile to finish, but when I finished, I stayed around in Jackson, um, I was actually going to school to be a nurse practitioner, which I still will at some point.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:37)
And then you ended up homeless.
Dominique Walker: (03:40)
I was in a domestic dispute with the father of my children, so I felt like the best thing to do with, you know, having like no family members there. I had built a community I guess around me, but my family wasn't there and it was a very abusive situation, mentally and physically. So, um, I decided to come home and move back to California.
Dominique Walker: (04:14)
It was unexpected. It was just like one of those emergency situations where you have to leave. And I came home April 3rd of this year and my neighborhood wasn't the same.
news clip: (04:28)
"Housing prices may be stabilizing, but rents are still rising...rents in the Bay Area are creeping up for the ninth month in a row."
Dominique Walker: (04:36)
Sleeping at different family members houses, um, that not working out ...when we had to sleep in a hotel room. The only other time I think my children have been in a hotel room was when we went like to Memphis, like on vacation or something like that. My four-year-old had questions. She was like, "are we in a vacation?" Like she didn't understand why we were in a hotel room. So having that conversation with her, um, was really hard. I want people to remember that being homeless is violent. You become very vulnerable to people that pray upon you, your children. Um, it's not a safe, safe space at all and you don't rest as a single mom it's my responsibility to provide for my children. So I felt like I wasn't doing that even though I'm working two jobs, like I'm working a full time job and a side job and I still cannot provide for my children. So it made me feel like I had failed as a parent.
Dominique Walker: (05:41)
When I got home, I was organizing as a community outreach coordinator and talking to people out on the streets. Um, I was offering our services, as far as like legal help from like wrongful evictions, rent increases, things like that. In this program was trying to prevent more people from becoming homeless, but it just seemed like we were a little too late because I had pages and pages of working folks...the stories that I would hear were so similar to mine. A lot of moms were homeless with their children because they're escaping domestic violence and it really made me feel like, well this is not an isolated issue. It's not just me. Um, people with stories just like they have degrees, they have several jobs, they are working 80 hours a week and it becomes a matter of like who deserves housing, cause these people are working and they're coming to tents or hotels rooms or housing insecure, like sleeping on couches or one situation away from potentially being homeless.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:46)
And did that lead to the founding of Moms 4 Housing?
Dominique Walker: (06:49)
Absolutely. None of our city elected officials were helping us and the programs in place weren't helping us, it came out of desperation. I went through several programs that were supposed to help me, in the end they did not. I went to a program that was supposed to help with like rent, funding was cut in the middle of a housing crisis in Oakland. Um, and then there's four vacant properties for every one homeless person. So it only makes sense to move folks in to those vacant properties and the city has a lot of vacant properties. Um, and I even went to city council and hear them talk about solutions and it didn't include none of those vulnerable people that these services are meant for. They should be a part of the conversation of their own solutions.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (07:38)
And then what happened when you decided to occupy the spaces that were just sitting there?
Dominique Walker: (07:43)
I was just ready, ready for a change, ready to be sheltered, ready for my kids to have shelter, a place to call their own.
news clip: (07:54)
"The group posted this video to their Facebook page today as they took over a house on Magnolia Street that they say has been empty for two years. According to the Bay area News Group, the larger goal is to take back investor owned properties that are vacant in neighborhoods where the mom's grew up but can no longer afford to live..."
Dominique Walker: (08:18)
"My daughter was just running through the house ...just like "oh we have a house." Since we've been stable, I've seen the change in my children, like my one-year-old, he started walking because he had the space to walk. Um, when you're living with other folks and in hotels, you don't have the space and then you're limited and you're living by somebody else's rules. They're like, keep it quiet at a certain time. So you're having to like tell your children to be quiet when they naturally just want to have fun and play and do those types of things. So I've seen a real change in my children. We have a lot of supporters. They came in, um, donated their time, their skills to us, the overwhelming amount of support -- it was amazing. It's a beautiful block in West Oakland. All the houses are nice. Um, and there's one house on the corner and I saw her, um, talking to the neighbors, they're so happy that we've moved in.
Dominique Walker: (09:20)
We actually had the (home) pressure washed, the whole outside, and got the inside cleaned, and the neighbors were scared that somebody was going to, um, do some type of violent crimes out of the house or any kind of drug activity or anything like that because it's just been sitting there and they're happy that we're here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (09:38)
Did you have any particular feeling about the fact that this property was a corporate landlord as opposed to a neighbor landlord?
Dominique Walker: (09:46)
Yes. Um, and this particular corporation is composed of five different companies and they all play a part in displacement, like one sells the predatory loans, and one buys the distressed mortgage, and one gets it and flips it, and then one is responsible for selling it at a higher rate. So it's all composed of this one corporation. So they're actually directly responsible for displacement in Oakland and we want them out.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:15)
So clearly part of what you wanted was a place to live, where your family could feel comfortable. But I have the impression because you are so focused on social change, but you also had a change strategy in mind. Can you talk us through exactly what you were trying to accomplish by moving into that particular home?
Dominique Walker: (10:35)
Yes. We want to bring awareness to the issue of homelessness and what the new face of homelessness is looking like and housing insecure is are teachers, nurses, our organizers. It's hardworking folks that are displaced and have nowhere to go and who are sleeping wherever they can or in tents, in their cars.
news clip: (10:56)
"In LA, homeless has jumped 16 percent in a year. Half of Americans living on the streets are in California."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (11:05)
Homelessness is something that a lot of people are worried about. A lot of people are talking about. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions in this country when it comes to homelessness?
Dominique Walker: (11:16)
Um, that folks are lazy, don't want to work, drug addicts, um, mental health issues, even though homelessness it causes mental health issues, that folks just don't want to work. They don't have any drive or ambition, when really it's the wages that they're making and the jacking up of the rents were not able to afford. I know when I first got back, I applied to live somewhere and they wanted me to pay $8,000 to move in to a one bedroom cottage. Like you can walk in and walk straight through the back door, that's how big it was. And the deposit for me and my children to move in was $8,000. And I feel like if I had $8,000, I wouldn't need to live here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (12:02)
And I do think something else that you've talked about, a lot of people see the homeless crisis as being a personal failing and you've kind of spoke to that and you said it's not about that at all. And the other thing that people see is they see people moving out of Oakland and they don't see a relationship between that and homelessness. Can you talk about what the relationship is?
Dominique Walker: (12:22)
Yes. Um, we're, we're being displaced. Um, gentrification is happening. It's not only happening in Oakland, like I see is starting to happen in Jackson, Mississippi. We're downtown, they're building luxury apartments starting off at $1100 and $1200 a month, when the minimum wage is like $7.55 per Hour. So everywhere I traveled, um, it seems like the once formerly places that folks didn't want to stay, they want to live there now. Like I know like the tech industry and folks like that want to live in Oakland, they want to live closer, um, to where they work. So the prices are going up, we're getting pushed out, and they're coming in.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (13:01)
And you were describing a national crisis. The housing crisis is a national problem. Have you found that what you and your colleagues, from Moms 4 Housing, what you're doing inspiring people across the country? What are you hearing about that?
Dominique Walker: (13:15)
I hope it does. Um, folks have been reaching out from all over and I hope it does inspire folks to organize themselves and not wait around for our elected officials to make a decision about something as so important and a basic human right. I hope folks do what's necessary to provide shelter, um, it's absolutely necessary.
news clip: (13:43)
"A vacant house owned by real estate investment firm, Wedgewood Properties." "Wedgewood Properties has offered to pay for moving expenses and temporary housing for the women for two months if they vacate the house, a proposal Moms 4 Housing has rejected. The battle for the house came to a head last week when an Alameda County judge ruled in favor of Wedgewood Properties and ordered the mothers to vacate the house..."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:03)
You've recently received an eviction notice that was just tacked on the door, right? Uh, were you surprised when you saw it or you had just been expecting it?
Dominique Walker: (14:11)
Yeah, I've been expecting it at some point. I thought it would be addressed to us directly. The eviction notice isn't addressed to Moms 4 Housing, it's addressed to the previous owner. Um, we want to sit down and negotiate and we sent out letters, we've been calling them. They have not acknowledged us. We just want to sit down at the table and negotiate.
news clip: (14:32)
"What these people are doing is the wrong thing. They're bullies and they're thieves."
news clip: (14:37)
"Sam Singer, spokesman for real estate firm Wedgwood, speaking outside the Hayward Hall of Justice, where a hearing on the pending eviction in Oakland was kicked back to the 30th, the delay, however, does not change the judge's tentative ruling that Wedgewood is, in fact, the owner of the home and the eviction is lawful. But this is not just illegal.."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (14:58)
Are you worried about the legal consequences?
Dominique Walker: (15:00)
No. I'm worried about folks sleeping on the street more than I am about any legal consequences because even though I have shelter, there is so many other folks that I'm fighting for and organizing for that don't have housing. So, no.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (15:17)
I often find that people who are making the kind of change that you're making are bringing a lot of power. Their superpower. What's your superpower?
Dominique Walker: (15:25)
Um, I think my super power is the love for my people and wanting to commit my life to that.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (15:39)
Dominique, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Dominique Walker: (15:42)
Thank you for having me here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (15:46)
Dominique Walker, she's one of the mothers reclaiming the Oakland property and one of the founders of Moms 4 Housing.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (15:57)
Last January, two months after Mom's 4 Housing had moved into the home. The police raided the property.
news clip: (16:04)
"They have broken down the front door to mom's house. My understanding is that they are just sitting down waiting to take arrest rather than leave willingly."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:15)
It happened while Dominique was in the middle of an interview with the show Democracy Now.
news clip: (16:20)
"We just hear 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." "They gotta go...ok...we gotta go." "Well, will continue to cover this..."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:35)
It was just a matter of time until hundreds of people, including advocates and press arrive to the Magnolia Street home to show support for the evicted mothers.
news clip: (16:50)
"Oakland! Y'all were able to respond so quickly because you are Oakland!"
news clip: (16:55)
This house was a statement, it was a symbol of what needs to happen in Oakland. This was an absolute victory. We're still victorious. And we're going to keep it moving!
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:04)
Here's what Moms for Housing had to say soon after the raid, "we've built a movement of thousands of Oaklanders who showed up at a moment's notice to reject police violence and advocate for homes for families. This isn't over and it won't be over until everyone in the Oakland community has a safe and dignified place to live."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:35)
Coming up on Radical Imagination, we speak with Tara Raghuveer. She's the housing campaign director for People's Action in California. Stay with us, more when we come back!
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Angela Glover Blackwell: (18:49)
And we're back. Last September, a national coalition of grassroots organizations known as People's Action, came up with a new Homes Guarantee proposal, which would include the construction of 12 million new and affordable homes and a key restructuring of how the U.S. housing market works. To talk more about this, we're now joined by Tara Raghuveer. She's the housing campaign director for People's Action and one of the authors of the homes guaranteed proposal. Tara, welcome to Radical Imagination!
Tara Raghuveer: (19:20)
Thanks so much.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:21)
I understand that there are more than 500,000 homeless people in the U S how did we get there?
Tara Raghuveer: (19:27)
The crisis that we face now is almost immeasurable and I think to understand how we got to this moment, we have to start at the very beginning. This country was built on the theft of native land and then property rights, which were written into law by White men and written also to include human beings as property. Many of those same property rights stay with us today. While we have had huge federal investments in housing, they've almost exclusively gone to middle and upper class White folks in America and help to secure White wealth. And since the 1980s and under this era of neoliberalism, we've seen housing be treated as a third rail issue to privitize housing, and that's kind of laid the groundwork for the crisis in 2020 where if you're a working class person, if you're a minimum wage worker, working full time, you can't afford a two-bedroom apartment in any county in the United States -- whether it's urban, suburban, or rural.
Tara Raghuveer: (20:29)
Homelessness is on the rise. But again, it's actually really hard to talk about homelessness and whether it's getting better or worse because the way we understand homelessness is outdated relative to what we need in 2020, so we have one leader in our base named Tiana Caldwell who fell behind on her rent because she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the spring of 2018 and that caused her landlord to evict her. And then she spent the better part of the next year homeless, living between families' couches, in hotels where she was paying about $300 a week with her husband and her son AJ. Um, and that form of homelessness is on the rise as housing insecurity is more and more pervasive. Um, but unfortunately we have no way of actually measuring that so that we can push for solutions.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (21:22)
And how much does the practice of companies buying and flipping homes actually contribute to the lack of affordable housing?
Tara Raghuveer: (21:31)
Oh, it's huge. And it's been on the rise in the last decade since the financial crisis. These are big banks. They'll buy a really distressed property and they'll rent it out to poor and working class people in a given city. Now, other real estate speculators will buy up vacant properties and just sit on them because sitting on those properties is profitable. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of vacant homes in this country at the same time as we have a deep homelessness crisis, and we have people literally dying on the streets for the crime of being poor.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:08)
Tell us about People's Action.
Tara Raghuveer: (22:10)
People's Action is a grassroots organizing network with over a million members across the country and we are a coalition of multiracial poor working class folks across all of these different geographies.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:25)
Can you walk us through the steps that led to the creation of the new homes guarantee proposal?
Tara Raghuveer: (22:29)
Two years ago, in the summer of 2018, we had a retreat with the housing groups in People's Action, about 50 of those leaders and a handful of organizers gathered in a retreat space in upstate New York. So the leaders gave us this crux of the idea, right, that we want to live in a world where everyone has a safe, healthy, accessible, truly and permanently affordable home.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:57)
Now walk us through: what is the Homes Guarantee proposal and how would it be implemented?
Tara Raghuveer: (23:04)
There is a demand for 12 million units of social housing. Um, there's a demand for fully funded and weatherized and repaired public housing. There's a demand for tenant protections, including national rent control, and there is a demand to end the practice of real estate speculation. There's an important piece of the Homes Guarantee proposal that's about restorative justice and reparations in the context of housing policy. We had to think about the Homes Guarantee in terms of uh, the most green, most efficient, most sustainable set of policies as well. So in each component of the plan, there is a heavy emphasis on a homes guarantee, must be a green homes guarantee because we know that climate instability is actually one of the main reasons that people are moving. And the people who are on the front lines of the climate catastrophe are the same people who are the most impacted by the housing crisis.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (24:04)
Do you have a, a narrative that you use to push back on those who like to say, failed public housing and point to the fact that Pruitt-Igoe in Missouri was blown up and I think the same was true for the Robert Taylor homes torn down in Chicago. What do you say to those people who say, tried that didn't work?
Tara Raghuveer: (24:23)
Public housing was a dignified place to live when it was constructed around the New Deal era and afterwards it was a place mostly for White working class families and it was decent. It was a nice place. And then we subsidized the mortgages of most White working class families and that led to a White Exodus to the suburbs and it secured White wealth into this century and it will for centuries to come. Uh, and it was only when Black and Brown people started being the kind of predominant population within public housing that we saw this massive disinvestment from the government. Um, so that private entities could start making money from housing poor and working class people. And that's exactly what happened. It has been a bipartisan campaign to stigmatize public housing.
news clip: (25:22)
"There are dozens and dozens and dozens of other projects around the country that are quite literally hell holes even as we speak." "To often, the gang bangers or somebody else with a gun ends in innocent life." "The blame lies with local housing authorities that the feds believe are too inept to spend the money wisely."
Tara Raghuveer: (25:41)
What used to be a beautiful, dignified place for people to live and still could be. But for the fact that we've completely disinvested from it.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (25:48)
It seems that you are, you and your colleagues are coming up with this at exactly the right moment when the crisis demands that we do something different and the democratic presidential candidates are embracing that housing has to be front and center. Um, how are you feeling about some of the proposals that are out there and what makes the Homes Guarantee proposal so unique and important to be able to push at this moment?
Tara Raghuveer: (26:15)
We released this briefing book, which is kind of the summary of our idea around the Homes Guarantee in the beginning of September. And it was really just a matter of weeks until presidential candidates started sinking their teeth into it. And that was ultimately one of the goals and putting it out there of course. And so within a number of weeks, we were on the phone with Bernie Sanders campaign. They came to us and they came to the tenants who had been involved in writing the Homes Guarantee and they asked us what we wanted and we said, well luckily we've written it all down. So here it is. And his plan reflects that. The other campaigns as well. You know, we've spoken to almost every candidate who's running in the democratic field and each of them not only has a housing platform but has moved significantly because there is a strong vision within the tenant movement at this point. So I think it should be our expectation that by the next election cycle, not only do all of them have housing platforms as they do now, but even more of them are at the level of the Bernie Sanders platform, which is coming straight from the grassroots base.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (27:23)
In the Homes Guarantee proposal, you highlight the problem of bank tenants, what our bank tenants?
Tara Raghuveer: (27:28)
Homeownership has not been accessible to, especially Black and Brown communities for the better part of the last century and beyond. But still we have to recognize that there are many, many homeowners in the United States, including people of color and working class people. Many of them are actually in a deep amount of housing debt. Um, so if we are to build a movement that actually seeks to change the entire idea of housing as a commodity, or housing as a tool for wealth building, we need a stand in radical solidarity with bank tenants who ultimately have more in common with us and other tenants and people experiencing homelessness across the country than they do with a very small number of people who are benefiting from the world as it is.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (28:18)
I think it's an important and powerful distinction because we are worrying a lot about renters now and we should be, we become a renters nation and so many low -income people of color are paying so much for rent in relationship to their income. But these bank tenants, as you now described them, are now in the same circumstance and we need to be thinking about policies that correct that. So I thank you for drawing out that distinction. What's next for the Homes Guarantee proposal?
Tara Raghuveer: (28:47)
Oh, we have so much exciting work ahead. So the most important next step in my mind is that we need to go deep. We, in 2020, and one of the ways that we're going to do that is that we've written a popular education curriculum on racial capitalism and housing policy and we're going to start deploying that across the country so that we actually have the people power and we have a counter narrative to the dominant narrative on housing right now that establishes the simple and perhaps radical idea that we live in this richest country in the history of the world and we can and we must guarantee that everyone has a home.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (29:33)
Oh Tara, it's so inspiring talking to you because you have this ability to go across the full spectrum, understanding historically how did we get here, what have been our struggles and of those, what solutions really have promised and which ones were just incremental? Seeing a moment when an opportunity for real big radical change can happen and being ready to step into it and stepping into it with an eye toward the future. I think that people who work like this, and work with people in community, organizing and building power bring a personal superpower. Tara, what's your superpower?
Tara Raghuveer: (30:16)
I think it's two things in the context of this campaign. One is that I have an undue level of audacity. I really believe that our people have everything we need to imagine and win this better world. So I think it's audacity. And the other thing that I think about is that I found all these people, put them all in the same room, and then just let them do their amazing work.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (30:45)
Tara, thank you for speaking with us.
Tara Raghuveer: (30:47)
Thank you so much.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (30:48)
Tara Raghuveer is the housing campaign director for People's Actions. She joined us from a studio in Kansas City, Missouri.