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Excerpted From: Liam McSweeney, Just Housing, Rooted in West Oakland: How Moms4housing Challenged Real Estate Speculation and the Racial Hierarchy in Our Property Laws, 22 Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy 54 (2022) (148 Footnotes) (Full Document)


LiamMcSweeneyThe Covid-19 pandemic deepened a housing crisis that has hit Black communities the hardest. Policymakers, advocates, and scholars have posited many causes of this crisis, but few reckon with the full history of what got us here. Even fewer engage with the people most directly experiencing the struggles of housing insecurity. Thus, the most commonly proposed solutions often remain in the familiar paradigm of a neoliberal, market-based model. The truer framework reveals that the inequality in the current U.S. housing system is rooted in white supremacist and sexist property law doctrine that was developed for racial exclusion and conquest.

We never addressed this history in our legal jurisprudence or contemporary policies, so when solutions are proposed the actual causes of the problem are usually ignored. Common proposals include public-private partnerships to increase housing stock, zoning for density, tax credits for home buyers, and tepid enforcement of fair housing laws. However, these policies have not affected the fundamental inequality of the market or lessened the burden on marginalized renters.

In Part I of this paper, I will explain first how the development of private property rights centered on an association with white male identity (subsection A), and then how those rights evolved to lay the grounds for our modern racially exploitative housing system (subsection B). This history helps us understand why housing inequality remains racialized despite the advent of the Civil Rights era laws such as the Fair Housing Act, shifting racial attitudes, and the many policy attempts by democratically controlled states like California to address this problem. Part II will present the main consideration of this paper, a case study of Moms4Housing and West Oakland, California. I will lay out the background context for the Moms' action in subsection A, a chronological history of their occupation action in subsection B, and in subsection C, a description of their violent eviction and eventual victory.

Moms4Housing is a movement-based organizing collective of unhoused Black mothers. They took bold action and occupied a vacant home in late 2019 in protest against real estate speculators driving gentrification in their traditionally Black neighborhood. The Moms' story became such a touchstone because it brought together pressing issues of race, class, and gender that impact life in the Bay. This paper seeks to go beyond the generic headlines about the economic roots of gentrification in the Bay Area and will examine each aspect of the Moms' activism and how it addressed the deep, structural roots of a housing system that is designed to maintain Black poverty for white benefit. Part III continues the case study and presents solutions and challenges raised by the Moms. I will consider Community Land Trusts (one of which eventually purchased the occupied home) in subsection A, public housing in subsection B, and other forms of non-market housing solutions and regulatory measures in subsection C.

Finally, in Part IV, I suggest that we need more activism and movement-building work like Moms4Housing to move past the significant political and legal hurdles that prevent the implementation of these policies. In order to shift the narrative around our land-based property system, legal scholars and advocates must take steps to uplift these voices.

[. . .]

The answer may be to build more public housing, it might be to offer support to Black homeowners, it may lie in tenant law, or it may be some combination of many of these proposals. But no matter what strategy we take, we must seek to dismantle the idea of whiteness as property within our real estate system, and not allow the pain of Black mothers to be used for profit. Further, any solution must come from the voices of activists who are most affected, like the Moms. On the power of activism shifting the political narrative, Fife said:

“Because this country has conditioned people to believe that property rights are more important than human rights, it's definitely going to be a fight. But I think this step towards a victory with Moms' House is an example that can be duplicated, not only in the Bay Area, but across the country, which is why we're fighting to expand the right to housing throughout the state of California with an amendment to the Constitution. So, it's going to take all hands on deck, all grassroots, people-powered organizations, to get on board and help us with this fight.”

What may feel like an idealized vision of our housing future to scholars in the academy and politicians in Sacramento feels very real to the poor Black women organizing in West Oakland. They feel the pain and potential of our need for change and believe they see a path to victory. Just ask the Moms.

Liam McSweeney is a 2022 J.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley - School of Law.

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