In the midst of the global SARS-CoV-2 epidemiological crisis unfolds another contagion: the eviction epidemic. This essay attends to the work of Moms for Housing, an organization of formerly homeless and marginally housed Black mothers in Oakland, California who have organized to confront dispossession, real-estate speculation, and the privatization of housing. Using Black feminist and queer of color intellectual frameworks as ciphers through which to interpret and properly attribute weight to the organization's activism, the essay argues that Moms for Housing not only offers potential flightlines toward a post-property future—one in which housing is positioned as a basic human right—but also a generative critique of the home as a site of racialized and gendered subject formation. Indeed, through their work, the reconception of kinship formation and territorial formation are understood to be mutually constitutive, abolitionist projects.
At 5:15 a.m. on January 14, the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team from the Alameda County Police Department forcibly entered a West Oakland home at 2928 Magnolia Street, armed with AR-15s. They removed two individuals—Misty Cross and Tolani King—from the home, and arrested them, along with two other protesters, in front of a group of reporters who were assembled to capture the spectacle on tape. Though enforced evictions have become part of everyday life in Oakland—with 28,228 unlawful detainer notices filed between 2005 and 2015—this event received exceptional attention because of the detainees’ alliance with the organization Moms for Housing.1 Founded in November 2019, Moms for Housing is a collective of homeless and marginally housed Black mothers fighting to reclaim “housing for the community from speculators and profiteers.”2 The group began their activist work by occupying the empty home on Magnolia Street owned by Wedgewood Properties Management, a house-flipping real-estate company in California that describes itself as interested in “distressed residential real estate” (Coleman 2020). The Moms’ act was practical, furnishing their material needs, but it was also political in that it intentionally spotlighted the dire reality that, in Oakland, there are four times as many empty houses as there are unhoused individuals.
The emergence of Moms for Housing, and the “cancel rent” movement, are coincident with a national “eviction epidemic,” a timely name in a historical moment that will be remembered for epidemiological disaster. The current housing crisis is, to be sure, rooted in the mortgage lending crisis of 2008—a crisis that disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx borrowers (Chakravartty and Ferreira da Silva 2012). But the COVID-19 pandemic marked another watershed moment in the history of real estate and, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, housing justice activism. Moms for Housing has been central in the fight for housing as a universal human right, providing a rallying cry for community activists in Los Angeles's El Sereno neighborhood and beyond (Goodyear 2020). The Moms’ work shed light on the way that home operates as a material location, a racializing and gendering social construct, and an abstract financial product. Decentering the figuration of the home as pre-political or apolitical, Moms for Housing disturbs the boundaries between public and private spheres. Theirs is not an appeal for expanded access to suburbia, nor a call for a return to housing markets past, but rather a making public of private property.
Taking Moms for Housing as the conceptual nucleus around which analysis unfolds, this essay uses Black feminist and queer of color intellectual frameworks as ciphers for interpreting and properly attributing weight to the organization's activism.3 I situate Moms for Housing's call for housing as a universal human right within the context of the political fight between pro-development (Yes In My Backyard, or YIMBY) and anti-development (Not In My Backyard, or NIMBY) factions in California's Bay Area. The Moms have engaged in a process Indigenous scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017: 176) calls “generative refusal” by rejecting the terms of engagement forwarded by state and private-sector actors, alongside their attendant “politics of recognition,” and instead centering insurgent, community-based solutions to land redistribution and tenure. I then consider how Moms for Housing's call to decommodify housing is rooted in a rejection of the ideological construction of the home as a site of gendered and racial oppression. Following Stefano Harney and Fred Moten's (2013) call for fugitivity vis-à-vis the university, I explore the ways in which Moms for Housing simultaneously pursues the abolition of the home—and the real-estate-industrial-complex that commodifies it—as well as the reclamation of shelter as a Black feminist project. Turning, then, to Black feminist theories of political economy, I attend to constructions of gender, race, and class in and through the present housing crisis, including within anti-capitalist activist movements. How do we understand Moms for Housing's advocacy for a politics organized around Black motherhood in relation to contemporary queer and feminist calls for a politics of disidentification and mutuality? Put otherwise, why Moms for Housing and not People for Housing? What different possibilities for kinship and territorial formation does Moms for Housing's activism evoke?
While it is not within the purview of this essay to amend or advance new lines of thinking within Black feminist theory and geographical thought, it does reveal how Moms for Housing's material and spatial politics reverberate within this rich intellectual field, thereby troubling assumed borders between theory and activism.
Home is an architectural device for sheltering humans from natural elements, but it is also a commodity, an asset, and a legal container for accruing generational wealth. Today, the rising cost of housing in many US cities places Black women, in particular, and all marginalized populations, in general, in an increasingly precarious economic position.4 In an interview on January 14, 2020, Moms for Housing ally and director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Carroll Fife succinctly laid out the stakes for Moms for Housing's activism against this bleak economic backdrop: “We need to take speculation out of real estate, and we need to decommodify housing.”5 The tactics deployed to achieve this goal were at least twofold. First, occupying 2928 Magnolia Street, or “Mom's House,” would draw public attention to the material conditions of the housing crisis. Locally, the occupation reimagined 2928 Magnolia Street as a public site of demonstration. Hundreds of Bay Area residents calling themselves members of the “Mom's House Solidarity Committee” gathered to defend the Moms living in the home against eviction. Second, Moms for Housing allied with the Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT), with the ambition of removing land from the speculative real-estate market and placing it—and the homes on that land—under the provision of communities seeking to maintain long-term housing affordability. After winning their struggle against Wedgewood Properties, Mom's House was added to OakCLT's portfolio of properties.6
Moms for Housing's alliance with OakCLT offers new horizons for urban commoning and land redistribution through refusing the binary propositions offered by the Bay Area's most powerful housing policy political factions: anti-development members of the NIMBY camp—many of whom are allied with nonprofit organizations like Livable California (which operates statewide), the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, and the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council in San Francisco—and pro-development members of YIMBY organizations like YIMBY Action and YIMBY Law.7 The Moms’ rejection of NIMBY anti-affordable housing development rhetoric is widely understood in the Bay Area, but their rejection of YIMBY activism has produced confusion and frustration among the region's liberal policy makers. On the morning of Tuesday, January 7, 2020, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and California State Senator Scott Wiener announced Senate Bill 50 (SB50), the “More HOMES Act,” in front of Oakland City Hall. The bill, which was defeated in the state Senate on January 31, 2020, attempted to streamline state approval for multifamily housing projects—particularly those that would house low- and moderate-income families—in major transit corridors of San Francisco by providing incentives to developers.8 On the steps of City Hall, Schaaf and Wiener were met by a clash of opposing groups, a collection of pro-development advocates who were part of the group YIMBY Action, and Moms for Housing members protesting the bill with chants such as “Hey, ho, luxury housing has got to go!” and “Where's the affordable housing?” (Kendall 2020). That same day, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo articulated a performance of disbelief on social media: “Am puzzled to see @moms4housing take such an adversarial posture toward #SB50, which could do more to produce affordable and accessible housing than virtually any other bill in the last decade. There's room for all of us to push together w/@Scott_Wiener26” (Liccardo 2020). But the Moms had already made their position clear in protest, writing, and collective action. Only the day before, the Moms posted on Twitter: “Trickle down housing does not make it to the streets; to the places where people who need extremely low-to-no income housing and are just as deserving as everyone else” (Moms 4 Housing 2020a). While SB50 promised to incentivize multifamily housing construction in the San Francisco area, it made few provisions for the kind of below-market-rate, public housing that would meaningfully impact the lives of the homeless and marginally housed. More to the point, it failed to meet the Moms’ ultimate goal: decommodifying housing in the Bay Area.
While NIMBY and YIMBY adherents appear to be at loggerheads, both sides are invested in maintaining private property (writ large) and thus preserving segregated housing landscapes. NIMBYism has a long history in the Bay Area, as wealthy residents have claimed entitlement to views of the San Francisco Bay as a way of reinforcing building height limits and preventing the building of public and low-income housing. In professed opposition to NIMBYism, YIMBY advocates, backed by Bay Area tech companies pledging billions of dollars to new housing, claim to be allies of working-class residents through advocacy for the development of more market-rate housing.9 Yet as urban planners Erin McElroy and Andrew Szeto argue (2017: 24), YIMBY sentiments involve the same “racist exclusionary strategy exemplified by NIMBYism.” The racially exclusionary ends of YIMBY/NIMBY real-estate logics are reflected in the actions of the Bay Area Renters’ Federation, a pro-development (YIMBY) organization, which has
supported the developer Maximus's market-rate construction of what would be the largest complex in San Francisco's Mission District, notoriously referred to as the “Monster in the Mission.” Crucial to the 16th Street Plaza development plan is the private contract with Clean Up the Plaza Coalition, intended to rid the plaza of “undesirables.” Led by Jack Davis, a man famous for supporting multiple mayors and development plans, the coalition has overtly characterized plaza occupants as pathogenic and criminal. (McElroy and Szeto 2017: 24)
Even pro-development circles sustain racialized and classed exclusions. While the San Francisco Bay Area has exceeded its quota of market-rate housing development, it has failed to meet established quotas for low-income housing development set by YIMBY-sympathetic policy makers. The push for more housing is not addressing the needs of low-income, homeless, or marginally housed individuals; rather, it is providing quality housing for newcomers to the city with secure, white-collar jobs.
Moms for Housing's refusal of the YIMBY/NIMBY political binary is generative in that it opens a third possibility for reimagining housing justice in the Bay Area and beyond—made practicable through the spatial technology of the community land trust. Since January 2020, the Moms have worked with OakCLT to remove the property that Mom's House sits on from the speculative real-estate market.10 Under the ownership of OakCLT—a nonprofit land trust formed in 2009 in response to the foreclosure crisis—Mom's House exists within a bank of properties managed by community members whose primary interests include counteracting gentrification and upholding the “long-term goal of permanently preserving affordability.”11 Such goals are antiracist, serving to socialize housing access and prevent displacement of Black residents.
Shelter as an Outlaw Need
In his text “Homes, Houses, Non-identity: Paris Is Burning,” Chandan Reddy analyzes queer modes of kinship in the film Paris Is Burning—a documentary portraying the social role of “houses” in late-1980s drag ball culture in New York—as they stand in contrast to the logics of social division and privatization that define the white American home. For Reddy (2004: 356), the white, single-family US home is a “social location whose material reproduction and maintenance require the forms of social division and organization . . . instantiated and sustained by the modern U.S. State and its public culture.” The home is materially constructed and sustained through the production of social difference—necessitating that racialized, classed, and gendered bodies “replenish the needs of the white household” (Hartman 2016: 170) through backbreaking domestic maintenance work (Davis 1983; hooks 1990). Reddy's analysis explicates how—for women, queers, and low-income and non-white communities—home is a deeply contradictory location. It is the site of the material reproduction of “forms of social division and organization” (Reddy 2004: 356) that render the social reproduction of Black space as subservient to the maintenance of white domestic space, and it is the site where Black women's material needs for shelter are met. Moms for Housing, as an organization of working-class Black women, maintains what feminist geographical theorists Gillian Rose (1993) and Katherine McKittrick (2006) call a paradoxical relationship to the home—one defined by both the exploitation of their (and their ancestors’) labor and, as bell hooks (1990: 42) has argued, by Black feminist resistance against racist hegemony cultivated “despite the brutal reality of racial apartheid.”
Given this paradox, what kind of relationship to the home, then, is conceivable in a Black feminist movement for housing rights? Is it possible for an activist group to invest in housing rights as a liberatory project without reproducing forms of labor exploitation that have long made the home, as an ideological construct and material place, possible? To paraphrase Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013: 26), perhaps the only possible relationship to the US home is a criminal one. In The Undercommons, Harney and Moten ask what social formations are impossible within what political theorist Wendy Brown (2015: 190) has called the “neoliberalized academy,” a space marked by value-metrics including “income streams, profitability, technological innovation, and contribution to society constructed narrowly as the development and promulgation of marketable goods and services.” Harney and Moten argue that the only remaining manner in which the anti-capitalist academic can relate to the neoliberal university is through fugitivity. “One can only sneak into the university and steal what one can,” they claim, “to abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of” (Harney and Moten 2013: 26). Their call for an undercommons—a counter-public in which outcast professors and students operate in solidarity—has to do with the formation of alternative intellectual circles that promote and maintain anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal politics invested in questions of resistance rendered unaskable, never mind unanswerable, in the context of the neo/liberal university. Their insistence on a conditional relationship with the university is based on a recognition that material needs are met, if only partially, through the university, a reality they call “teaching for food” (Harney and Moten 2013: 27). Therefore to be in but not of is a provisional tactic that allows for the negotiation of the university and the undercommons as distinct spaces where different needs, material and social/political respectively, are met.
Though the home and the university are different locations, they are marked by some of the same state and market forces that, as Reddy would state, aim to “fulfill the promise of Whiteness” (Reddy 2004: 364): affluence, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and nationalism. In the case of homes, these fulfillments are accomplished by “means of redlining, destruction of housing as part of ‘urban renewal’ programs, and racial discrimination in federal and private lending institutions” that marginalize individuals and communities by keeping them from residing in certain homes, neighborhoods, and cities (Reddy 2004: 364). As aforementioned, the whiteness of home has also been sustained through the racialization of domestic labor. In the case of higher education, federal and state-sponsored divestment in poor communities results in public schools unable to qualify students for university study, a problem compounded by prohibitively high tuition, high-interest student loans, and the erosion of affirmative action programs. Under neoliberal regimes of governance, state and market forces have more subtle ways—through the rhetoric of personal investment, for instance—of pushing families, homeowners, and renters into reliance on credit and debt assumption to finance their education, housing, and basic living expenses. As Caitlin Zaloom (2021: 41) has argued, since the 1980s the college degree has been reconfigured as a “major family asset” much in the way of the home, an expense that should be “borne by families” privately. These twin assets, the mortgage and the student loan, also represent the two largest portions of consumer debt in the United States (Wang 2018: 128). It is here, through the individualization of financial risk, as well as narratives of “self-reliance” and self-investment, that we see a convergence in the logics of social reproduction in the university and the home. The home and the university are also connected in the neo/liberal imagination as sites of social reproduction—of “self-cultivation,” as Zaloom (2021: 39) puts it—in which autonomous citizens, investors, consumers, and workers are transformed into human capital (Brown 2015).
Here I want to extend Harney and Moten's call to be in but not of, to inhabit the undercommons of the university, to frame the relationship that Moms for Housing forms with the home as a site where material need of shelter is met, yet it is also laden with a history of racialized and gendered divisions of labor. Vis-à-vis the mode of subversive fugitivity that Harney and Moten evoke, Moms for Housing is notable for the multidimensional strategies of creative subterfuge that its members deploy in the service of reclaiming the home as a Black feminist location, a location where “survivors of—and refugees from—the nuclear household” (Lewis 2020) can commune. First, Moms for Housing members’ tactic of occupying a home owned by Wedgewood marks an extralegal mode of interacting with both the state and the market. Through the spatial tactic of occupation, Moms for Housing calls attention to the fact that the procurement of shelter is impossible within the bounds of the law, which protects property rather than human life. Not only can the Moms not afford rent for a home that reasonably addresses their needs (for electricity, heating, and adequate space), they can hardly, if at all, afford a home that does not meet these needs, hours away from where they can find waged work. Second, by forming an undercommons of the home, the Moms are able to smuggle what they need—shelter—and abandon that which runs counter to their political project, namely the ideological construction of the home as an individualizing, race-making, and gender-making apparatus that satisfies market greed for profit. In other words, Mom's House provides shelter. It no longer functions as a commodity but as a cooperative that serves broader community housing needs. Mom's House, as I will touch upon in the following section of this essay, has become a shelter for a collective of mothers and children who refuse liberal logics of privacy that center the heterosexual nuclear family as the primary social form within which social reproductive labor is hierarchically assigned and financial risk is assumed, and through which other modes of kinship, assembly, and cohabitation are pathologized.
There is at least one more way in which Moms for Housing assumes a fugitive disposition: the women of the organization have chosen to organize around what Rosemary Hennessey (2000: 216) has called “outlawed needs”—the “unmet needs for living a full human life.” If the management of needs is administered, at least in part, through the calculation of the minimum wage, then “it is the capitalist,” Hennessey alleges, “who estimates and decides on the minimum wage that is necessary to maintain the worker as a laboring individual” (216). The capitalist observes certain human needs, but requires the worker to forgo others. Today's housing crisis marks shelter in the realm of the outlawed need. Minimum wage in California would need to increase fourfold to account for median rent cost (California Reinvestment Coalition 2018: 3).
By centering their politics around a universal basic right to shelter, a concept that dwells in the hinterlands of outlawed needs, Moms for Housing projects an anti-capitalist social movement with the capacity to acknowledge and address a preponderance of currently outlawed needs. They position themselves as able to attend to inextricably linked material and affective dimensions of need. Indeed, in the process of developing a politics around outlawed needs, it is not just shelter that must be attended to, but also the affective qualities of sheltering. For Hennessey (2000: 213), the “interface between affect and social elements” is the space where desires are confronted—either by way of consumerism or class consciousness. Organizations like Moms for Housing and the OakCLT intervene in the space between affect and sociality by proposing methods for knitting community ties through expanded kinship networks, collective organization of land, and the provision of long-term, affordable housing.
Mothering, Kinship, and Disidentification
I want to return to a question posed earlier in the essay: Why Moms for Housing and not People for Housing? This question is particularly relevant when investigating the organization of affect inside anti-capitalist movements within dominant culture. As Hennessey (2000: 229) notes, “Heterosexual marriage and the gendered division of labor remain the prevailing, pervasively naturalized organization of human sensation and affect whose coherence is assured and legitimized in law and common sense.” Such order is reinforced by designating and pathologizing the “other,” including people living outside the bounds of conventional marriage or inhabiting extended kinship networks that deviate, formally, from the nuclear family. It is also constructed through the pathologizing of alternative spaces of cooperative domesticity and care that stand in contradiction to the single-family home.12 In response, José Esteban Muñoz (1999) and Rosemary Hennessey (2000), among others, have called for a politics of “disidentification” as a practice of “working on existing ways of identifying that we embrace and live by” (Hennessey 2000: 229), thereby expanding possibilities for kinship, care, and political organization. Similarly, Chandan Reddy (2004: 372) envisions a politics of non-equivalence or non-identity, suggesting, for example, that we consider queer of color multigenerational kinship forms to be the “nonidentical supplement” to the nuclear family. At the heart of these calls is an acknowledgment that, as Patricia Hill Collins (2000b: 48) states, “families that are organized around married heterosexual couples form a site for intergenerational control over and transfer of racialized wealth.” What, if anything, is the work required for a housing justice movement vis-à-vis the reconstruction of gender roles within the home and the family that are so sedimented under capitalism?
Rather than claiming that the housing needs of mothers are more important or urgent than the needs of others, the Moms propose “centering on Black women's experiences” as a method for producing “new ways of thinking” (Collins 2000b: 44) about the ideological construction of the home, the material conditions of the California housing crisis, and kinship. Indeed, Moms for Housing members participate in a meaningful expansion of the term family, in particular through Black feminist approaches to kinship and kin-making. At 2928 Magnolia Street, the Moms formed a nonidentical supplement to the heteronormative family, with a group of women and their children inhabiting the house together. While they were the sole full-time residents, it is perhaps more accurate to call them a subunit of a kinship network that includes all members of Moms for Housing, the activist groups rallying around the Moms, and the broader Oakland community. This network cartographically projects interlocking spheres of intimacy and filiation that transgress the boundary between public and private established in law. Mom's House is a domestic space, but also a public site for community, kinship, and political resistance. On the night before the Moms’ eviction on January 14, 2020, members of the Mom's House Solidarity Committee assembled on the front lawn to protect the mothers from police. In a recording later aired on the news program Democracy Now, one Moms for Housing member, Dominique Walker, turned to the camera and addressed the housing crisis: “The community has had enough. We've had enough . . . we're going to fight back.”13 The “we” Walker used in this statement refers to West Oakland as a kinship network brought together in resistance to real-estate speculation and eviction.
Moves to center Black women and mothers in analyses of gendered and racialized systems are not intended to be static. As Collins (2000b: 44) states, “One does not simply replace one normative group with another.” Unfortunately, Moms for Housing's rhetoric has, in several cases, been extracted and recast to reinforce heteronormative notions of the nuclear family. For example, in a recent statement reflecting on Moms for Housing's work, the executive director of Parent Voices Oakland stated:
It's time for the City of Oakland to adequately address the unique and critical needs that families with young children require. . . . Safe and deeply affordable housing is critical to the health and wellbeing of children. This needs to be a priority for City leaders. It is cruel to deny the basic rights of families, who risk separation due to rampant displacement. We have an obligation to ensure children and their parents are no longer ignored. (Moms 4 Housing 2019)
Similarly, in a reflection published in the University of California at Berkeley's alumni magazine, sociologist Chris Herring wrote, “I hope people will see this as a hopeful potential for more of a movement around family homelessness, which doesn't get enough attention. I believe about 25% of homeless folks are homeless as a family, and we don't talk about it that much” (Tadepalli 2020). While both of these statements are surely well-meaning, they risk re-hierarchizing housing rights—prioritizing mothers and children over single women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, single men, and nonheteronormative family units. Familism is tacitly instated as the basis of moral obligation in housing activism, rather than extending housing as a universal basic right without exemption or exception.
When thinking about Moms for Housing, we should take them at their word: “Housing is a human right,” not just a mother's right, and not just a worker's right. Their analysis centers Black mothers’ lives to suggest a broader project of disidentification in which a politics of mutuality could be developed and nourished in lieu of a politics of individuality. In this context, I'd like to return to Hennessey's (2000: 230) formulation of disidentification as a process of not merely refusing certain forms of identification, but a more “critical ‘working’ on them.” The kind of work Hennessey refers to, that she suggests should run parallel to the work of developing anti-capitalist political projects, is a process of making visible identity categories’ “historical and material conditions of possibility,” in order to “provoke the formation of more comprehensive, collective agency” (230). By working on motherhood, and exposing the racial politics of its construction, Moms for Housing offers a gender-expansive understanding of motherhood as a practice “of affirming life,” in which “everyone, including and especially men” (Williams 2019: 7) must engage. Housing justice exists at the center of the politics of life affirmation.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2020, a week after the Moms were evicted from 2928 Magnolia Street, Wedgewood Properties Group agreed to sell the house and parcel of land it sat on to OakCLT, which then returned the home to several members of Moms for Housing. In a statement that morning, the public relations branch of the real-estate development firm stated:
Wedgewood is thankful for the outpouring of support for our company throughout the illegal occupation of our Oakland property. We appreciate the local, state and national support for property owners as well as the public's support for non-violent discussion and action. . . . We are honored and inspired to collaborate with the City of Oakland on reasonable, thoughtful, and organized actions to address the issue of homelessness and housing. (Associated Press 2020)
In a tweet responding to the statement, Moms for Housing posted, “Today we honor Dr. King's radical legacy by taking Oakland back from the big banks, corporations and real estate speculators. Thank you to our supporters, who stood by us every step of the way. We can't wait to get back to Moms’ House and keep building this movement with you” (Moms 4 Housing 2020b).
I bring these quotes forward not to demonstrate the conciliatory possibilities of activists and real-estate developers working together, because they are historically slim and unpromising, but to highlight the intentional, symbolic dimension of Wedgewood's choice to strike a deal on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Wedgewood appropriated the language of the civil rights movement, claiming to support “non-violent discussion and action.” This rhetorical move attempts to bifurcate Black radical movements—making it appear as though there are two factions: the violent and the nonviolent. Yet Wedgewood's allusion to nonviolence here is specifically referring to crimes against property, rather than assaults on human life. If Moms for Housing's act of inhabiting and maintaining the property was illegal, then it would surely be outweighed by the violence of real-estate dispossession on West Oakland residents, which accounts for the eviction, displacement, and homelessness of thousands of people. In the years between 2011 and 2016 alone, companies under the LLC William Rosetti et al. evicted 4,068 Oakland residents, the Oakland Housing Authority evicted 1,903 residents, and the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation evicted 1,106 tenants. These numbers are followed by at least sixty companies that have evicted residents in the order of thousands.14
In the above, I have attempted to underscore the gravity and influence of Moms for Housing's political movement in the face of the violence of California's real-estate industry. What remains incompletely explored, and at least partially unknowable, is what will become of Moms for Housing in the coming decades, and what Oakland will look like if it adheres to their complex and multifaceted vision for housing justice. Though this essay cannot fully answer these questions, it can suggest that, in order to envision the contours of a post-property future, to begin to feel its texture, we may need to (as Moms for Housing suggests) work with one eye fixed on the immediate project of transforming the home, the city's most elemental material and social unit, and the other eye looking ahead, ever imagining the possibilities of greater scale.
As of November 2021, the Moms have suggested one method of scaling up in their revised programming for Mom's House: post-renovation, 2928 Magnolia Street will become a transitional space for unemployed, unhoused women, many of whom will join a women-led construction cooperative with an agenda to rehabilitate houses around Oakland. This framework has a deeply spatial logic as well as a social one. It situates both people and houses in a network of codependency and mutual aid, one with the potential capacity to outgrow the scale of the “city” as we know it, should an attendant ethos of maintenance and repair remain present in the process of expansion (Graziano and Trogal 2019; Mattern 2018). Indeed, the sort of spatial network that Moms for Housing seems to suggest reminds me of the notion of “place” that poet and environmental activist June Jordan sketched in a 1964 letter to architect Buckminster Fuller. For Jordan (1981: 28), formulating environments that reject the structuring logic of racial capitalism requires
the development of an idea or theory of place in terms of human being; of space designed as the volumetric expression of successful existence between earth and sky; of space cherishing as it amplifies the experience of being alive, the capability of endless beginnings, and the entrusted liberty of motion; of particular space inexorably connected to multiple spatialities, a particular space that is open-receptive and communicant yet sheltering particular life.
“Particular space . . . connected to multiple spatialities” is an evocation that begins to move us beyond the social, political, and economic strictures of what we have come to call “house” and “city,” sites that Moms for Housing members, and their allies, have critiqued for their deep entanglements with patriarchy, racism, and real-estate speculation. As a paradigm, it repositions the activist as a spatial connector, an “othermother” (Collins 2000a), a feminist, invested in the re-conception of territorial and kinship formation as mutually constitutive projects.
I started writing this essay as a student in the master of environmental design program at Yale School of Architecture in spring 2020. Since then, many advisors and friends have provided crucial feedback, as well as intellectual and emotional support that have made publication possible. Kathryn Dudley and Eda Pepi opened my eyes to many of the scholars referenced in the piece, and provided space in their classrooms to think and write about the impact of Moms for Housing's work. Keller Easterling has been there for me the whole way through—from the inception of this essay to its publication in Public Culture—always aiding and encouraging me to be more attentive to the spatial dimensions of activism, which are all too often overlooked. I am also indebted to the editorial staff at Public Culture, namely Erica Robles-Anderson who both provided insightful feedback and generously helped me work through imposter syndrome and the “tough questions” on late notice.
See Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and Tenants Together, “Oakland Unlawful Detainer Evictions,” www.antievictionmappingproject.net/oakland.html (accessed May 22, 2022).
This language is used on Moms for Housing's website, www.moms4housing.org/aboutm4h.
Though Marxist urban imaginaries diverge from Black feminist and queer of color urban imaginaries, I engage Marxist critiques where they are core to the anticapitalist claims that Moms for Housing makes in their call to decommodify housing. One difference I see between Marxist and feminist/queer understandings of anticapitalist praxis is that, in the latter, the rejection of the family as the reigning logic of social organization under the modern state is central, whereas in the former, it is peripheral (class consciousness remains the focus). This essay is indebted to the work of feminist and queer theorists—among them Angela Davis, Cedric Robinson, Maria Mies, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Roderick Ferguson, and Silvia Federici to name only a few—who positioned Marxist analyses as insufficient for addressing the complex relationship of capitalism to race, gender, and sexuality.
According to data released by the National Partnership for Women and Families, Black women's average annual income in California is only about 59 percent of that of men in California. See www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/economic-justice/fair-pay/african-american-women-wage-gap.pdf.
“Moms 4 Housing: Meet the Oakland Mothers Facing Eviction after Two Months Occupying Vacant House,” Democracy Now, January 14, 2020, www.democracynow.org/2020/1/14/oakland_california_moms_4_housing.
The Oakland Community Land Trust officially acquired Mom's House on May 20, 2020. Since then, they have overseen major renovations to ensure that the house meets the needs of members of Moms for Housing who will be its long-term residents. See oakclt.org/portfolio-items/moms-house/.
While most YIMBY adherents publicly claim this title, NIMBYism has become politicized in such a way that many of those who hold antidevelopment beliefs consistent with NIMBY ideals prefer to refuse the title. Instead, NIMBY advocates often refer to themselves as promoters of “sensible growth” or “smart growth.” Though NIMBY nonprofits may position themselves differently vis-à-vis development- and housing-related issues, most are primarily invested in campaigns to quell new construction in urban and suburban areas. Notably, YIMBY Law is directed by the well-known activist Sonja Trauss, who (despite YIMBY political claims to racial justice) has allied herself primarily with real-estate developers and financiers like Peter Thiel. See Szeto and Meronek 2017.
Senate Bill 50 was brought to the California State Senate in March 2019 and, when it came to vote in January of 2020, did not pass into law. The intent of the bill was to provide incentives for the production of housing units for “very low, low-, or moderate-income households.” However, it was not specific about the number of units that would be produced or how many would be made specifically for the lowest-income individuals (including homeless individuals and families). Housing experts and critics of the bill were quick to point out that increasing the number of housing units in the Bay Area will not necessarily moderate the price pressures of the housing market. Other factors include growth in population, the growing influence of tech companies in the city, and general disparities in the job market.
In response to public outcry around urban tech offices, and suburban tech campuses, serving as catalyzers of gentrification and displacement, many Bay Area tech companies have pledged money toward developing more housing in the Bay Area. For instance, the Silicon Valley Housing Trust is, in large part, funded by Google, Cisco, LinkedIn, and NetApp, among others. In 2019, Google pledged to invest $1 billion in new housing construction in the East Bay. In the same year Facebook pledged $500 million toward housing development in the Bay Area.
The Oakland Community Land Trust was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in January 2009. Over the last twelve years of operation, the OakCLT has managed almost forty properties in the Oakland metro area. In addition to single-family homes, their portfolio of properties includes several mixed-use projects like the Hasta Muerte Coffee Building.
Language used on the Oakland Community Land Trust's website, www.oakclt.org/about/missionvalues/.
The 1965 Moynihan Report (The Negro Family: The Case for National Action) is one historical text in which this pathologizing tactic is observable. In the report, the Department of Labor secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his coauthors pinned the economic struggles of African Americans on “the deterioration of the Negro family.” The alleged “broken homes” of the urban Black community, as Moynihan called them, were defined in the report by the dissolution of marriages, the presence of “illegitimate” children, and dependence on welfare, but above all, they were united in the common status of Black women as heads of household. The report offers a glimpse into popular, white discourses about race, gender, family, and economic disparity in the 1960s, but it also highlights how central the figure of the Black mother—in her fabricated, fictionalized form—was to the racist, white imagination of African American struggle. The Black mother was cast as responsible for the downfall of her community, incapable of assimilating the Black family into the archetypical form of the white American family, and thus an unqualified keeper of the Black home. The Moynihan Report has, for several decades, been an object of Black feminist critique (Collins 2000a; Ferguson 2004) which has pointed out its failure to recognize structural racism as the progenitor of income disparity and poverty.
“Moms 4 Housing: Meet the Oakland Mothers Facing Eviction after Two Months Occupying Vacant House,” Democracy Now, January 14, 2020, www.democracynow.org/2020/1/14/oakland_california_moms_4_housing.
See Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, “Dirty Dozen Squared: Oakland Mega-Evictors,” antievictionmap.com/top-oakland-evictors (accessed May 22, 2022). As of 2019, Oakland had over four thousand homeless individuals living in the city; see Pena 2019.