The group Moms 4 Housing appears to be closer to getting what it was asking for since two single mothers moved into a vacant house in West Oakland without permission in November: the chance to purchase the property.
On Monday, it was announced that the property owner, Wedgewood Properties, agreed to sell the house to Oakland Community Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that acquires land and property for affordable housing. Moms 4 Housing hopes to buy the house from the trust.
As the moms held a celebratory news conference outside Oakland City Hall in front of hundreds gathered for an MLK Day rally and march, I pondered this: How’d they go from the nightmare of being evicted by sheriff’s deputies to the dream of having their voices truly heard?
The moms were frustrated as their neighborhood, once a stronghold for African American working-class families, transformed into an unaffordable place to live for longtime families — fueled by companies like Wedgewood that bought and flipped homes for profits. All this has happened as Oakland’s homeless population has exploded. With so many people suffering, it seemed no one was really listening.
Then came the moms.
Their activism spotlighted the injustice — and then prompted a surprising deal that seemed to come out of nowhere: Not only has Wedgewood agreed to sell to the trust, it also agreed to offer a right of first refusal on all 50 of the properties it owns in Oakland. Wedgewood also agreed to hire construction workers for its projects from local organizations.
“Credit goes to Mayor (Libby) Schaaf for arranging and organizing this very important agreement, and it was her personal touch, her very insightful political acumen, that made this agreement happen at the lightning speed at which it occurred,” said Sam Singer, a San Francisco PR executive acting as a spokesman for Wedgewood.
Wedgewood, a Redondo Beach (Los Angeles County) real estate investment company, specializes in house-flipping. My colleagues Matthias Gafni and J.K. Dineen reported that for the past nine years, Wedgewood has been one of Oakland’s most prolific house flippers, rehabbing and selling 160 homes.
The company refused to negotiate on the home it purchased at a foreclosure auction in July for $501,078 until the moms were out of the house. They were evicted Jan. 14.
Two days later Schaaf, who refused to allow Oakland police to assist with eviction crowd control, got on the phone with Greg Geiser, Wedgewood’s CEO. The conversation lasted more than an hour, according to Schaaf and confirmed by Singer. Schaaf told me the conversation turned personal, with Geiser telling her he grew up with a single mother.
“It was surprisingly easy to get him to commit to offering a right of first refusal on his properties in Oakland as well as using Oakland apprentices on any construction,” Schaaf said. “He was hesitant on the specific commitment on the Magnolia house.”
Schaaf deserves credit, but she had help. It was state Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, who connected Schaaf and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, where one of the mothers works as a community organizer.
The result is an example of what happens when people talk to each other and rise above their perceived differences. When we talk — and, of course, listen — things can happen, and sometimes we find out we’re on the same side.
On Jan. 7, the moms and their supporters disrupted a news conference at Oakland City Hall.
“That was a very difficult experience for me, but it is my job to respect where that pain comes from, and what I saw and experienced was authentic trauma that those mothers have experienced,” Schaaf said. “I felt that.”
Schaaf’s conversation with Geiser happened a few hours before Gov. Gavin Newsom swung through Oakland to drop off 15 state-owned trailers to house up to 70 homeless people. Schaaf served on Newsom’s homeless task force that concluded the state should pass a constitutional amendment requiring all cities and counties to provide enough housing or shelter for homeless people in a report released earlier this month.
Bonta saw an opportunity. He set up a meeting after Newsom’s news conference.
“It’s important that we seek out and find that common ground, and I saw that with the mayor and with the moms and with ACCE,” he said. “I thought I could play a role in bringing them together in a way they haven’t always been.
“We miss opportunities to help the people that need it so desperately when we don’t talk.”
The meeting was held at the Alameda Labor Council building in the office of Liz Ortega, the council’s executive secretary-treasurer. Bonta, Schaaf and Ortega were joined by Ann O’Leary, Newsom’s chief of staff, and Priscilla Cheng, Newsom’s director of external affairs. Carroll Fife of ACCE represented the moms.
They talked about the sheriff’s militarized eviction, policy proposals to address vacant properties and housing as a human right. The deal was hammered out through back-and-forth negotiations over the weekend at the same time as hammers, nails and wood were used to build tiny homes for homeless people near East 12th Street. Solving homelessness is going to take many, many more conversations.
All parties agreed on the “good faith” deal a little before 11 p.m. Sunday. But there’s no timetable for when the deal will be made.
“The company has to follow through and allow the land trust to purchase that home,” said Oakland City Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas, a vocal supporter of the moms. “Figuring out how we rein in these speculators through our laws is really important, and that’s the next step.”
The victory by the moms is worthy of celebration, but there’s no time to rest. There are 4,000 other people who need homes in Oakland.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis R. Taylor Jr. appears Mondays and Thursdays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @otisrtaylorjr