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These Mothers Are Fighting for Their Families by Occupying Vacant Homes

Lizzie Tribone

The demand for shelter is a demand to keep mothers and their children together.

For more housing justice coverage, check out our Special Report.

When Jennifer Bennetch noticed boarded-up houses seemingly everywhere in North Philadelphia, she began documenting them. She noted their addresses and followed up to see the status of the properties: whether new residents had moved in, or if the houses were being renovated or brought to auction. She ultimately found that the owner of the properties, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), had no plans but to let them sit idle—so, in March, she quietly began moving in families.

Forty people, mostly single mothers with young children, now occupy ten of these vacant homes. Two encampments—including one outside PHA headquarters—host about 160 more people experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

In orchestrating the occupation, Bennetch took her cues from Moms 4 Housing, a collective of Black mothers who are homeless and marginally housed in Oakland, California.

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A group of mothers in Los Angeles took similar inspiration from the Oakland collective in March. Under the name Reclaiming Our Homes, the housing-insecure families began to move into vacant homes owned by Caltrans, the state transportation authority.

Across the country, mothers with children in their care are leading the movement to occupy vacant homes, addressing homelessness and housing instability at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made paying rent unmanageable for many.

According to Eviction Lab, Princeton University’s research center on evictions, nearly triple the number of people who were evicted following the 2008 crisis could be evicted in the months to come.

The occupation in Philadelphia, led by a coalition including Occupy PHA, Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, and the Revolutionary Workers Collective, is targeted at the city’s housing authority. They argue that the PHA, the largest landlord in Pennsylvania, has become indistinguishable from a private developer, leading to gentrification and displacement while ignoring the needs of the city’s low-income residents.

The PHA put a moratorium on new public housing applications in 2013, and is still processing applications from 2010. Meanwhile, 5,700 people are estimated to be homeless in Philadelphia, 950 of whom are unsheltered—sleeping outside, or in tents or cars. While this number is relatively low compared to other major cities, about 42 percent of Pennsylvania’s homeless population is concentrated in Philadelphia. And there are localized spikes: Over the past year, the number of people living on the streets of South Philadelphia tripled.

A home for their children

Last November, Moms 4 Housing co-founders Dominique Walker and Sameerah Karim occupied a vacant home on Magnolia Street for 57 days—until the Alameda County sheriff’s deputies arrived with armored vehicles and AR-15 rifles to evict them.

[Photo: Moms 4 Housing activist Dominique Walker looks at a vacant home as she walks in Oakland.]

Dominique Walker

The occupation, they hoped, would call attention to the crisis of housing affordability and the speculative real estate market in Oakland. Wedgewood Properties, a real estate firm that purchases “distressed” residential property to refurbish and resell, bought the home on Magnolia Street for $501,000 in a foreclosure sale in July 2019. It planned to renovate the property, then bring it back to market at a profit; the average home value in Oakland is about $800,000.

As vacant properties line Oakland’s neighborhoods, the number of people without shelter continues to grow. According to a 2019 Alameda County report, the number of people experiencing homelessness increased by 47 percent between 2017 and 2019. As of 2019, Oakland’s homeless population is over 4,000. As Moms 4 Housing likes to point out, there are far more vacant homes than people who are homeless in Oakland.

Moms 4 Housing has framed their fight for housing as a human right; their claim to secure and affordable housing is shaped through their identity as mothers with children in their care. Their demand for a home in which they can securely dwell and raise their family is a core component of reproductive justice, defined by SisterSong as the “right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent them in safe and sustainable communities.”

Housing functions as an “anchor that families require to build security in terms of shelter, food, education, childcare, and employment,” Dr. Diana Cutts, a pediatrician and co-lead principal investigator for the research group Children’s HealthWatch, told Rewire.News.

“The stresses of prenatal and postnatal homelessness are associated with increased risk of poor pediatric health outcomes, and they are also associated with poor maternal health outcomes,” Dr. Cutts said.

While living in the Magnolia Street house in Oakland, Walker noticed a tremendous change in her two children’s development. She said her son started walking during the time they occupied the home, and now that they have shelter again, he is running. Walker’s 5-year-old daughter had her own room, and “she began to draw pictures and put them on the wall” and decorate, feeling like she had a space of her own. Walker said she saw her daughter “develop a fighting spirit, a resistance spirit” in the house.

Walker and her two children were previously living between hotels and other temporary accommodations; she credits these milestones with the stability that came with a house.

The demand for shelter is also a demand to keep mothers and their children together. Philadelphia has one of the highest removal rates in the country, and housing instability makes it more likely a child will be removed from their family’s care.

“You cannot be outside with your kids, or you will lose your children” by the Department of Human Services, Bennetch said.

Returning land to communities

In her 2019 book Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues that housing policy in the United States has been shaped by a tension between “exchange value and use value, or more intimately, the difference between real estate and a home.” In contrast to the white suburbs, Black housing was seen as “incapable of achieving the status of home” and was therefore a site through which “value was extracted, not imbued.”

While Black people make up about one-quarter of Oakland’s population, they comprise 70 percent of the city’s homeless population. This disparity is mirrored nationwide.

Both Moms for Housing and those occupying the PHA-owned properties are set on challenging this trend of speculative profit-making and the historic exclusion and exploitation of Black homeownership. They are pushing to transform real estate into a home—instead of the reverse.

The long-term goal for many housing justice activists is to remove land from the speculative market entirely, and put it into the hands of communities. That’s where Moms 4 Housing achieved a victory: A few weeks after the eviction, Wedgewood agreed to sell the Magnolia Street house to the Oakland Community Land Trust, which acquires land for the benefit of low-income communities. The purchase is in negotiation.

In Philadelphia, activists are demanding that the PHA transfer its vacant properties to a CLT, so that it can be low-income housing in perpetuity.

“If you have to occupy it to have it, then that’s what you need to do,” Walker said.

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