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Homeless women who moved into an empty California home gain support

Homeless mothers fight for West Oakland house

Some California lawmakers said they support a group of homeless women who have been illegally living in a vacant three-bedroom house since November. The issue highlights the role of real estate investors who, critics say, are driving up housing costs in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area.

Moms 4 Housing, a collective recently formed to support the Oakland women, interrupted a press conference on legislation to boost housing construction Tuesday at City Hall, shouting "affordable housing now."

"I want to thank Moms 4 Housing for taking that house and for demonstrating that nowhere, nowhere should there be a vacant house anywhere in California when we have the housing crisis that we have," said Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley. "And it was totally legitimate for those homeless moms to take over that house."

The women took over the home after they said they were unable to find permanent housing in the Bay Area, where high-paying tech jobs have exacerbated income inequality and a housing shortage. They also say they're protesting real estate developers who snap up distressed homes, then leave them empty. Homelessness is a growing issue across the U.S., but it has spiked in California.

They are awaiting a final ruling from a judge on whether they can stay, though Alameda County Superior Court Judge Patrick McKinney has tentatively ruled in favor of the property owner, Wedgewood Inc., a Redondo Beach-based real estate investment group that bought the home in a foreclosure auction last year.

Homelessness has surged in Oakland in the past two years with the number of unsheltered people increasing from 1,900 to more than 3,000. Last month, an Oakland city official said she wanted to explore the possibility of using a cruise ship to house up to 1,000 homeless people in the Bay Area.

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Forced out

Dominique Walker, 34, who has 1- and 5-year-old daughters, said she moved back to her native Oakland from Mississippi last year but could not find a place to live in the pricey market. She said many of the people who used to live in her neighborhood have been forced out by rising prices.

"Housing is a human right. I pay bills there. I pay water, PG&E, internet. We live there," Walker said. "We want to purchase the home ... it needs to belong back in the hands of the community. It was stolen through the foreclosure crisis."

The company bought the home for $501,000 and took possession days after the women moved in, said Sam Singer, a spokesman for Wedgewood. The 1908 house has one bathroom and is about 1,500 square feet (139 square meters).

"Wedgewood owns this home, and these squatters have broken into it, they're illegally occupying it, and that is not the right thing to do. It's simply theft," Singer said Tuesday. "This is really a case about a group of people taking the law into their own hands."

"Opportunistic landlords"

Lawyers for Walker argued in court last week that housing is a right and the court should allow the women to possess the house, particularly because it was vacant for a long time and the alternative would be to send them to the streets.

Assemblyman Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose, said Tuesday that elected officials need to ensure "opportunistic landlords and corporate landlords" don't "keep our homes vacant."

Many Oakland residents say they are being pushed to the fringes of the Bay Area as they struggle to keep pace with housing costs.

Federal officials said last month that an uptick in the country's homeless population was driven entirely by a 16% increase in California, where the median sales price of a home is $500,000. It's higher in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The situation is so dire that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom approved a statewide rent cap on some properties.

Vacant homes

Yet there are four vacant homes for every homeless person in Oakland, said Leah Simon-Weisberg, an attorney for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, which is helping the mothers in court.

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The empty eyesores are in devastated, predominantly minority neighborhoods, she said, adding that developers like Wedgewood "acquire the property, they kick the people out who are in it, and they sell it."

Singer said Wedgewood buys distressed properties, hires local workers to fix up the homes and sells them, hopefully to first-time homebuyers. He said the company wants to start renovating the house so that "another family can join the ranks of homeowners of Oakland."

He said the company will continue with its eviction proceedings against the women if the judge rules in the company's favor, as expected.

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