On the Front Lines: Moms 4 Housing Leaders Discuss Movement Lawyering

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March 2, 2020

March 2, 2020

By Andrew Cohen

There are four times as many empty homes in Oakland as there are homeless people. In November, two women walked through the unlocked door of one of them and began living there—igniting a national call for housing rights.

Six formerly homeless women, now known as Moms 4 Housing, eventually occupied the three-bedroom house. As Wedgewood Properties (which bought the house in August 2019 and planned to flip it) pursued legal action, the women garnered support from national leaders and local residents who provided security and supplies. The movement gained steam as the mothers described the Bay Area’s housing affordability crisis and the rising barriers to securing shelter.

During a recent presentation at Berkeley Law before a packed lecture hall, two leaders of this effort—Carroll Fife and Leah Simon-Weisberg—described the rewards and challenges involved. The event was moderated by Osha Neumann, a lawyer with the East Bay Community Law Center, whose work includes protecting the civil rights of homeless people. Berkeley Law’s chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild organized the event, and sponsor and partner groups included the school’s Women of Color Collective, Law Students of African Descent, Queers United in Revolutionary Subversion, La Raza Workers’ and Tenants’ Rights Clinic, Women of Berkeley Law, and the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice.

“We have to stop thinking of housing as a way to make money,” said Simon-Weisberg, directing attorney of the Shelter Client Advocates Program at Eviction Defense Collaborative, Inc. “Housing is a human right. The housing crisis can be easily fixed, we just haven’t had the political will. But we’re getting there.”

In January, a court ruled that the mothers were illegal tenants and ordered their removal. Four days later, armed officers from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office stormed into the home and evicted them. With the attention the situation generated, however, Wedgewood is working to have Oakland’s Community Land Trust trust buy the property, which would let the mothers stay there.

“We wanted to make this bigger than just the mothers occupying the space,” said Fife, regional director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. “We talked about policies we’d like to pass and doing outreach in the encampments to get people who were able-bodied enough civically engaged. There was a lot of planning, organizing, and media outreach.”

A call for ‘movement lawyering’

Simon-Weisberg was a key figure throughout the legal battle over the Moms 4 Housing effort, including their eviction. She described the growth and importance of “movement lawyering,” agreeing with Neumann’s assertion that while occupying the home was illegal, “so much of the struggle for human rights always is.”

A community organizer in Oakland for more than 20 years, Fife had worked to assist each of the women in different capacities long before they entered the home.

“Individually, over the course of six months, they reached out to me not knowing the others did,” Fife said. “They said, ‘We can’t can’t take this anymore. We’re homeless, our children are suffering, and there’s no affordable housing available.’ Another unsheltered senior attempted suicide because she was at her wits’ end about being chronically homeless. At that point, I said let me bring everyone together about what they want to do.”

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