IMPACT

California's Housing Crisis Is So Bad, People Are Turning To Rent Strikes And Squatting

“We’ve exhausted all our options.” Unaffordable rents and dilapidated homes are pushing people to radical action.

Francisco Perez is an unlikely activist. The retired roofer and his wife, Graciella, have rented their one-bedroom apartment in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood for the past 20 years. 

Perez lives a quiet life and enjoys spending time with family and friends now that he doesn’t work. But for the last four months, he and fellow residents at his 29th Avenue apartment complex have been on a rent strike to protest poor housing conditions and to urge their landlord to sell them the building. 

It’s a move that has attracted extensive media coverage and now appears to have delivered a coup for the tenants following the Feb. 27 news that their landlord had agreed to let them purchase the building through a local community land trust, a nonprofit which acquires land for the permanent benefit of low-income communities 

The Fruitvale rent strike is the latest example of how renters, often with the support of grassroots organizations, are taking radical steps to preserve or secure housing in cities where gentrification and spiraling rents are forcing them out of their homes.

Francisco Perez stands in the kitchen of his Oakland apartment. He is on rent strike to protest the poor conditions of his ho
Francisco Perez stands in the kitchen of his Oakland apartment. He is on rent strike to protest the poor conditions of his home and the steeply increasing rents.

It followed the Moms 4 Housing direct action, where three homeless mothers and their children started squatting in a vacant West Oakland house last November to draw attention to the lack of affordable housing in the city. Their eviction in January by sheriff deputies who battered down the door led to widespread controversy which culminated in an agreement in January by the owner to enter negotiations for the sale of the property to Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT), the same organization that hopes to acquire the Fruitvale complex. 

Rent strikes, squatting and public rallies are the new face of the affordable housing crisis in California. And it’s no surprise.

In Oakland, the median house sale price is $765,350 and median rent is $3,000 a month. Latest figures show that there are almost four vacant homes for every one homeless person in Oakland.

Across California, house prices continue to rise. They are up 2.5% over the past year, according to the website Zillow, which predicts they will increase by 4.2% within the next year. Latest government research shows the state has a homeless population of about 151,000, up 16% in the last year. Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau data shows at least 1.1 million vacant homes in California.

The 29th Avenue complex in Oakland, home to Francisco Perez.
The 29th Avenue complex in Oakland, home to Francisco Perez.

Located on a leafy East Oakland street, the 29th Avenue complex is a riot of colorful balconies lined with plants, bird feeders and cheery decor. Perez is one of seven tenants in the 14-unit complex who have withheld their rent since November 2019.

It’s a last resort, he said, spurred by what he claims is inaction by the previous and current landlords to fix dilapidated kitchen cabinets, leaky plumbing, mold and missing roof tiles.  

It’s also a protest against rent hikes. Within the last three years, Perez has seen his rent double to $1,500. He’s worried that any further increase would mean having to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table.  

“I’m retired and I’m not working,” he said. “In the next one or two years, I won’t be able to afford the rent. What am I going to do? I have no other place to go.” 

Cracked tiles and a leaking sink in one 29th Avenue apartment.
Cracked tiles and a leaking sink in one 29th Avenue apartment.

Having never been involved in a strike or action before, Perez is a little uncomfortable to be in the headlines and in front of TV cameras. But he was a natural leader when we met in his living room with fellow tenants and he describes the poor conditions that have led the group to the rent strike. 

“We never planned to get this much attention, ever,” he said. “But now that we’ve got it, if we can spread the word, we can send a message to all the people who are struggling in this kind of situation. This is a problem all over the state, maybe all over the U.S. There’s something wrong.”

To help get their message across, the rookie rent strikers partnered with the Oakland chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a grassroots organization that helps its 15,000 members work collectively to bring about change in areas such as housing and employment.

Using tried and tested community organizing methods such as door knocking and neighborhood meetings, the rent strike campaign quickly attracted local support and propelled the tenants’ concerns and demands into the news and on to the agenda of local politicians.

Perez with some of his fellow rent strikers and ACCE staff including Israel Lepiz (pictured back, left) and ACCE Oakland dire
Perez with some of his fellow rent strikers and ACCE staff including Israel Lepiz (pictured back, left) and ACCE Oakland director Carroll Fife (pictured front, right).

Israel Lepiz, an ACCE Oakland organizer who’s been working with the rent strikers, said the tenants have been putting their rent into an escrow account each month and are more than willing to pay their landlord if housing code violations are addressed.

“It’s not about them not wanting to pay the rent; it’s about calling attention to what’s happening,” she said. “We did try to defuse the situation at every corner but this is the result of feeling like we’ve exhausted all our options.” 

Negotiations to buy the building were still underway at the time of writing, but ACCE said progress was being made following a positive meeting with owner Calvin Wong on March 4. Wong did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. 

Moms 4 Housing activist Dominique Walker in front of the now fenced-off vacant home that she and other homeless or insecurely
Moms 4 Housing activist Dominique Walker in front of the now fenced-off vacant home that she and other homeless or insecurely housed mothers occupied during a monthslong protest which ended in a court-ordered eviction, in Oakland, California.

When Moms 4 Housing co-founder Dominique Walker moved back to her Oakland hometown from Mississippi last April, she was shocked to find a very different city from the one she’d left in 2004 to study for a sociology degree.

Almost all her family members and high school friends had been forced to leave the city because of high rents and house prices. Tent encampments were a common sight. Housing lists were “a joke,” she said, with wait times of several years.  

Walker and her two young children had left Mississippi abruptly because she was experiencing domestic violence. She registered on an emergency housing program, got a job as an organizer at ACCE in Oakland, and enrolled her children in daycare in Berkeley. With nowhere to live immediately, they had to sleep on the couches of various family members who lived in outlying cities like Antioch or Stockton and spend hours commuting into work and school every day. 

“This is the new face of homelessness,” Walker told me when we met at her new home in Berkeley, owned by the Northern California Land Trust, that she moved into at the end of January. “I was talking to teachers, nurses, community organizers. Folks with master’s degrees living in tents. They’re housing insecure, or homeless. These are folks that help and serve their community and still can’t afford housing. And there’s not a scarcity of housing.”  

Walker pointed to Oakland’s foreclosure crisis ― where one in seven mortgages entered default between 2007 and 2011. Black communities, often targeted for predatory loans, were hit particularly hard. While Black Americans make up around a quarter of the city’s population, they account for 70% of Oakland’s homeless population

Moms 4 Housing was set up to attract attention to this issue. Walker and fellow community organizers decided the best way to do this was to occupy one of the city’s many vacant homes.

They chose the vacant Magnolia Street house because it was owned by Los Angeles County-based real estate investment group Wedgewood Properties. The company buys homes — often foreclosed properties — cheaply and renovates them for sale at market prices.

“It was owned by a corporation who plays a part in the displacement in Oakland,” said Walker. “The direct action was to bring awareness to this issue.”

The Magnolia Street house that was occupied by Dominique Walker and other Moms 4 Housing members until January 2020
The Magnolia Street house that was occupied by Dominique Walker and other Moms 4 Housing members until January 2020.

Wedgewood spokesman Sam Singer told HuffPost that the company had planned to renovate the property as soon as possible and put it back into the housing market. “The company is in the business of buying, renovating, and quickly selling homes to first time buyers. It does not ‘hold homes vacant,’” he said.

The moms’ occupation of the house in November 2019 was supported by many in the community but also attracted criticism because it was illegal.

“They should concentrate on finding a nonviolent and progressive way to address the Oakland housing crisis that doesn’t rely on the theft of other people’s homes to solve their problems and address this serious issue,” Singer said of the protest.

Walker said, however, that it needed to happen.

“Housing is a human right,” she said. “It’s a basic human need and it should be recognized in the U.S. Constitution as a human right as it’s recognized by the United Nations.”

“We hate that it had to come to that,” she added. “But pressure busts pipes, and it just shows the power of the people. When we organize, we can win.”

After the moms’ emotional eviction in January, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a “historic agreement” where Wedgewood agreed to sell the Magnolia Street house to OakCLT and also to allow the city or other affordable housing organizations first refusal on other Oakland properties it plans to sell.

Landlords selling homes to their tenants or to community organizations helps to reset a market that’s failing to serve people in a humane way, said OakCLT executive director Steve King. “It’s shifting the narrative from where the tenant has no control towards them becoming owners,” he said.

Housing activists are already making inroads with lawmakers. Later this month, Oakland City Council will vote on an ordinance that would allow tenants first right of refusal if their landlord plans to sell.

Inspired by the Moms 4 Housing action, the Tenant Opportunity To Purchase Act (TOPA) would also create opportunities for community land trusts and nonprofit affordable housing developers to purchase homes first.

Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who introduced the ordinance, said that the goal is for tenants to be able to stay in their homes, not just as renters but as homeowners.

In February, the city of Berkeley proposed a similar ordinance that would give renters the right of first refusal and right to purchase when apartment buildings and non-owner-occupied single-family homes are put on the market. 

Where there is rising rent, there are rising rent strikes and resistance

And at the state level, inspired by the Moms 4 Housing action, state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) introduced a bill in February to give tenants the right of first refusal to buy foreclosed properties ― and after them cities, counties and affordable housing organizations ― and to enable cities to fine corporate owners of properties that let them sit vacant for more than 90 days.

Carroll Fife, director of ACCE Oakland, said residents’ increasingly bold action is the result of not being listened to.

“Waiting for legislators to legislate proper solutions has not worked,” Fife said. “That’s why it’s gotten to here ― direct action ― because there’s not been the action that’s necessary by our elected officials.”

“We’re not asking people to riot,” she continued. “But the reason that it’s come to people just taking back properties and going on rent strikes is because their voices and their pleas have gone unheard. These are the only steps that they have left.”

Fife said several organizations and individuals across the country have contacted ACCE about advice on direct action. 

These direct actions in California mirror what’s been happening on the East Coast, where a 14-month rent strike by tenants against substandard living conditions ― including a mice and roach infestation and mold ― at 1320 Nicholson Street N.W. in Washington, D.C., recently ended with the building being sold to a developer chosen by tenants. 

Tenant organizer Citlalli Velasquez, who works for the Latino Economic Development Center, which helped the renters organize, said the rent strike not only garnered media attention but also helped to keep the sale price low.

“The previous landlord wasn’t able to market the building at a really escalated price because of these concerns,” explained Velasquez. “It wasn’t our goal but it was great because they sold it at a really low price because of the ongoing press and the rent strike. Because of that, tenants had a lot of options.”

Having now helped launch several rent strikes, Velasquez said LEDC believes that it has “set a trend” in D.C. “I’m glad to see that where there is rising rent, there are rising rent strikes and resistance,” she said.

Back in West Oakland, Walker’s 5-year-old daughter proudly showed me her new room and the bed her mom is assembling for her 1-year-old brother. Walker said she is determined to stay in the East Bay where residents like her grandfather built up successful businesses and strong communities. Watching her children run around their new home together, she said quietly, “I want them to know that their mother was on the right side of history, that she was fighting.”

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