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Judge To Rule On Whether Homeless Moms Can Stay In Vacant House


Here in California, there is an unprecedented housing crisis. The cost of rent is surging, and that means more and more people are living on the streets. Others are finding refuge in vacant houses. In Oakland and the Bay Area, two homeless mothers are waiting on a judge's decision that will determine whether or not they can continue to stay in one of those properties. Here's more from Molly Solomon, who reports from member station KQED.

MOLLY SOLOMON, BYLINE: The white two-story house is on Magnolia Street, a residential block in West Oakland. Dominique Walker moved in with her young kids and another mother in November.

DOMINIQUE WALKER: This is the children's room; still getting everything together.

SOLOMON: This three-bedroom house is the first actual home Walker has had since she moved back to the Bay Area in April. This house has been sitting vacant for years.

WALKER: Oakland is my home, and I deserve to be here.

SOLOMON: Walker moved back to California after fleeing domestic violence in Mississippi. She knew the Bay Area had gotten expensive, but she was shocked at what she found.

WALKER: Even if I had time to prepare, the housing crisis - I still probably wouldn't be able to afford anything. So I was sleeping at different relatives' houses and hotels, which is very unsafe and violent.

SOLOMON: According to the most recent count, more than 4,000 Oakland residents are experiencing homelessness. Meanwhile, the city estimates the number of vacant properties at around 4,300. But most of the owners of these vacant homes live outside the city. That's part of what Walker is protesting by occupying this house - to raise the moral question of who gets to live in this city.

WALKER: We believe that housing is a human right, and we're going to fight for that. We want to see all unhoused moms have shelter.

SOLOMON: Walker and others have organized a group. They call themselves Moms 4 Housing. The home they're occupying was bought in a foreclosure auction by a company called Wedgewood, an investment group based in Southern California. Sam Singer is a spokesperson for the company.

SAM SINGER: You can't walk into somebody's home and take it as your own. That's called stealing or theft.

SOLOMON: Singer says the women are trespassing.

SINGER: This is a train on a single track, and it leads straight to eviction.

SOLOMON: Wedgewood says its real estate portfolio includes hundreds or maybe even thousands of homes along the West Coast. And Aaron Glantz says that's part of the company's business model. He's the author of a new book "Homewreckers," a look into how corporate entities like Wedgewood have been acquiring properties across the country. He says Oakland was one of the hardest-hit areas after the housing crisis.

AARON GLANTZ: As families began to lose their homes to foreclosure in 2008 and 2009, it wasn't other people that came in and bought those homes. It was speculators buying through shell companies.

SOLOMON: That's in fact the case with the home the two women are occupying and why they say they're occupying this home in the first place. Glantz says California's housing crisis is about more than just building homes. It's understanding who owns the housing and what they're doing with it. Back on Magnolia Street, Dominique Walker says she's beginning to feel at home. She's moved in furniture. And recently, her 1-year-old son took his first steps here.

WALKER: To move in, to feel like you have a basic need being met because housing and shelter is a basic need and a human right.

SOLOMON: Ultimately, a judge will determine if that argument has legal standing. A ruling is expected soon on whether the moms can stay or be forced to leave. For NPR News, I'm Molly Solomon in Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF WMD'S "MOONPOOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.