Podcast: Can social housing provide a solution to a looming mass eviction crisis?

Interview

Friday, August 14, 2020

In this episode of Who Belongs?, we speak with Carroll Fife, an organizer, mother, and director of the Oakland office of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, also known as ACCE. Earlier this year, she was involved in coordinating the #Moms4Housing campaign in which the five Black women took over a vacant home on Magnolia Street in Oakland. She joins us to speak about the history of speculative housing and its impacts on the Black community, the looming eviction crisis, houselessness, and police violence.

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Transcript:

Carroll Fife: Housing insecurity and evictions are to Black women as mass incarceration has been to Black men, and that the generational impacts and the invisible scars that impact mothers and their children are felt for generations to come. It's really hard to heal from that, especially after bouts of chronic homelessness which often result from evictions.

Marc Abizeid: Hello and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs?, a podcast from the O&B Institute at UC Berkeley. My name is Marc Abizeid, host of the podcast, along with Erfan Moradi, a research fellow at our institute.

Erfan Moradi: In this episode, we speak with Carroll Fife, an organizer, mother, and director of the Oakland office of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, also known as ACCE. Earlier this year, she was involved in coordinating the Moms4Housing campaign in which five Black women took over a vacant home on Magnolia Street in Oakland.

Marc Abizeid: Bhe joins us to speak about the history of speculative housing and its impacts on the black community, the looming eviction crisis, houselessness and police violence.

Erfan Moradi: Here was our conversation.

Erfan Moradi: Today we wanted to talk a little bit about housing justice. Rent is on everyone's mind, especially as we're reading reports of a looming eviction crisis, as COVID-related renters' protections and tenant protections are set to expire in the coming days and weeks. You have lots of experience in eviction defense. I think a lot of people around the country know you through your fight alongside Moms4Housing as they fought their eviction in Oakland. Can you just kind of give us a reminder of how that story played out?

Carroll Fife: Well, it started with several individuals coming to me separately asking for housing support or resources that were available, and me knowing in my heart that nothing was available to them. It was five women over the course of a couple months and they were all just spent over the fact that they'd been looking for housing with families and couldn't find anything in the city that they were born and raised in. One of the individuals, who's actually not a mother but someone who frequents my place of employment, was coming in regularly. I was kicking myself because she's a senior and is chronically homeless and I found out that she had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt. [...] I was told by the person who brought me the message, one of our staff, [who] said it's because she needed a bed and she wanted to sleep indoors. All that just weighed on me and especially understanding it through the lens of being formerly homeless myself with my children. I was just like, "Yeah, we got to organize."

Carroll Fife: I called everybody together and they were all frustrated with me for having no resources, but that's why I'm like, "Look, I don't. I don't have resources. I don't have access to property. I don't have access to people who have property. I don't know don't have any money, but I have a network and I know how to organize. And if you all trust the process, I'm going to make sure that you have a place to stay." Not knowing if I could actually make it happen but I was like, after all of the heartfelt pleas, and then the recent suicide attempt, I was like, "I got to just put 110% of my energy and time and thought and into making this issue — the fact that they don't have any place to stay — on the hearts and minds of everyone we could get to pay attention."

Carroll Fife: I don't think you can live in California and not experience the housing crisis in one way or another. Because that's the reality that we're all experiencing by either having to pay rent that is exorbitantly high, going past encampments on a regular basis, and just seeing how many people have been displaced onto the streets, or being a house flipper or a landlord. Everybody has experiences with housing. Everyone has experiences with being or having a mother — even if that mother has never been in your life, even if that mother is a grandmother or a parent — everyone came here through a mother. I think this campaign is something that everyone could relate to. Some folks had violent reactions to it, and there were death threats. And some folks were like, "This is inspirational and it's so important that you all stepped out to talk about homelessness and housing insecurity, especially its impacts on the Black community in Oakland and Black women in specific." It got a lot of attention.

Carroll Fife: We at ACCE were doing a housing week of action. Cities across the state of California were bringing attention to the housing crisis in their particular cities: in Los Angeles and Richmond, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego. In Oakland, we decided to do several actions and it was a coalition effort. A lot of people were doing different things — banner drops, marches, and this group of moms did a housing occupation. It's not something that's out of the ordinary to ACCE. It was a tactic used to defend [against] foreclosures of homes and to the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis. Folks were familiar with the tactic, but this one was specifically created to make the public pay attention to the extreme disparity that's occurring in the city.

Carroll Fife: [Matthew] Desmond in his book Evicted said that housing insecurity and evictions are to Black women as mass incarceration has been to Black men, and that the generational impacts and the invisible scars that impact mothers and their children are felt for generations to come. It's really hard to heal from that, especially after bouts of chronic homelessness which often result from evictions. I think that's partly why it got so much attention because, as Malcolm X said — el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz — that Black women are the most unprotected human beings on the planet — I'm paraphrasing. But the point is that that is a reality we didn't want to continue to glaze over in our city. I'm proud to stand beside these women, behind these women, to lift up this particular issue because it impacts all of us.

Marc Abizeid: Could you remind us what happened with that occupation, with the house that they were sheltering in? Can you talk about when the police invaded and then how that case was concluded?

Carroll Fife: We took the home, I believe it was November 18th, and every single day after the initial occupation we were waiting for the sheriffs or the police or some type of security agency to engage us. Day one, we sent a letter to Wedgewood Properties asking for a conversation about this house that had been vacant for years.

Marc Abizeid: And they were the owners of the house, Wedgewood Properties?

Carroll Fife: Correct. There was some funny business going on with them, but they never, ever one time in this whole ordeal, talked to us. They never responded to us. They hired a high-paid PR firm in order to address us. They went through all kinds of different scams to try to get the moms out of the house, but it didn't work. Ultimately our strategy that we were working out on a week-by-week basis was to file for right to possession, claiming that this house had not been used for years and the moms are claiming a right to possess the home in order to make it into a productive place and habitable place for people to live affordably. That court case played out for a while. We ultimately lost. The judge dismissed it, although he deliberated on it for quite a bit and was torn about what to do, but there wasn't any clear precedent in the law to grant a right of possession. An eviction followed, a notice of eviction.

Carroll Fife: Everyone knew that the goal was to engage in good trouble and non-violent civil disobedience to really highlight the contradictions about who actually has access to housing and who doesn't, because we believe that it follows historical trends of redlining, segregation, discriminatory housing practices, which is the generational impact that racist housing policy has had on Black folks — and it's trickling down to other people as well.

Carroll Fife: They gave us five [days] — I can't remember if it was three or five days, but I believe it was five days — before the sheriffs would come. We had attorneys trying to negotiate with the sheriffs to not be violent because we heard word that they were going to use any force necessary to remove anyone in the home. The attorneys were like, "These are women and children. There's no force needed." The sheriffs and [Alameda County Sheriff Gregory J.] Ahern and their representatives were completely dismissive and disregarded the attorneys attempted negotiation. [They] were like, "Yeah, if they don't want to get hurt, they need to just leave."

Carroll Fife: They came and they brought forces to back up that they were actually coming in a very militarized and aggressive fashion. I'd never seen anything like that outside of a movie in my entire life. [T]here were armored vehicles, multiple armored vehicles. I can't count the number of police vans and cars. They were three different types of troops there: there's some with helmets, there's some with tactical gear, there's some regularly dress sheriffs. I'd never seen anything like this before. It was just insane. I think that's part of why it's gotten so much attention because there was such a use and show of force that it was just shocking to everyone. I think that was the intention, to shock and actually do harm to some of the folks who came out to support.

Carroll Fife: They mentioned it in their post-news conference that they were coming to address particular activists. It's funny that you see the film reenactment of Chairman Fred Hampton's life, because that's one of the activists that they said was a problem that was supporting the moms. It was Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. and Tur-ha Ak of the Community Ready Core [who] were identified by the Alameda County Sheriff's as two particular figures that needed to be addressed.

Carroll Fife: You can tell what the type of officers that they sent, even they were larger than normal. They're larger than the sheriffs that you see riding around in their patrol cars. They were giants. [They used] a robot to enter the home, a battle ram. [T]hey tried to say that the home was barricaded. But they're also not acknowledging that there had been multiple break-in attempts at the home. We actually chased someone in a white van away from the home that was taking things out of the garage, one day [when] we were coming back from court when we filed the right to possession.

Carroll Fife: They tried to frame us — not just the officers, but the PR firm at Wedgewood hired — as terrorists. It's the same way that they're attempting to do now for us standing up for housing justice, is label us as terrorist, but that's just causing more people to get behind us in this fight to make housing a human right.

Erfan Moradi: I remember reading that the sheriff's department released a statement — or maybe it was in private correspondence, I can't remember — but describing people present at the protest as a "anarchists and criminal elements" as though there is some sort of seditious activity going on in the fight for housing justice. The case of these heavily militarized police coming to evict mothers seems like such a salient example of how the state is interested in protecting property rights through police violence. In this moment in which police divestment has come to the forefront of so much national discourse, can you explain for us and illuminate for us how housing justice is related [to], is connected to policing?

Carroll Fife: Sure. It goes back to the inception of this country and the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. I've been doing more research around these issues lately. It's because property rights and the rights of landowners has always been the primary focus of building wealth in this country. It's actually one of the things that kills democracy, because the more wealth that people are able to amass through owning and leasing out land and being lords of land, the more democracy dies, because those are the same folks who are paying, in some cases, in some cities around the country, paying for their own private police forces or subsidizing municipal police forces with financial contributions and different ways to augment existing bloated police budgets that take up almost half, if not more, of urban centers' general purpose fund. Their goal is to protect property and property owners and their wealth.

Carroll Fife: I just feel like that's part of why there's this cry, just thinking about Breonna Taylor and the fact that the law enforcement came into what was supposed to be a safe and secure place and took her life. It's [with] the same energy that police harass unsheltered folks for trying to find places to stay, who end up sleeping on our sidewalks because of this hoarding of land and hoarding of property where people can actually live. It's because housing is a commodity and it needs to be an actual human right. As long as we have an economic system where wealth is built through landownership, and [in]equity is part of building that wealth, and people are aspiring to get as much as they can, we're going to see the police — who are the shock troops of gentrification and the shock troops for speculative housing — continue to enact violence on black bodies around the protection of those who have versus those who don't.

Marc Abizeid: I think that's a really powerful way to put it. I think it really illuminates that idea of land speculation or real estate speculation and treating housing as a commodity and not a human right. From your perspective and from what you know and what you've studied, do you think that under the current housing system that we can eliminate homelessness, or do you think this is a necessary part of the system? If not, if it's not something that can be eliminated under the market-based model, what are the pathways that you would advocate for to ensure that everyone does have a right to housing?

Carroll Fife: I think it should be publicly funded, like the housing units in the post-war era when the New Deal actually helped White families make it through the Depression. I don't want to sound like it was just White families; there was some support for Black folks after the New Deal, but it was marginal in comparison. That's why we are pushing for a Black New Deal because we've never been able to recover from post-emancipation. And then just trying to get a leg up, which like I said, White families were able to do with subsidies from the government to actually purchase homes.

Carroll Fife: After this great loss of Black wealth from the last foreclosure crisis, it's going to deliver a blow with this current cliff that we're facing, specifically in California, but around the country where moratoriums are expiring, we are headed for disaster. I just think it's really important to understand that it is a part [of the system]. You asked, can we fix things under this current system? I don't believe that we can. I'm open to hearing ideas, but we have decades upon decades of evidence to show that it just does not work. It is incumbent upon us to try something different.

Carroll Fife: I think what's been helpful for many of our families in Oakland is the Oakland Community Land Trust, which is what we suggested to Wedgewood to sell this property to the land trust so this will be the last time it's ever flipped for this ridiculous profit and that it stays in community control at affordable rates in perpetuity. Some people argue that land trusts are not the best model, but we've been able to save dozens of folks from eviction and homelessness and potentially having to leave the state or even the country through the use of this community land trust. I think that's one of the models, but we definitely have to have some type of social housing that is funded and the responsibility of not just our city but our county and state and federal governments, because this is not tenable — and that's putting it politely.

Carroll Fife: This is very, very serious. People are literally dying on the streets and there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands more headed there due to COVID. It is a component of greed and extreme capitalism that pushes people to make the highest profit possible, not considering the actual functional need of people to have safe and secure housing. Only a limited few can operate under our current housing system.

Erfan Moradi: The best way to keep people off of the streets is to make sure that they stay in their homes, and to make sure that they're alive and healthy in their own homes. But to step back, you mentioned earlier the Black New Deal, and this is a statement and set of demands that the Anti-Police Terror Project and Community Ready Corps co-authored. Can you tell us a little bit more about these set of demands and especially how they came about in this particular moment? I know among the demands are things like reparations and access to mental and physical healthcare, but also forgiveness of back rent and an end to evictions. Can you tell us how these sort of demands came about?

Carroll Fife: Sure. CRC and APTP actually convened to facilitate our process for several individuals and organizations to come together around what was happening in COVID and to put their best thinking together around a set of demands that could be lifted up at the local and state levels to address the disparities that have existed, but have been exacerbated under COVID-19.

Carroll Fife: The process — oh my goodness, I think it's fourteen pages of demands or ideas or [inaudible]. I'm in the process of actually turning all of that information from the forty-plus organizations who contributed to it into a set of programs with the help of some folks from a think tank in Oakland that I refer to. So that it's not just demands, but it's actual functional programs that we can work to that are time-based — we're in really critical times — but also impactful and address the historic harm that all the folks that came to the table to create this were attempting to do.

Carroll Fife: The thinking was why are we here? Why do we continue to be here, particularly in the city of Oakland where the Panthers are renowned? Why are we still here fifty years later fighting for the exact same things, if not worse? Because our numbers are dwindling. I want to make it clear that while I don't think that Black folks are the only folks impacted by housing, I do believe that if we address the needs of the most marginalized, the most negatively impacted, we'll address the conditions for everyone that are experiencing housing insecurity and housing injustice. I believe that we're the canary in the mine. Just like ignoring the situations that we've been through historically in this country leads to the repetition of the same issues. I believe that if we don't rectify the historic harm of white supremacy in housing, we'll continue to get it wrong for everybody, which is why you're seeing, I think, even college students, people with college degrees, not being able to have places to stay because the same carnivorous system that chewed and spit up Black folks is doing the same thing to everybody. Because profit is key.

Marc Abizeid: That point about forgiving past rents is a really important one too, because I think we should always remember that the moratoria on evictions isn't the same as rent forgiveness, that these people who aren't able to pay rent are just accumulating debt right now with the expectation that they're going to be able to pay this back. I don't think that reflects reality because a lot of these people are low wage-earners to begin with, and they've lost the jobs, and even if they do find jobs, it's not going to be enough to be able to repay all of that back pay.

Carroll Fife: Exactly. But major housing corporations or landlords or commercial residential firms are getting bailed out. It's interesting that the people who are making the most money off these exorbitant rents are also getting bailed out by CARES funding. We're demanding — and that's what people are standing up to say right now is like — "Enough bailing out these corporations. Put the money in the hands of the people who actually need it to live, to buy groceries, and have running water and electricity." We can't forget our folks who are living on the streets. We the people need a bailout. The people need some kind of answers because that's how we're going to pull through this. If a handful of corporations are okay but the population is decimated, it does no one any good. Bail out people.

Marc Abizeid: One thing I wanted to ask you was about one of these videos that you appeared at in January outside the home that the moms were occupying. Someone, I think a reporter asked you, this company that owns the home, Wedgewood, has offered to put the moms up in a house for two months or to pay for their lodging somewhere for a couple of months if they leave the house. You gave a really great response to that where you make the distinction between charity and permanent stable housing:

Carroll Fife: "We want people to understand that Catholic Charities is not housing. What this offer — and we say 'offer' — was two months in a shelter and to pay for moving expenses. Anyone who's tried to get housing in the city of Oakland knows that two months is nothing. One of the mothers has been homeless for six years. So add two months to six years and that is not enough time to find affordable housing in the city of Oakland where the average one bedroom apartment is $2,500 a month. The housing wage in Oakland is $40.88 per hour. That means there is no housing available to working people in this city."

Marc Abizeid: And so, a couple of things, I wanted to see if you could tell us where you think the moms would be right now if they had accepted that offer? Where are they right now and what happened to them? Then also maybe elaborate on that point about that distinction between charity and justice.

Carroll Fife: Well, I think had we not taken that action, I think things would be different around the country, around the world. We were getting calls from housing justice organizers and activists, and just regular people that just wanted a decent place live. We were getting calls and emails from all over the world. Like, "Thank you. Thank you for lifting us up. We're fighting this in Portugal. We're fighting this in the Philippines. We're fighting this in London," and then cities all over the country. "Thank you for highlighting what we're struggling with here. Now I'm going to continue." I think the movement, the housing justice movement, the movement to make housing a human right, would maybe be a little stagnant. It was until that point. We just said it in a lot of our chants and demonstrations.

Carroll Fife: Now it's a constitutional amendment that'll go through the Assembly for California in the next session. We're working on making these policies real across the country and congressional representatives are asking how they can support. I think we wouldn't be further along in the public realization that, yeah, we do need to make housing a human right. Now with COVID really changing the face and the shape of how we will operate in the world in general, it's becoming that much clearer that we need a human right to housing to make sure that even without income or with limited income, you know that you'll have a place to stay.

Carroll Fife: The moms right now are looking — well, they're waiting for the rehabilitation process to conclude at Mom's House. We were able to raise the funds to cover the costs that Wedgewood paid for the house and are in the second phase, which is getting it suitable for residential living. We're just talking to contractors, getting quotes to start the process. COVID has also slowed that down quite a bit. We're behind schedule for where we intended to be before this virus, but we're still on course in terms of promoting the legislation we're trying to promote, and getting the house turned around and back into community control.

Erfan Moradi: Despite the COVID setbacks, that's a really phenomenal set of victories. I congratulate you all on fighting for that. That's really inspirational. I'm amazed to hear — amazed but not surprised rather — that you're also inspiring people across borders and around the world and in different places and circumstances, but that your struggles are shared. I was thinking [about that,] that our struggles are shared across borders, but they're also generationally shared, shared across ages and generations and all of that. Pedagogy and education seems to be an important through-line for your work. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you founded a school called Shule Vista Academy some years ago, and also now participate in a popular education program called Creating Freedom Movements. Can you tell us about how this sort of pedagogical work ties to the rest of your activism? In other words, how you see education as being linked to agitation and organizing and liberation?

Carroll Fife: Well, I think it's important, but I don't think it's necessary. I do believe political education and study is necessary, but I've done it informally and formally, and there are pros and cons to both. It wasn't until the Moms for Housing struggle that I was actually comfortable saying, "You know what? Yeah, I was homeless too," because there's so much shame that comes from it. But also the experiences that I've gained and the knowledge and wisdom that I've gained didn't come through the traditional pedagogical framework that I received with my formal education.

Carroll Fife: I think everyone's personal experience can guide them to be active. I actually count on that when folks are knocking on doors and we're talking to people about what they want to see in their communities. It's also necessary to learn and just review and study what's been done before, what's happening now to increase your educational understanding of different strategies and tactics, and what's worked in the past and what hasn't, to be creative about what to do in the future. There's a through line there, and there's a path that is not even connected that I think both are so necessary and have been relevant to my cultivation here as an organizer.

Marc Abizeid: We actually were wondering if we could ask about those kinds of experiences that you've had which drive you to action and how you became an activist, how you became a founder of many organizations, and just that motivation to advocate for justice causes.

Carroll Fife: I think it has to do a lot with my parents. My mother and father are both from the Deep South, one from Mississippi, one from Alabama. And both of their parents, their families moved from the Deep South to avoid the terrorism of that time, post-World War II, to create better lives for my parents. Both families left during the Great Migration and worked really hard to have some kind of middle class existence. But my grandfathers — maternal and paternal — did a lot. My paternal grandfather was a first city council member in our city, and I just remember a lot of sacrifice and doing for everybody around them. My parents were the same way. My dad would give away his services as a journeyman electrician to people who needed them. My mom was constantly feeding and clothing women who were in abusive situations and living in shelters. I also have a very strong parochial foundation. It was a dogmatic way to embed service and sacrifice into our lives. But it's something that stayed with me even outside of shedding that kind of upbringing. I've always been a part of service spaces. I guess it just came naturally.

Carroll Fife: Having children, I wanted to be in education, but as they got older and we were evicted from my home that I used as an educational space, I started getting more active into social justice fights that were really close to home — and that was housing. We've been evicted by unscrupulous landlords quite a few times — or attempted, I've actually never been evicted — but the last time that caused us, my family, to move from West Oakland to East Oakland was a landlord that said, "Hey, I'm selling my house. You have a few weeks to get out." It's like, "Wait, no. That's not how this works." But just being so exhausted and just tired of going through this on a regular basis, we left. There have been periods where we've lived in hotels or cars. It was a no brainer that housing had to be one of the primary areas of struggle because my own personal experiences and understanding how closely even educational attainment for children is so connected to stability and housing security.

Carroll Fife: That's a little bit about why and how I got into this. It's something that I definitely consider doing until we have some resolution — for the rest of my life.

Marc Abizeid: That wraps up this episode of Who Belongs?. Thank you to our guest, Carroll Fife, cirector of the Oakland Chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE.

Erfan Moradi: We'll place links to resources related to  he topics we discussed along with a transcript of this episode on our website at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs.

Marc Abizeid: This has been Marc Abizeid.

Erfan Moradi: And this has been Erfan Moradi.

Marc Abizeid: Thank you for listening.

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