On the afternoon of January 14, 2020, a red tin-foil heart balloon bobbed sadly in the breeze. The balloon was tied to the top of a hastily erected chain-link fence around the house at 2928 Magnolia Street in West Oakland. Less than 12 hours earlier, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department had violently evicted Moms 4 Housing in the predawn darkness. Furniture, children’s toys, kitchenware—all the insides of a home—now lay on the sidewalk, damp with rain.
Moms 4 Housing, a group of unhoused working mothers, chose the vacant house on Magnolia Street because Wedgewood LLC, one of the country’s largest real estate speculators, owned it. Wedgewood specializes in buying “distressed” properties, evicting tenants, and then flipping the houses. The mothers wanted to highlight Oakland’s growing housing crisis—and argue that housing is a human right.
Homelessness in Oakland has nearly doubled since 2017. The housing crisis disproportionately impacts African Americans, who make up 23 percent of the city’s population but 70 percent of its homeless population. Speculators like Wedgewood and luxury developers deepen this crisis: Wedgewood currently owns 125 properties across the Bay Area and has flipped thousands of houses in the past five years.
But Wedgewood is only the latest iteration of a longer-running problem. For as long as 2928 Magnolia has been standing, two powerful currents have shaped it and Oakland in general: racism and capitalism. Today, white households across the U.S. have a median family net worth of $147,000. The median net worth of black households is just $3,600. Because homes create two-thirds of a typical household’s wealth, much of this extreme wealth disparity is due to the disproportionate access white families have had to housing.
Racism and capitalism have shaped policies and practices like zoning, racial steering, redlining, urban renewal, and subprime lending to create profit for some at the cost of dispossession for others. West Oakland bears the scars of these policies, but it also has a proud legacy of resistance.
The house on Magnolia Street was built in 1911, when Oakland was mostly white, on land that was once inhabited by the Ohlone people. The following year, the city designated West Oakland, which was right next to the port and the terminus of the transcontinental railroad, an industrial zone. When immigrants from Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal arrived, most neighborhoods had racially restrictive covenants that barred property owners from selling or renting to any group besides “Anglo-Saxon” caucasians. The newcomers were relegated to industrially zoned West Oakland.
Across the country, the real estate industry had already knit racism and capitalism together by declaring integration fatal to property value. From 1924 on, the National Association of Realtors’ code of ethics mandated that a Realtor should “never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … members of any race … whose presence will clearly be detrimental to any property values in that neighborhood.”
During the Great Depression, after half of the country’s homebuyers defaulted on their mortgages, New Deal legislation created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to bail out homebuyers and stabilize the housing market by providing federal insurance on future mortgages. Part of this effort involved creating “Residential Security” maps, made with input from local real estate agents, bank loan officials, and appraisers, to identify “safe” areas for banks to lend to homebuyers.
HOLC maps graded the “security” of neighborhoods on a scale from A through D, with A being the best and safest neighborhoods to issue loans, and D being the worst, or most hazardous. Areas that were “infiltrated” by “Colored” and “Oriental” people were immediately given a security grade of D and shaded red on the maps. The FHA would not insure mortgages in redlined neighborhoods. Without federal insurance, private banks largely refused to lend in these areas.
The FHA made the real estate industry’s racism federal policy in its underwriting manuals. The 1938 Underwriting Manual, like the ones before it, was obsessed with preventing the “infiltration” of “inharmonious racial groups.” The manual declines to explictly define “inharmonious racial groups,” and the word “Negro” is used only once, in the section on recording data on neighborhoods, but the intent is clear. The FHA refused to insure mortgages that would lead to “a change in social or racial occupancy” because that “generally [led] to instability and a reduction in values.” It also enforced school segregation: if children in a “good” neighborhood were “compelled to attend school” with “children of a far lower level of society or an incompatible racial element, the neighborhood ... [would] prove far less stable and desirable.”
Oakland’s HOLC maps were created in 1937. West Oakland was redlined. HOLC agents were instructed to record the “threat of inflitration by foreign-born, Negro, or lower grade population” for each area. For West Oakland, the agents noted “infiltration of Orientals and Negro, etc.” They noted that immigrants made up 20 percent of the population, African Americans 40 percent, and that “many” families were on relief. Under “Detrimental Influences,” they listed “smoke and grime from railroad shops and local industry” and “tenement tendencies.” In the clarifying remarks, the agents wrote: “parts of this area might be designated as a slum district.”
Ownership and residence records leading up to 1940 are spotty, but by that year, the Nakamura family was renting the house on Magnolia street for $27.50 a month. Harold Hideichi and his wife, Alice, were Japanese immigrants from Honolulu; their 3-year-old son, Harry, was born in California. Japanese immigrants faced intense discrimination across the country, including laws that prevented them from owning agricultural land and becoming citizens. In 1924, Congress banned Japanese immigration. Despite these legal and social barriers, Japanese Americans carved out lives for themselves, running over 6,100 farms on the West Coast and countless businesses in cities and towns. Harold Nakamura ran a grocery store in Oakland.
Everything changed with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. By March, internment was in full swing. In California, anyone who was at least 1/16th Japanese had one week to pack up what they could carry. Everything else had to be sold or stored. Nakamura, like other business owners, had to sell everything in his store in an emergency sale.
The Nakamuras and 10,000 other Bay Area incarcerees were held at Tanforan Assembly Center, a race track in San Bruno, California, and then transferred to Central Utah’s dusty Topaz Internment Camp. When the war was over, 120,000 Japanese Americans returned to stolen or vandalized homes, farms, and businesses.
White farmers and businesses had played a crucial role in pushing for internment. California corporate agribusinesses used the war to “satisfy their own lust for land while ridding themselves of competition from the state’s most productive family farms.” During internment, the Farm Security Administration confiscated Japanese farmland and transferred it to corporate agribusinesses for pennies. All told, Japanese Americans lost $1 billion to 3 billion (not adjusted for inflation) in property during internment.
The year after the Nakamuras were interned, Carter Alanders and Willia Mae Roberts, an African-American couple, bought the house at 2928 Magnolia Street. This pattern played out across the West Coast as African Americans migrating west began renting the former homes and storefronts of incarcerated Japanese Americans. As African Americans poured into Oakland, they were sequestered into West Oakland by redlining, the racial steering of real estate agents, and racially restrictive zoning.
On April 13, 1943, the Robertses signed a deed of trust for $2,650 with 6 percent interest and $50-per-month payments. In 1940, Roberts’s annual income from cleaning ships for Pan American was $1,352. The monthly mortgage payments would eat away nearly half his paycheck, but the couple had few options: Because they were black, they could only buy a home in a redlined neighborhood. Because they were buying a home in a redlined neighborhood, no federally insured loans with 5 percent interest rates were available to them. By 1939, federally insured mortgages made monthly mortgage payments cheaper than rent, but the Robertses were excluded from this benefit by the color of their skin.
This was not the first house Roberts had tried to buy in Oakland. Roberts was born in Leavenworth, Kansas—where his grandparents had sought refuge during the Great Exodus of 200,000 African Americans out of the South after Reconstruction’s collapse. He moved to Oakland in the first wave of the Great Migration and was working at the city’s Union Iron Works by 1917.
That November, he and his first wife, Flora, took out an indenture on 3544 Porter Street in East Oakland, a neighborhood the HOLC would grade as yellow, or “Definitely Declining,” in 1937. Their down payment was $10, their mortgage $800. Five- to 10-year mortgages with a “balloon” payment due at the end that covered the principal were common at this time. By April 1922, five years after taking out the indenture, Carter and Flora entered into a deed of trust, borrowing $1,000 from William A. Fitzmaurice (most likely for the “balloon” payment) at a 12 percent yearly interest.
This was a dangerous bargain. Not only did the loan have a high interest rate, but the trustees were also allowed to sell the property if Roberts missed a loan payment, was unable to pay the taxes, or failed to keep the house and property insured. The gamble he had been forced into by the color of his skin did not pay off. By 1925, the house was for sale for $3,000. In 1930, the Robertses were living with Flora’s parents in West Oakland.
In two generations, Roberts’s family had lurched across the country seeking basic protection of their civil rights. His second attempt to grab hold of the American dream paid off. By 1946, the house on Magnolia Street was his for good. He and Willia Mae lived there for the next four decades, the rest of their lives. The Robertses had come to rest, but tremendous change was about to convulse West Oakland.
When Carter Roberts moved to Oakland in 1917, African Americans made up 1.3 percent of the city’s population. By 1950, that share had climbed to nearly 23 percent, with over 64,000 African Americans crowded into West Oakland. They dealt with police brutality, absentee landlords, and dilapidated temporary war housing.
African Americans worked in the shipyards and docks, at the railroad terminus, and in military supply centers and factories throughout West Oakland. Pullman porters, who were the backbone of West Oakland’s fledgling black middle class, despite being dramatically underpaid and overworked compared to white manufacturing workers, were required by their employer to live west of Adeline Street.
Carter and Willia Mae lived two miles north of Seventh Street, the bustling business and cultural hub of West Oakland. During the day, cafes, grocery stores, cleaners, gyms, movie theaters, and pool halls along Seventh Street served the black community.
At night, music from over 15 jazz clubs—black musicians were not allowed to play in clubs in downtown Oakland—bathed the surrounding streets in sound. Seventh Street, and Slim Jenkins’ Place specifically, became the heart of the West Coast Blues, a new style that, compared to Chicago jazz, had a “slow, draggier beat and a kinda mournful sound.” B.B. King, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, and Charles Brown all played at Slim Jenkins’, which was known as the “the most celebrated black nightclub on the West Coast.” Esther Mabry, a waitress at Slim’s who opened Esther’s Orbit Room in the 1960s, called Seventh Street “the only place anyone would ever want to go.” But the music would be short-lived.
The city of Oakland had a different opinion of West Oakland than Esther Mabry did. In 1949, it declared the neighborhood its “sorest blight problem.” The city’s Redevelopment in Oakland report lamented West Oakland’s overcrowding, limited housing, and deteriorating buildings.
Hundreds of people in West Oakland had lost their jobs with the end of the war and the introduction of containerization technology in the port. Emptier wallets led to more crowded housing and a quieter Seventh Street. The city blamed African Americans for the “blight” in their neighborhood and pushed for redevelopment and urban renewal. It stubbornly overlooked the significant numbers of blocks and houses that were well-maintained. Above all, it turned a blind eye to the ways local and federal policies had created the so-called blight in the first place.
“Blight” is the ancestor of today’s “distressed.” It’s a euphemism, like the FHA’s “infiltrated” and “inharmonious.” “Blight” meant the same thing “hazardous” meant in the HOLC maps: African-American, mixed-race, or lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.
Realtors, racially exclusive zoning, racial covenants, and exclusive deeds had sequestered 80 percent of the city’s African-American population into West Oakland. The city had done nothing to hold the neighborhood’s absentee landlords accountable for maintaining their properties. It had also done nothing to help African-American homeowners overcome redlining and access loans necessary for home improvement and upkeep. Redlining made it very difficult to remortgage a house or take out a loan to repair, maintain, or bring a house up to code. This increased the rate at which homes owned by African Americans fell into disrepair.
Instead of reflecting on its role in creating a “slum” in West Oakland, the city scooped up federal funding from the Housing Act of 1949 and used eminent domain to destroy West Oakland homes, both “substandard” and “standard,” and build public housing that ultimately displaced many residents.
As urban renewal sunk its teeth into West Oakland, people began to fight back. In 1961, the city announced a plan of “total clearance” in West Oakland’s Acorn neighborhood. Fifty blocks of “substandard” housing would be razed and replaced with a housing project that would be too expensive for the current residents. Acorn was about a mile south of the Robertses and its population was 78 percent African American and 20 percent Mexican American. Nearly half of the households relied on welfare, social security, or pension. Over 500 people attended the Redevelopment Agency’s public hearing and spoke against the project, but the city moved on with the plan in 1962, demolishing 50 blocks and displacing nearly 9,000 residents. Construction did not begin for another five years. When the Acorn projects were finally completed in 1974, they only created 1,000 housing units.
In 1963, while weeds were growing in the vast barren lot next to their homes, the Oak Center Neighborhood Association (OCNA) formed. They fought to get the city to invest in another solution to “blight”: helping homeowners access the money they needed to maintain and improve their houses. Two hundred people attended a meeting in July 1963 where Lillian Q. Love, the association’s first chair, told the city’s Redevelopment Agency, “We are tired of being referred to as slums.”
OCNA won major victories. They forced Thomas Bell, the Redevelopment Agency director who had intentionally misled them about the city’s plans, to resign. He was succeeded by John B. Williams, the city’s first black redevelopment director. In 1966, Love became the agency’s commissioner. The following year, the city committed to preserving 70 percent of Oak Center’s houses. In No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland, sociologist Chris Rhomberg writes that Oak Center residents set a precedent for “indigenous organization within majority black areas” that “prefigured future political mobilization in West Oakland.”
In 1966, black church leaders and local neighborhood and civil rights groups formed Justice on Bay Area Rapid Transport, or JOBART, to fight the anticipated displacement the new West Oakland BART station would cause. JOBART demanded that BART provide market-value compensation for homes destroyed in construction, relocation assistance for those who were displaced, and a commitment to nondiscriminatory hiring practices. JOBART published its own paper, The Flatlands, and organized a 1,000-person march and rally at Lake Merritt in June 1966. The coalition won a temporary moratorium on evictions and forced BART to adopt an affirmative action hiring plan.
Urban renewal continued to churn through West Oakland. By the time Carter Roberts passed away in 1965, highways were beginning to encircle the neighborhood, cutting it off from the rest of the city. Six hundred families were uprooted to make way for the Cypress Freeway, which was completed in 1958. That same year, the city demolished 400 Victorian homes (many with a Sherman tank) to make way for a sprawling postal redistribution center. Like Acorn, this land lay barren for seven years before construction began. In 1968, 500 houses and four churches were destroyed for I-980 construction, which cut West Oakland off from downtown.
When Willia Mae passed away in 1987, an investment company bought 2928 Magnolia Street. With Seventh Street shuttered, the ambient noise of the neighborhood was now BART trains and trucks on the highways.
In 1994, Betty Mack tried to buy the house on Magnolia Street. She took out a $63,000 subprime mortgage with AAMES Home Loan Co., a Los Angeles-based subprime lender. Mack, who had moved to Oakland from Texas with her family as a child in 1959 and grown up among the barren lots and dust of urban renewal’s incessant demolition and construction, was an African-American home health care worker in her mid-40s who fostered babies with special needs.
AAMES and other subprime lenders specialized in “loans to risky borrowers, charging higher interest and fees to compensate.” Subprime mortgages made traditionally risky loans to borrowers with low credit safer by packaging them with more stable loans in diversified bonds. As these loans became prevalent in the 1990s, lenders zeroed in on formerly redlined neighborhoods and black and Latinx homebuyers. After half a century of being systematically denied access to credit, these neighborhoods and populations were now being aggressively targeted by predatory speculators. Mack lost the house to foreclosure in 1996. Soon, millions of other marginalized communities would have the same experience.
By 2006, African Americans had subprime loans at three times the rate of white borrowers. When the housing bubble burst in 2008, foreclosures were heavily concentrated in historically redlined communities like West Oakland.
As 9.3 million homes went into foreclosure, private equity firms and real estate investors like Lone Star Bank and Bayview Asset Management used the funds from the federal government’s $17 trillion bank bailout to snatch up these homes, making massive profits off of dispossession. Often, they took advantage of poorly designed federal policies like bulk foreclosure auctions. Private-equity giant Blackstone bought more than $5.5 billion worth of single-family homes to rent and then flip when prices rose. On a local level, this looked like Blackstone buying 1,400 homes on a single day in 2013.
In August 2019, Catamount Properties, a subsidiary of Wedgewood, bought the house on Magnolia Street from a local absentee landlord for half a million dollars. The cycle had run its course: Redlining had left the house vulnerable to predatory subprime lenders. Betty Mack’s foreclosure had opened the door for real estate speculators to add the house to their portfolio and prepare to flip it. With every house flipped, West Oakland would continue to gentrify.
The machine of racialized capitalism was humming along smoothly, cranking out more profits, crushing West Oakland in a new way—until the Moms 4 Housing moved in that November. They are now buying the house through the Oakland Community Land Trust, which will use a mix of public and private funds to purchase the house and then lease it back to the moms. The house will be permanently affordable.
This is a small victory in a sea of structural violence. Homes Guarantees, national rent control, and social housing, which combines permanent affordability, social equality, and democratic resident control, are growing in popularity. As the COVID-19 crisis escalated in mid-March, a group of homeless families inspired by Moms 4 Housing moved into 12 vacant houses across Los Angeles. Housing as a human right has entered the public discourse on a larger scale, but it can’t be a human right until the capitalist and racist systems that have shaped the house’s history are dismantled and replaced with a system where people are valued over profits.
Katie Ferrari is an independent journalist based in Oakland, California.
Special thanks to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project for their help with research, and Moriah Ulinskas, who has been organizing and digitizing the Oakland Redevelopment Agency’s extensive photograph collection. The header and Acorn photographs featured in this article are from the ORA’s collection.