Hometown Heroes is an ESSENCE print magazine series profiling changemakers in local communities who are working toward economic and racial justice. | Photography by Dana Lixenberg
Carroll Fife had no plans of running for office. Four years ago, she was strategizing with a handful of Black mothers in Oakland who found themselves confronted by armed deputies in riot gear. Fife had organized a small group—they called themselves Moms 4 Housing—and they had occupied a vacant house owned by corporate investor Wedgewood Properties to protest flipping practices and unaffordable housing. A judge ordered their eviction on January 10, 2020 and officers from the Alameda County sheriff’s office arrived the following week, with AR-15s in tow and handguns drawn to carry out the eviction.
“It was stressful,” Fife recalls to ESSENCE. “Every single day it was a challenge, because we never knew when the sheriffs would be coming. The night before the eviction occurred, we were debating who would address the media and who would stay in the house.”
activists Misty Cross and Dominique Walker.
Fife and another Moms 4 Housing cofounder, Dominique Walker, spoke to the press on eviction day. They had to counter a narrative driven by Wedgewood, which characterized the mothers’ occupation as stealing. “Wedgewood has done everything since this group broke into the company’s property and took it over illegally,” the company’s spokesperson, Sam Singer, said after the eviction. “That didn’t make them happy.”
“It wasn’t just the opposition in the media,” Fife says now. “It was also people in Oakland who were like, ‘You guys can’t be stealing from the community in this way.’ But this home is not owned by the community. It’s owned by a multimillion-dollar corporation.”
Wedgewood had been called a “displacement machine” by one housing advocate. The company had filed hundreds of eviction cases in the Bay Area, according to reporting from news outlet The Intercept.
Occupying the home wasn’t merely about the mothers’ personal housing insecurity. It represented the larger problem of housing being treated like a financial tool and not as a fundamental right.
The first page of the group’s website notes that the women “tried working through the system… We work multiple jobs, and we still can’t afford a home for our children. This system doesn’t work for people. It only works for banks and corporations.”
“They came in like an army for mothers and babies,” Walker told news media when the moms were evicted. “This is just the beginning.”
It was indeed only the beginning. Both Fife and Walker subsequently ran and were elected to serve in local seats: Fife became a City Councilmember, and Walker has since served on the Berkeley Rent Board. Both have used their time in office to advocate for affordable housing.
“Though I had never intended to run,” Fife says, “I asked all of the moms who lived in West Oakland if they would run for office, and if they would run on the issues of housing and homelessness as the primary platform.”
Fife stepped up when everyone else declined. She had been an organizer in Oakland well before forming Moms 4 Housing, and young people from the community urged her to seek the Oakland City Council seat. “I was pushed by my youth, my babies. They were like, ‘Mama Carroll, go forward—we got you.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do it.’”
She won her election in November 2020, defeating her closest opponent, a two-term incumbent, by nearly 20 percentage points.
Councilmember Fife was once homeless herself, and the need for affordable housing was a primary feature of her campaign platform. “I’ve always been housing insecure since I’ve been in Oakland,” she says, even though she has served as a professional nonprofit director. The idea for Moms 4 Housing came about, Fife says, when four different women on her current and former staff confided to her that they, too, were experiencing housing insecurity.
“After the last woman who came into my office to rest on my futon said she attempted to commit suicide because she didn’t have a place to stay, I brought everybody back together,” she says, describing the origins of the group. “And I said, ‘Listen, this is too much for my heart to bear. I don’t have people. I ain’t got no money, but I know how to organize. And I have networks that will support us.’ That’s where it started.”
The mothers ultimately reached a deal with Wedgewood Properties, and the company sold the home to a nonprofit in May 2020. Now known as “Mom’s House,” the property is under the ownership of the Oakland Community Land Trust and serves as transitional housing for other moms and their children.
Moms 4 Housing continues to organize mothers in Oakland, “with the ultimate goal of reclaiming housing for the community from speculators and profiteers,” according to the group’s website.
Fife reinforces that message as a member of Oakland City Council’s District 3. “Homelessness is ridiculously high in every urban center in the country right now,” she asserts. “And it’s because we see housing as a commodity, versus as a necessity. And my vision is that we need to change that.”
On her campaign website, Councilmember Fife lists her policy priorities, which include a statement that housing should be a human right. What does that look like?
“It means that every single person who is a resident of this country would have a safe place to call home,” she says. “They wouldn’t have to worry about eviction, foreclosure or any of the circumstances associated with housing insecurity. We would make sure that buildings were kept up. We would make sure that whether or not you were an elder or a college student or a person with disabilities, you had a place to stay.”
“If we just look outside, we can see the status quo is not working,” Fife adds. “In fact, it’s eating us alive. It’s a crisis—and if we don’t get it under control, we will all be crushed under the weight of it, and I refuse to allow that to happen. But we must educate everyday people about their power to make change—and that’s what I’m attempting to do.”
A version of this story appears in the Jan/Feb 2024 print issue of ESSENCE