Wedgewood, the real estate investment firm that is best known locally for their role in a standoff with a group of homeless Oakland mothers two years ago, has reportedly reached a $3.5 million settlement with the state of California over its eviction practices statewide.
An operation with national reach, Wedgewood's core business involves residential real estate speculation and house flipping — or, as they describe it on their website, "the purchase, revitalization and resale of single-family residences throughout the United States." One of those purchases back in 2017 was a home at 2928 Magnolia Street in West Oakland, which housing activists decided to make an example of after Wedgewood sat on the property and left it vacant for two years amid a regional housing and homelessness crisis.
In November 2019, several homeless mothers and their children moved in and occupied the property, launching an effort they called Moms 4 Housing that was meant to highlight the role that real estate speculation plays in our housing crisis. About seven weeks of legal wrangling ensued in which Wedgewood sought to have the squatters removed, and meanwhile the story gained national attention and the mothers had widespread support across Oakland and beyond.
The company still went ahead and had the sheriff forcibly remove and arrest two of the mothers in a pre-dawn raid in January 2020. But the demonstrators had made their point.
"We’ve been in his house for 50 days of shelter for us and our children," said organizer Dominique Walker at the time, speaking to the New York Times. "That’s a win and it’s a start and people are starting to realize that, ‘Hey, housing is a human right or it should be.’ So that to me, is the absolute success."
About a year after that occupation by Moms 4 Housing, Wedgewood sold the Magnolia Street house to the nonprofit Oakland Community Land Trust, which pledged to use it as shelter for mothers experiencing homelessness.
But in an unrelated case, the state of California sought to crack down on Wedgewood's alleged practices of harassing tenants and evicting them at other properties around the state. And as the East Bay Times reports today, state Attorney General Rob Bonta has reached a $3.5 million settlement with the firm, about $2.75 million of which will go back to tenants who were improperly evicted.
"As we battle this housing crisis of epic proportion, our housing laws, especially our tenant protections, have never been more vital," Bonta said in a statement. “Unfortunately, even amid this crisis, there are some who pursue profits over the interests of families."
Wedgewood remains a major real estate holder in the Bay Area and beyond, and it's not like the state can litigate house-flipping and speculation out of existence. NBC Bay Area sought to track the extent of Wedgewood's local property holdings, and they came up with at least 125 houses that they owned through a web of LLCs across the Bay Area — we know that the company last year offered to sell a portfolio of 100 homes to the Oakland Community Land Trust, but that doesn't sound like something one non-profit can afford.
NBC uncovered over 300 lawsuits across jurisdictions where Wedgewood is an active investor, most of them "unlawful detainers in which the company was attempting to evict a tenant or former owners living in a home it recently purchased." 275 of these suits were in San Bernardino County alone.
"It’s almost like they’re an eviction machine as much as anything else," said Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), speaking to NBC in January 2020. "That’s what they’re selling. They get the properties, kick people out, and sell them empty."
One plaintiff, Maria Hernandez, sued Wedgewood back in 2016 for attempting to evict her from a home she'd rented for many years.
According to Hernandez's complaint, "Defendant Wedgewood has directed its employees and its agents to aggressively clear out foreclosed homes, while concomitantly directing its employees and agents to refrain from repairing the substandard conditions within these properties until all occupants have been vacated and/or been forced to vacate. Where such pressure tactics are unsuccessful, Defendant Wedgewood’s eviction department assigns these tenant-occupied properties to local eviction attorneys who uniformly commence 'no cause' post-foreclosure eviction proceedings that illegally circumvent the just cause eviction protections."
It is likely that these practices were exactly what Moms 4 Housing wanted to bring greater attention to. Dominique Walker, as we learned in the course of that seven-week protest last year, was an employee of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a group that organizes housing protests and issues reports on vacant units in California.
Given the vastness of Wedgewood's investments, this $3.5 million penalty amounts to less than a slap on the wrist. KQED reported earlier this year that Wedgewood went on a "spending spree" during the pandemic, buying up homes in foreclosure and others — a total of at least 276 properties across California.
One of those was a single-family home in disrepair in Pinole occupied by Jocelyn Foreman, a previously homeless grandmother. The home was lost to the bank after the daughter of its deceased original owner failed to make mortgage payments, and Wedgewood purchased it at auction for $600,000. Under a new state law, SB 1079, occupants of homes sold to corporate profiteers, like Foreman, have the right to match winning bids to purchase their homes themselves. The Northern California Community Land Trust sought to help Foreman and raise enough money to buy the home and keep Foreman housed there, but they were skeptical that they'd raise enough to keep payments affordable for her.
State Sen. Nancy Skinner has said she hopes to establish a state fund that will aid homeowners in purchases made under SB 1079. But that doesn't yet exist.
Image via Moms 4 Housing