Black and white photo of Dominique and her two young children. She holds one of them in her arms as the other one stands on the group and waves at the camera.
Dominique Walker and her two children. (Courtesy of Moms 4 Housing)

Moms 4 housing co-founder Dominique Walker is running for the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. The Berkeley Rent Board is a governing body made up of nine commissioners who are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations that implement rent control, enacting regulations, hearing petitions and appeals filed by tenants and landlords, and setting fines and fees for landlords and tenants. Unlike the Oakland Rent Board, whose members are appointed by the Mayor, the Berkeley Rent Board is elected by voters. It also has more power than the Oakland Rent Board: While the Oakland Commissioners mainly conduct appeal hearings and make recommendations to the city council, the Berkeley Commissioners have more power over setting and enforcing laws as well as fair rental prices. 

Walker grew up in Oakland, then moved to Mississippi for school. After moving home, she was priced out of the city, which drove her to houselessness. In November 2019, she took over a vacant investor-owned home in West Oakland with a group of other unhoused mothers and their children. By the time they were evicted in January, their movement had drawn international media attention and countless supporters.

Walker is running with a pro-tenant slate called the “Right to Housing Slate for Rent Board.” The other members of the slate are Leah Simon-Weisberg, an attorney who represented Moms 4 Housing and is the current Vice Chair of the Berkeley Rent Board; Mari Mendocana, a current Rent Board Commissioner who has experience with homelessness; Andy Kelley, the current Vice-Chair of of the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee who served as the co-chair for Berkeley’s Measure O and P campaigns; and Xavier Johnson, an attorney who works as a tenant advocate at Centro Legal de la Raza. They are endorsed by Mayor Jesse Arregin, Councilmembers Bartlett, Harrison, Robinson, Hahn, and others.

Street Spirit caught up with Walker to talk about how she transitioned from leading the renowned Moms 4 Housing movement to running for the Berkeley Rent Board. We talked about her platform, why she is running, and the equity issues that make it challenging for formerly homeless people to run for elected office. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Why are you running for the rent board?

[Shortly after moving to Berkeley], I was able to meet a lot of the older Black residents that had been here for years and they talked about the displacement in Berkeley. Traditionally when you think of Berkeley, you think of this diverse place, a perfect mix of folks, everyone in harmony. But there’s racism here in Berkeley, a history of redlining, the same things we deal with in Oakland. When I talked to the elders, they said there was a bigger population of African Americans here that were displaced, just like in Oakland. Work needs to be done here and I’m a resident of Berkeley now so I feel like I should be in the fight for housing here for folks.

[In] the city of Berkeley, their board is able to have some leeway more than other rent boards [in other cities]. I’m excited about being able to work on policy. I can still organize and do direct action, and then work with the Berkeley City Council on things that are affecting tenants here.

What do you hope to achieve if elected?

My main focus, especially during the pandemic, is keeping folks housed and continuing to get folks off the street. Something else that’s a problem is access. There’s affordability and there’s also access: things like the application process that makes it impossible to get housing; You have to make 3 times the rent to get an apartment here; The credit checks they do to folks who don’t have any money. It’s those type of things. When I was homeless I felt like I was being scammed every application I put in and credit check that I paid for when I already knew my credit score. We know the Rent Board can’t directly fix all these things, but we [want to] push on our officials at the federal levels.

How would the rent board change if your slate was elected?

We want to start off protecting folks during and after the pandemic, those are our main focuses right now. There are policies in place to help tenants but no one is enforcing them, so we plant to do that as well. And in the future we want to work on making housing more environmentally friendly. But our main thing is the pandemic and the potential tsunami of evictions coming.

How are you preparing to potentially have to rule against renters even though that is who you are running to support?

My approach is making sure first the tenant is taken care of. I care about fairness, but I’m always going to be pro-tenant when the situation is appropriate. It depends on what the issue is, but if it’s about someone being put out I’m always going to be pro-tenant and coming up with a solution that’s best for the tenant.

What has been your personal experience with renters’ rights and what’s the link between renter’s rights and homelessness?

There is a direct link. I deal with tenant rights every day at ACCE, that’s what we do. Right now, we have folks on rent strike. We have the state and federal moratorium on evictions right now, but it ends on January 31. You have until March 1 to pay the balance. If you don’t have the money now you’re not going to have it then. We have to get the debt cancelled. If we don’t, tenants are going to go from tenants to homeless.

What are some barriers you see for homeless and formerly homeless people to run for office?

I personally see all kinds of barriers to running for office. With homelessness, being a Black woman, a single mother. I feel like there’s so many barriers. When we talk about being inclusive, [think] about running, campaigning, raising funds. People who can go to their networks. Right now, I’m having a problem fundraising because the people I’m on the ground with don’t have funds. And that’s why we say equity and not equality, because there needs to be structures in place if you want those most impacted to be part of the solution.

I have a one-year-old and five-year-old. I’m campaigning, going to endorsement meetings, working on Moms 4 Housing, and I have a Kindergartener who is doing virtual learning so I’m a teacher too. So when we talk about equity it’s a little different. It’s me not being able to [attend] everything, but showing up when it’s important. I’m experiencing that full force right now and I feel like me even being in this space is advocating for myself and formerly homeless people in my situation trying to run for something.

How does equity play a role in whether unsheltered and formerly homeless folks can vote this year?

Just the access to a lot of the information. If they don’t get the internet on their phone, or if they don’t know what’s going on, they won’t know. Even how you vote and things like that.

How did your experience with Moms 4 Housing lead you to running for the Berkeley Rent Board?

It directly stems from me being part of Moms 4 Housing. Just to see and combat this struggle made me jump into the fight head first and want to be part of the change. When I moved to Berkeley and saw same exact thing happening here it made me want to be part of the solutions.

Being here, being directly impacted [by houselessness], and seeing the whole bay area knowing Oakland and Berkeley have the strongest renter protections but other places in the Bay don’t…other organizers and officials learn from Oakland and Berkeley, so hopefully what we do here can have an affect everywhere.

Moms 4 Housing talked a lot about de-commodifying housing. How would you fight for this goal on the Rent Board?

While on the Rent Board we believe housing is a Human Right. We want the California constitution to recognize that. We think housing should be social and we have to look at places where those things are working and come up with ideas. I think right now we could do that because so much has changed, and we’re realizing the way this country is doing things is not right and it’s time for a change.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.