December 17, 2017


The Story of Housing Rights Inc.

Once there was a single woman with children who tried to rent an apartment in the East Bay but was turned down because she had children (twins!). It was in the late 1970’s, and that kind of discrimination was legal then– but not for long. The woman was Sharon Mosley. Instead of accepting the status quo, Sharon vowed to make child discrimination against the law. A law student when she began to fight discrimination, she partnered with BANANAS the East Bay’s child care referral agency, and with a small Action grant (which happens to have been awarded by now Assemblywoman Loni Hancock) she started the Housing Rights for Children Project in 1979. So began Housing Rights, Inc. and its sometimes rocky journey as an advocate and defender of rights to equal opportunity in housing. Like “the little engine that could,” Housing Rights, Inc. has never wavered from its mission and has grown into a strong and effective regional fair housing agency.

Sharon Mosley’s first task was to get Oakland to adopt and Berkeley to enforce strong ordinances prohibiting discrimination against children in rental housing– at that time no state statute or court case prohibited child discrimination! By 1980 Oakland had adopted a comprehensive anti-child discrimination ordinance and, along with Berkeley began funding enforcement of those laws as part of their efforts to enforce other fair housing laws. The little Housing Rights, Inc. engine took another step up the mountain in 1982 when it established the East Bay’s first attorney referral panel for fair housing cases.

Sharon moved on and our beloved Marianne Lawless became our engineer in 1984. Like Sharon, Marianne devoted her heart and soul to Housing Rights, Inc. Under her guidance the agency began advocating to prevent discrimination against affordable housing and to fight discrimination against all the so-called ‘protected classes’. She then moved Housing Rights, Inc. out from under Banana’s wing, incorporating the program in 1987. But then suddenly and sadly in 1996, Marianne died, presenting the organization with it’s most formidable crisis.

But the little engine kept going. Marianne’s long time friend and Housing Rights, Inc. consultant Wanda Remmers stepped in to “temporarily” keep the fire burning. Years later she’s still the engineer! And she’s conducted the agency to its current place on the mountain providing fair housing and tenant protections throughout the East Bay.

Housing Rights has evolved from the vision of one determined woman in a small storefront outpost into a regional guardian for fair housing and tenants rights. Guided by strong women from the beginning, Housing Rights now handles more than 5000 complaints from tenants each year in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. From a scrappy one woman program, it’s multi-faceted staff now provide investigation, advocacy, mediation and education services from four offices. The little engine is not so little anymore. And although we’re still a long way from the mountain top where equal housing dwells, we don’t just “think we can,” we know we can.

Prepared by Mike Rawson, founding Board Member and President of HRI’s Advisory Committee