Pushing back

Reoccupied foreclosed Bayview house becomes a home base for the 'foreclosure fighters'

Dexter Cato (left), with ILWU brothers, reoccupying his home March 16

Dexter Cato has no right to be here.

He's standing on the corner outside the house he bought in 1990. His four kids, still teenagers, grew up here. He was living here when his wife, Christina, passed away following a car accident in 2009. Next door is the house he grew up in, having spent all his life on Quesada Avenue, in the wide streets and residential friendliness of the Bayview.

Still, the bank says Cato doesn't belong here anymore, evicting him when his home went into foreclosure in August 2010. Yet Cato and his community not only fought back and reoccupied the home last month, they have turned it into a community center and base of operations from which to fight other foreclosures in the area.

The house, at the corner of Quesada and Jenning, is draped with banners, such as "Banks: no foreclosures!" and "keep families in our homes!" In the rain on March 16, when they were unfurled on the property that has remained vacant for nearly two years, surrounded by neighbors and friends, Cato moved back in. It was a gamble and an act of civil disobedience. Now they feel festive; it's been a month, and no one has shown up to tell Cato he has to leave.

It has become a home base for a who's who list of "foreclosure fighters," the name taken on by Cato and others who have, in recent months, gone to extreme means to prevent banks from foreclosing on their homes. There's Vivian Richardson, who got her foreclosure rescinded after 1,400 emails to her loan servicer. There's Alberto Del Rio, who was ignored and told that his paperwork was lost during a Kafka-esque two-year loan modification attempt, only to win a meeting with top Wells Fargo executives last month after Occupy Bernal got behind his cause. There's Carolyn Gage, who took a cue from protesters downtown and occupied her Bayview home in November.

Those taking on the foreclosure crisis certainly have a big task ahead of them. Since the market collapsed in 2008, there have been 12,410 foreclosures in San Francisco, according to data from RealtyTrac as compiled by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). The neighborhoods with the most foreclosures are Ingleside-Excelsior/Crocker Amazon, Visitacion Valley/Sunnydale, and Bayview-Hunters Point, with more than 1,000 in each neighborhood. But the number of home foreclosures are in the hundreds in every neighborhood in San Francisco.

Despite the pandemic, many San Francisco residents say they felt distinctly alone in the events surrounding receiving notice of default.

"I've lived in Noe Valley since 1972," said Kathy Galvess, an activist we spoke to Cato's basement. "I didn't know anybody who had been foreclosed on."

When she got her eviction notice and, hooking up with ACCE and Occupy Bernal, faced her situation and the extent of the crisis, she wondered if her neighbors knew something she didn't.

"I asked around the neighborhood, no one had any idea," she said. "That's how the banks get away with it. We suffer in silence."

Carolyn Gage echoed that sentiment. "A while ago, foreclosure was shameful. But now it shouldn't be. It's happening in a systemic way, so people are getting over that shame," she told me and several neighbors March 24 during a barbecue at Cato's house.

This shame came in part from the illusion that the onslaught of seemingly affordable home loans from the housing bubble's height were, in fact, affordable.

"The easy money fueled the ability for people to refinance every one or two years. A lot of people did that and just lived on it. Certain people used it, some abused it, others got caught up in it," said CJ Holmes, a real estate broker in Santa Rosa who became interested in understanding the meanings of the crisis when the value of property she owned plummeted in 2008.

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