Occupy movement targets foreclosed homes

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Activists gather in front of 1417 10th street in West Oakland.
Shawn Gaynor

Throughout the Bay Area on Tuesday (Dec. 6), Occupy activists and housing advocates launched what they said will be an ongoing effort to place families back into their foreclosed homes, seizing bank-owned homes to put pressure on the banking industry to cooperate with homeowners in loan trouble.

In San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, activists highlighted the nation's foreclosure crisis by occupying foreclosed homes as part of the Occupy movement's national day of action against foreclosures. Occupy Oakland activists said the tents are gone in downtown Oakland, but the move toward house occupations represents a new phase for the movement.

“I am here fighting for my home,” said Margarita Ramirez, addressing a crowd of 150 supporters at the West Oakland BART station. Ramirez said her family fell behind on their mortgage payments after her husband was laid off at the onset of the recession. The Ramirez family applied for a loan modification under the federally subsidized Home Affordable Modification Program(HAMP) hoping for some relief, but their lender, Bank of America, denied their request. Though HAMP is a federal program, it is administered though individual mortgage lenders.

According to Ramirez, with time left before her foreclosure, Bank of America urged them to explore other options to save their home. Then, inexplicably, Bank of America sold her home to Fannie Mae, leaving her family out of options despite what Ramirez says is Bank of America's later admission to the error and willingness to work with the family. Fannie Mae however has held firm that the sale was valid, leaving the Ramirez family in an uncomfortable comprise of renting their own home.

In order to pressure Fannie Mae on behalf of the Ramirez family, activists with Occupy Oakland and Just Cause seized a vacant Fannie Mae owned foreclosure at 1417 Tenth street in West Oakland.

“This house is owned by the federal government, who we pay taxes to,” said Occupy Oakland activist Thaddeus Guidry, who said that he had struggled hard to get by during the recession. As he stood over a grill cooking hotdogs for the crowd gathered in the yard of the newly occupied house, he said he had found new inspiration and hope after becoming part of Occupy Oakland.

“Tonight will be the first night here in the house,” said Guidry. “This is my home now. We hope to house eight people here.”

Fannie Mae, which was effectively foreclosed on by the U.S. Treasury in 2008 under a process know as conservatorship, has received $169 billion in federal bailout money and remains under federal control.

The house on Tenth street is modest but spacious, with electricity and water. Downstairs, Just Cause is getting ready to start an eviction defense clinic. Just Cause organizer Maria Zamudio told the Bay Guardian that the group holds regular eviction defense clinics in San Francisco and Oakland, but the freshly occupied house in West Oakland would serve as a community space that people can drop into to learn their rights.

“We have been doing eviction defense for a long time. Since the recession, we have seen a change to tenants being pressured to leave by banks after landlords lose a house to foreclosure,” said Zamudio. “It is important for tenants to know that they do not need to leave a foreclosed property. The tenant has more rights in these situations then the homeowner.”

Only blocks away, Gayla Newsome stood in front of her house at 1536 Adeline St with another crowd of supporters from Occupy Oakland, and housing advocates from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment(ACCE). She has been out of the house for six months after the foreclosure, leaving her and her children to stay with family in an overcrowded situation as the house sat vacant.

“This is the moment I take my house back. I'm a little scared, a little nervous, but I have to do this for my kids and grandkids. I have to do this for the other people who are going through this,” said Newsome.

Newsome said Chase Bank repeatedly denied receiving her HAMP loan modification paperwork. When she finally sent a copy by certified mail, they acknowledged the application and denied her eligibility in the program.

The eviction came swiftly. Unaware of the looming eviction, and believing she still had time to save her house even though Chase was outside the HAMP program, Newsome was called by her children while at work the morning of July 19.

“The kids were given 10 minutes to grab what they could before they were put on the sidewalk in their pajamas by the bank representative and the sheriff. They called me frantic,” recalled Newsome.

The recession has been hard on West Oakland. One out of 236 houses in West Oakland are in foreclosure, with many more families hard-pressed to hang on. Housing advocates say that foreclosures destabilize entire neighborhoods, as surrounding property values plummet and blight spreads.

“I'm not just here personally to reclaim my house, I'm here to say it is time to reclaim this neighborhood,” said Newsome, who laid the blame for the neighborhood's sharp decline at the feet of the banks.

Residents of the neighborhood gathered for the rally shared stories of realtors cruising the neighborhood stopping to photograph even properties that are not in foreclosure or for sale.

“This was not an accident, this is redlining,” said Nell Myhand of Just Cause about West Oakland's housing troubles.

“It's time to take this to the politicians,” said ACCE organizer Shirley Burnell. “If they are not willing to help us, then they got to go. We will take them to the streets.”

Outside, activists signed up for shifts to help defend Newsome's home from eviction, and started an emergency phone tree in case of trouble.

“The tents are gone but we are still here!” yelled an Occupy activist from the crowd as home defense clipboards circulated.

“I appreciate everyone doing this with me,” said Newsome. “That's what Occupy is all about. We will take our homes back one at a time – no, five at a time.”

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