Dowling Street between 84th and 85th Avenue in East Oakland is unsettlingly quiet. Piles of garbage, a single car, and multiple "for sale" signs decorate this once-noisy flatlands street. For one of the block's few remaining tenants, the silence, which is broken only by loud police sirens or gunshots, serves as a dreary relief from the violent and illegal activity that increasingly defines the block he calls home.
Over the last two years, Calvin Brown has watched his neighborhood become a ghost town. Across from the small house where Brown lives with his girlfriend and fourteen-month old son, there is a five-unit apartment complex with only two tenants remaining and a complex with eight apartments now housing only one resident. "Some are moving out, some choosing to leave, some being foreclosed on," Brown said. "But this place is pretty empty." The result is a stretch of East Oakland filled with ringing silence.
Foreclosures have created a domino effect of disappearance here on Dowling Street. As coverage of the foreclosure crisis has tended to focus on the eastern suburbs of the East Bay, often overlooked are the inner-city neighborhoods of East and West Oakland — which also have proven to be dangerously vulnerable to foreclosure and its devastation.
"East and West Oakland are ground zero for foreclosures," said Anne Omura, executive director of the Eviction Defense Center. "The cultural diversity in Oakland is really endangered."
A disproportionate number of those affected by the crisis are low-income families and the elderly, said Maeve Elise Brown, executive director of Housing and Economic Rights Advocates in Oakland. As a result, the character of entire communities is being sacrificed, she said. "We are seeing established communities getting wiped out," Brown said. "And it is tremendous pain for a lot of older folks who just don't have an option."
According to Michele Byrd, Oakland's acting deputy director of housing and community development, 5,677 properties in the city fell into foreclosure between January 2007 and April 2009. And the rate climbed precipitously last December, so the official numbers don't include another 7,500 reported notices of foreclosure that have not yet completed the process.
Banks are ill equipped to handle the role of landlord for all these properties. Lawyers representing homeowners and lenders agree that lenders do not want to invest either time or money in maintaining properties — especially if the property is still someone's home. Ishmael Amin of the Amin Law group, which represents several major banks in California foreclosure cases, said his lender clients "have been overwhelmed, absolutely overwhelmed." In his firm's cases, 10 to 15 percent of banks generally take on the role of landlord and allow tenants to stay. But the rest result in eviction, even if the tenants have been paying rent and are able to continue doing so.
While tenant eviction is often considered the most pressing part of Oakland's foreclosure crisis, another lingering consequence is the sea of vacant homes left behind by evicted tenants. Foreclosed homes can rapidly devolve into eyesores or blight. And as communities deteriorate, the potential for violence grows. Yet as these growing ghost towns slowly contribute to the destruction of established neighborhoods, the persistent citizens of these areas are struggling to keep a sense of dignity. Residents, police officers, and city officials are all fighting desperately to maintain order.
Snapshots from the Oakland flatlands paint a picture of the growing desperation many residents are feeling as the foreclosures spread. On Holly Street at 87th Avenue, a group of local residents hanging out on the corner pointed out vacant homes with scarlet-letter "For Sale" signs across the street in both directions. "It just gets worse — it's like there is nothing here," said Justin Agualo, who was socializing with friends and playing with a young neighbor.
"My friend left and now people go into that place, breaking glass," added his seven-year-old companion, Dai-Janae Mitchell, pointing to a vacant home that Agualo and the others said was probably bank-owned. "I miss her," Dai-Janae said. "We used to play all the time."
Or consider Ney Avenue, just east of MacArthur Boulevard, between 73rd and 75th Avenue. Four 'for sale' signs have popped up over the last year, and the effect it has had on the block is tangible. "It makes it tough," said resident Marvin Franklin. "Would you want to live on a block where five police cars are driving up regularly?" he asked as sirens from multiple police cars rang loudly.
Samuel L., a resident of Ney Avenue for 52 years who declined to provide his full name, said the crisis has forced families to come together. "What happens is family has to come to family with these loans falling through — a niece moving in here, cousins moving in with cousins. Family here is coming together when everyone is struggling."
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