Taking a Stand 

Many East Bay residents have been fighting foreclosures with the help of community activist groups that put pressure on banks.

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Lin gave the anti-foreclosure movement, especially ACCE, much of the credit for Oakland's active programs. "They held the city's feet to the fire," she said. "They organized monthly meetings that kept us on track and enabled the community organizations to see how the city was changing its approach." She added, "I also give the city a lot of credit for being willing to change our approach and work collaboratively" ­ — with community organizations, city agencies, and banks.

ACCE has been organizing against foreclosures since the crisis began. Two years ago the group joined with OCO and the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 to campaign for state anti-foreclosure laws. Around the same time, Causa Justa/Just Cause, a longstanding tenants' rights organization, opened a homeowners' clinic and focused on protecting tenants in foreclosed buildings.

A year ago, a new player emerged when activists in Occupy Oakland marched from City Hall to the West Oakland home of Gayla Newsome to help her re-occupy her house after being foreclosed on and evicted. Occupy and ACCE members took shifts as a round-the-clock guard against further eviction efforts.

Newsome, a director of the nonprofit Girls Inc. who had lived in the house for fifteen years, had taken out a second mortgage to help her daughters with college tuition. Then, in the economic downturn, Newsome said her job "went to part-time, then to zero." After she became unemployed, Newsome asked Chase to modify her primary mortgage, but negotiations dragged on.

Forced to cut somewhere, she stopped paying the smaller loan, believing that the lender, Residential Capital Mortgage Income Fund, could not legally foreclose on a secondary mortgage. But Residential Capital foreclosed anyway, evicted the family in July 2011, and sold the home to a developer.

Occupy and ACCE activists sat in Newsome's home for weeks, backed up by an online letter-writing and phone-call campaign. Supporters in San Diego visited Residential Capital headquarters and won its agreement to stop efforts to repossess the house. "They deeded the title back in June," said Newsome, "but Chase didn't give me a mortgage modification until a month ago."

Now, Newsome said, "every time I have an opportunity to help, I'll be doing that, because I know what it meant when others helped defend my home." Last week she took a shift in the "re-occupation" of the foreclosed Alameda home of Jodie Randolph, a self-employed accountant and cancer patient.

Leading the 24/7 occupation of Randolph's house is the Occupy Oakland Foreclosure Defense Committee, formed after the successful defense of Newsome's home. Occupy and ACCE activists, fellow cancer patients, neighbors, students, and other homeowners facing foreclosure are all taking shifts. "When we went in [to Randolph's house] the neighbors came out and started feeding us, thrusting $20 bills into our hands," said Occupy Oakland activist Brooke Terpstra. "Everybody feels this. Everybody knows there's no security.

"The fight is not just about Jodie," Terpstra continued. "It's an opportunity to organize the community. Her house is the base. We go out with flyers, go door-to-door, hold movie nights — to draw others out to the issue."

The Foreclosure Defense Committee is perhaps the most constructive result of the Occupy Oakland movement. But over the past year, it and other activist groups have faced a growing challenge that threatens to worsen the foreclosure crisis and force even more people out of their homes.

When banks foreclose, they face the problem of having to resell property while taking a substantial loss. But over the past few years, speculators and investors have made it easier on banks and mortgage companies by snatching up foreclosed properties, doing cosmetic repairs, and then reselling — or flipping — them. In some communities in Oakland that were hit hardest by foreclosures, "the speculators came in and bought up whole neighborhoods," Brooks said.

Forty-two percent of the 10,000-plus properties foreclosed in Oakland from 2007 to October 2011 were bought by investors rather than homeowners, according to a 2012 report by the Urban Strategies Council, a nonprofit that has closely followed Oakland's housing trends. The share of homes bought by investors has been growing, the report stated, and 93 percent of the homes purchased by investors were in lower-income flatlands neighborhoods that suffered the highest rates of foreclosure.

A "speculators ordinance" introduced last summer by Brooks and passed by the council requires investors who buy foreclosed homes to register them with the city, complete a building inspection, and bring the property up to code. The city will maintain a database of "non-owner-occupied property" and fine violators.

A new Wells Fargo policy also helps keep investors from crowding out would-be homeowners, said Oakland anti-foreclosure specialist Lin. Recently, the bank began rehabbing foreclosed homes before selling them. "Investors are hoping they can get a home at a lower price and flip it," said Wells Fargo's Foley, so they stay away from higher-priced refurbished houses. As a result, 93 percent of Wells Fargo's home sales are to owner-occupants.

Wells Fargo's "First Look" program also gives owner-occupants and community organizations first crack at buying foreclosed properties, before they're offered on the open market, Foley added. Lin said she is encouraging other banks to take steps to promote owner-occupancy.

Meanwhile, ACCE is going door-to-door in investor-owned buildings, organizing tenants. The organization also wants large-scale investors to help fund foreclosure-prevention efforts and make a percentage of their properties affordable to lower-income tenants and homebuyers.

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