Foreclosures Are Making People Sick

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OAKLAND, Calif. – For 22 days earlier this year, Gilbert Aguilar lived without gas and electricity in his one-bedroom rental apartment here in East Oakland. The building went into foreclosure and the bank that took it over was his new landlord.

“The banks have to be good landlords,” Aguilar, 50, said at a press conference outside his home Thursday. “They have to make sure that properties are safe and habitable.”

He was among other tenants of foreclosed housing in Oakland and San Francisco at the press conference, organized by community group Causa Justa/ Just Cause (CJJC) and the Alameda County Public Health Department.

Dozens of mostly African Americans and Latinos stood in the sweltering heat, holding signs in English and Spanish that said, “Protect Tenants Right to Stay,” and “Foreclosure is a Health Issue.” They chanted, “Cough, cough, achoo, achoo, foreclosure is bad for you.”

The foreclosure crisis is affecting tenants and homeowners, according to the public health agency. When banks repossess a home, they seldom bother to maintain it before putting it on the auction block, and the consequences can affect residents’ health, according to a study by Just Cause last summer that was funded by The California Endowment.

The study looked at how the high rate of foreclosures in select East and West Oakland neighborhoods had affected the health of their residents. A survey of 388 residents concluded that “foreclosures make us sick.”

Between 2006 and 2009, one in four mortgages in Oakland, affecting 14,941 property owners, began to enter into foreclosure, according to the report, titled, Rebuilding Neighborhoods, Restoring Health.”

Alameda County Health Department Deputy Director Dr. Sandra Witt highlighted the report’s findings.

Among them were:

· Almost one-third of tenants in foreclosed properties said they were living in sub-standard conditions with health risks due to mold, pests and utility shut-offs.
· Rates of stress, depression and anxiety were more than two times higher among foreclosed residents.
· Nearly 90 percent of foreclosed residents were struggling to make ends meet. Many have to choose whether to pay for food, health care or utility bills.
· The rate of foreclosure is twice as high among the unemployed as those working full-time or part-time.

“Right now we’re standing on a hot spot of home foreclosures that are leaving a legacy of stress,” said Dr. Anthony Iton, vice president of The California Endowment’s Healthy Families Initiative. “And just as Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf and exacted a toll on vulnerable communities, we’ve created hazardous social conditions in this community.”

Unfair lending practices by banks, noted Liana Molina, an organizer with California Reinvestment Coalition, an nonprofit advocacy group, are to blame for this. In Oakland, such banks as Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Chase were responsible for more than half of all foreclosures in 2008, she said.

Iton believes that a concerted effort by CJJC, the county and his organization could bring about changes in policies that affect people like Aguilar.

As for Aguilar, after trying unsuccessfully for months to get Deutsche Bank to pay for his utilities, as per the rental agreement he had with his former landlord, following CJJC’s intervention, the bank finally agreed. But he said he’s not sure how long it will be before his luck runs out.

“I got a notice from PG&E yesterday that they are going to turn the power off,” he said.

 

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