Occupy’s Other Target - Winning Back Homes One at a Time

Occupy’s Other Target - Winning Back Homes One at a Time

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The No. 24 bus stops a block and a half from my house, and I ride it regularly en route to points north or downtown. But never until today, Saturday December 5, never in the 40-plus years I have lived in San Francisco, have I taken this bus in the opposite direction, south and east into the Bayview Hunters Point district. That’s where most of San Francisco’s African-Americans live, their number dwindled to just four percent of the city’s population. About 1,300 homeowners in the Bayview are now facing foreclosure.

I am heading for an action to defend the home of a great-grandmother who has just lost the home she has owned for 38 years. Four days ago she went out to drop off a great-grandchild at school and, upon returning, found that the lock on her door had been changed. Bank of America had sold her house at auction even while she believed she was still negotiating a loan modification. The new owner is a real estate investment company.

With the loss of the house, Josephine Tolbert, 75, also lost her living. Besides caring for two great-grandchildren, she had a licensed day care center in her home. Locked out, she asked if she could enter to pick up medicine and diapers, but her request was denied, she says.

Tolbert had fallen behind on her payments during a time of illness (cancer) and family difficulties. In California, if a payment is more than 60 days late, the lender can demand the entire amount of the mortgage, plus attorneys’ fees and, if that demand is not met, file a notice of default and start foreclosure proceedings that lead to public auctions on the steps of City Hall. Title is usually transferred quickly inside, at the office of the Recorder of Deeds. The lender is not required to notify the homeowner of the published date of sale, which can occur on any weekday. Up to 60 homes were auctioned off one recent day, says Grace Martinez of the Association of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a group working for a moratorium on foreclosures and legal reform of bank practices.

Since the economy tanked in 2008, more than 12,000 homeowners in San Francisco have faced or undergone foreclosure, especially in low-income neighborhoods such as the Bayview, a last refuge for African-Americans in this high-priced city with a chronic housing shortage.

During the so-called real estate bubble, unscrupulous lenders enticed longtime property owners who had paid off their mortgages, as Tolbert had, to take out new ones they could not afford. Now, amid the financial meltdown, these homeowners are being tossed into the street. Their tragedy is an opportunity for speculators—as the Great Depression was—for it enables them to acquire properties for a song.

The Bayview has been a target of real estate developers for some time, especially since the Third Street light rail line was completed in 2007, providing reliable public transit to downtown. High-income commuters to Silicon Valley might like to live here, were it not for the presence of the current residents, with their many problems.

My friend Christie told me about Josephine, for she too lost her home to foreclosure, after losing her job with a publisher. Her husband was lying in bed upstairs, dying of lung disease. He had only a few more days to live when Chase Bank auctioned off their home of more than 40 years on the steps of City Hall. Christie, too, thought she was still negotiating when the auction took place. The first she knew of it was when a man appeared at the door and introduced himself as the new owner.

Christie and her husband lived in my neighborhood, Noe Valley, where property values are among the highest in the city and have dropped little or not at all during the current financial meltdown. A speculator got her house for far less than it was worth. Christie is now among those who are trying to help Josephine Tolbert get her home back.

As my bus arrives at its last stop, Third Street and Palou, I see maybe 30 people, milling around on the corner, beside one of the mature palms recently installed in huge planter boxes along the rail route. “No More Foreclosures.” “Occupy the banks. Make the banks pay” urge signs. I find a sign and hold it with two hands in the driving wind. “We are the 99 percent.” At least seven police cars are parked nearby. A couple of officers stand at the edge of the gathering, others are across the street beside a corner convenience store, and near the Bank of America branch half a block away. We will be walking to the bank.

Before we set off, Tolbert, a tall and vigorous woman, and a few other elderly women facing foreclosure step up onto the planter box to speak briefly under blowing palm fronds. “They didn’t plant these for us,” a woman standing next to me whispers. “Each one cost $6,000.” Then we walk.

”Walk!” someone calls out. “We do not march, we walk.” A march requires a permit.

This action, and similar ones taking place across the country, are part of the Make Banks Pay Campaign launched on March 7 in Washington while the attorneys general of all 50 states were meeting in hopes of creating a common strategy to stem the tide of home seizures. Among the campaign’s goals is a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions until the banks agree to reduce loan principal and negotiate terms that would enable homeowners to stay. ACCE organized today’s event in cooperation with Occupy San Francisco.

The bank is locked, though we see people inside. Two policemen stand in front of the glass doors. After several knocks and no response, someone reads the “Notice of Default” the group has come to present. “…Bank of America, you are in default under a deed of trust held by the American people….” One of the policemen agrees to ask someone to speak with us. He knocks, is admitted, returns. The door opens slightly, a man appears, takes the paper presented, closes the door.

That’s it for today. Our numbers were not impressive, but several similar actions are taking place and more will happen tomorrow. I feel as though I have been part of a ceremony more than a protest, a ceremony affirming the power of us the people.

By mistake, I board the wrong bus, and that turns out to be providential. No. 57 takes me up winding residential streets that offer gorgeous views of downtown and the bay. As we arrive near the top of a hill, the future of the Bayview is dramatically visible. Crumbling barrack-like public housing, some of it boarded up already, stands next to houses that would fit comfortably into an affluent city neighborhood or suburb.

The Bayview was once a vibrant working class neighborhood. When urban renewal drove blacks out of the Fillmore district, many moved to the Bayview. Back then, government funded the removal of poor people directly, now the big banks, enriched with taxpayer bailout money, do the job. Then as now most people are told that this is progress. A columnist recently wondered in the “San Francisco Chronicle” where the city’s black people had gone. He did not mention the foreclosures.

Yet something hopeful is afoot. We are now beginning to find out what we can do together. The first Friday after the action in the Bayview, Tolbert’s supporters gathered in front of Roti Bistro, an Indian restuarant on West Portal Avenue, which is co-owned by Ash K. Gujral, who bought Tolbert’s home for True Compass LLC. Shortly after, Gujral agreed to meet with Tolbert and ACCE. After the meeting on December 12, Gujral’s attorney, Jak Marquez, said: “We are trying to obtain a win-win situation for everyone. The terms are confidential.”

“They were great enough to sit down and negotiate with us after what we put them through,” Martinez said. “This wouldn’t have happened without the amazing support for Josephine from other foreclosure fighters and the community. But,  Bank of America created this [foreclosure disaster],” she added. “Josephine is not alone, and there are other banks. We are now taking it to the next level.”

Rasa Gustaitis is an independent writer and editor.