Occupy Oakland Takes on Foreclosure Crisis

Oakland, Calif. – Last May, Oakland resident Margarita Ramirez lost her home to foreclosure. While the mother of two applied to Fannie Mae through Bank of America for loan adjustments, she soon found herself renting the very home she and her family once owned.

On Tuesday Ramirez addressed about 100 activists outside the West Oakland Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station as they prepared to occupy another recently foreclosed property. The rally was timed to coincide with a national Occupy Our Homes day in conjunction with the nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement.

“The People’s Duplex”

“What used to be a vacant two-bedroom duplex is now the people’s duplex,” declared Causa Justa/Just Cause, a local social advocacy group that helped the Ramirez family in its struggle with the bank. As soon as they arrived, marchers began pasting Occupy posters both in and around the property on 10th and Mandela Streets in West Oakland.

A “Welcome Home” sign hung from the living room mantle.

“We’re holding this home as collateral,” said Causa Justa member Sanyika Bryant, who helped organize the rally in support of Ramirez and her family. Protestors say they plan to remain in the house until the bank agrees to return Ramirez’ own home. Ramirez, they note, is now paying more in rent than she did on her mortgage.

Bryant also noted the bank agreed to allow Ramirez to remain in her home as a tenant thanks to pressure from Causa Justa. But he added, “Banks aren’t in the business of being landlords.”

He continued, “Banks assume the lease agreement in foreclosed homes where tenants are living. But they don’t pay for water or garbage collection.” Hence, Bryant said, the remaining tenants end up living in blighted conditions.

Bryant added that his group is pushing the city to impose a fine on banks that own such properties.

According to a 2010 report released by Causa Justa and the Alameda County Health Department, 14,941 property owners in Oakland received a notice of default on their mortgages between 2006 and 2009.

That figure amounts to about one in four homeowners in the city, notes the report, titled “Rebuilding Neighborhoods, Restoring Health: A Report on the Impact of Foreclosure on Public Health.”

40 Percent Facing Foreclosure Are Renters

According to Bryant, a high percentage of Oakland foreclosures involve rental properties. Nationwide, estimates by the National Low Income Housing Coalition show that some 40 percent of families facing eviction due to foreclosures are renters.

Thaddeus Gurduy, 24, stood pouring charcoal into a small grill set up outside the occupied property. Part of the Occupy Oakland “tactical action committee,” Gurduy said he left behind his “life on the street” once he got involved with the Occupy movement.

“The police can’t do anything because the property is owned by the feds,” said Gurduy. He went on that until the bank moves to eject the protestors, they’re going to “help as many people as they can while they’re there.”

Activists with Causa Justa said they plan to hold workshops on homeowner and tenant’s rights in the 121-year-old Victorian, once the home of Gayla Newsome. She lost the house to foreclosure earlier this year. Newsome was among the group occupying her former home on Tuesday.

Her eviction is part of what residents in this historically African American neighborhood see as an ongoing trend toward gentrification. Census data from 2010 show nearly 25 percent of Oakland’s black residents have left the city, fleeing high crime, unemployment and foreclosures—all issues the Occupy movement says it aims to address.

“It’s an expansion,” said Boots Riley of the Occupy movement’s shift toward the foreclosure crisis. Riley, a thirtysomething African American with a large afro and mustache, describes the foreclosure issue as “symptomatic of a system that cannot provide for the people.”

Subprimes Pushed on Minorities, Seniors

The system’s failures came to the fore with the housing collapse in 2008, due to the subprime mortgage scandal. Nell Myhand from Causa Justa reminded those at the Oakland rally that the flimsy subprime loans were largely pushed on blacks, Latinos and seniors, who were targeted by predatory lenders. She also condemned the government for neglecting to increase affordable housing.

The national Occupy Our Homes day spanned 20 cities across the country, and came a day ahead of Occupy protests in Washington, D.C., where up to 70 arrests have been made. San Francisco’s Occupy encampment was raided the night before. Organizers have already established a new camp outside the city’s federal building.

West Oakland residents, meanwhile, cheered in support of yesterday’s group as it traversed the three blocks from the West Oakland station to the Newsome home. Despite reports of growing frustration with the Oakland occupiers, several drivers honked in support.

James, who declined to offer his last name, stood watching as the procession passed his way. Cheering on the marchers, he said he appreciates the efforts of the Occupy activists, adding that Oakland is “the people’s city.”