Four years ago, Pamela Hall was all set. She had a management job in a high-end real estate firm, her husband worked for the federal government, her kids were almost grown, and she owned her home in San Leandro. Then came 2009.
First her variable-rate mortgage payment shot up from just under $2,000 to more than $6,500 a month. Then her husband was laid off from his ten-year job with the US Department of the Interior. Her ailing mother moved in, and she had to take custody of her teenage cousin.
Hall tried to request a mortgage modification from Bank of America, but got nowhere. "I would send ten documents and they swore they only got seven," she said. "When I sent the other three they said I had missed the deadline or didn't fill them out correctly or they didn't get the package at all.
"I know about real estate paperwork," Hall continued. "It's been my life. So when you tell me you don't have my paperwork, I know it's baloney."
When the bank rejected her loan-modification requests, Hall tried to get help from nonprofit and state agencies, but by then, she, too, had been laid off from her job as the real estate crisis deepened. The agencies told her the family's income — from her husband's housekeeping job at Kaiser — was too low for any mortgage. And then the bank began foreclosure proceedings against her.
Finally, Hall told her pastor she was going to lose her house and that the bank had scheduled a trustee sale. Her pastor told her to call the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).
ACCE is one of several community organizations fighting foreclosures in Oakland and other East Bay communities with tactics that include providing information, staging protests and phone-call campaigns, and blocking evictions with round-the-clock "occupations" of foreclosed houses. ACCE and other grassroots groups also campaigned hard for the California Homeowner Bill of Rights, which went into effect January 1. This package of legislation bans some of the most sinister foreclosure practices, such as "dual tracking" (foreclosing while the homeowner is negotiating for a mortgage modification) and "robo-signing" (mass production of foreclosure documents without adequate information). The new laws require banks to give customers a "single point of contact" and specific documents, and allow homeowners to sue their banks.
Hall's first ACCE meeting made a strong impression on her. "I'm African American," she said. "There were Asians, Spanish-speaking people, people from different neighborhoods, with different banks, but the stories were all the same."
ACCE started fighting for Hall's home, bringing dozens of supporters to "occupy" different Bank of America branch offices, demanding the staff fax a letter to the institution's headquarters requesting a stay of the sale, a mortgage modification, and "a person I could talk to on California time," Hall said.
The bank protests were peaceful, Hall said. "No one wanted to harass or be harassed — we had senior citizens, children," she said. But the "banks locked their doors as if they were being robbed." When customers complained, she explained why they were there. "Eighty-five percent went away with a positive attitude," she said.
After a half-dozen bank "occupations," the resulting media coverage, and a phone-call campaign, Hall said she finally got a representative to work with her. Last June, the representative told Hall she had found a new federal program that would give her a mortgage modification and reduce what she owed the bank by $320,000, thereby allowing her to stay in her home.
Now, Hall has more time to fight for other homeowners. "That's part of the ACCE philosophy," she said, "You get support and you support other members. It makes me feel like I'm making a difference in this world. It's like drinking a Peet's cup of coffee — shaking with natural energy. That's how I feel — just great!"
The national foreclosure rate has declined from its peak, and some reports suggest the housing crisis is over. But hundreds of East Bay homeowners face foreclosure every month. New threats to home ownership are arising in neighborhoods devastated by foreclosure. And 29 percent of California mortgage-holders are still "underwater" — owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth on the market, according to a September report by Santa Ana data firm CoreLogic.
And, increasingly, East Bay residents facing foreclosure have turned to activist groups like ACCE to put pressure on banks and help them from losing their homes. The community activism is paying off.
Representatives from ACCE, Causa Justa/Just Cause, and the Occupy Oakland Foreclosure Defense Committee say their direct-action tactics have saved dozens of homes in the last year alone. "Just filling out requests for loan modification is not working," said Causa Justa/Just Cause Program Co-Director Dawn Phillips. "The tactics we've evolved — media, community pressure — are the only way people are saving their homes."
Oakland property owner Bill Owens is convinced his story proves that point. Owens is a karate grand master who has owned and run Cascos Martial Arts Academy on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland for forty years. In 2006, he took out a second mortgage to repair the leaky roof and help his three sons with college costs. He agreed to pay a 12.5-percent interest rate, and was assured that he could refinance at a lower rate in three years. But by then, the loan had been sold three times, refinancing was impossible, and he was stuck with unaffordable monthly payments of $6,600.