Nearly 40 people rallied outside of the Wells Fargo branch on 12th Street and Broadway on Thursday, imploring the bank’s executives to change corporate policies they say are increasing home foreclosures in the Bay Area.
The group—a racially diverse number of residents from Benicia, San Leandro, Oakland and other Bay Area cities—chanted in front of the bank’s entrance, “Wells Fargo, you’re no good, stop foreclosures like you should!” Foreclosure-themed Christmas carols were also sung in front of the towering building during the nearly two-hour demonstration, like the one set to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that went: “On the Sixth Month of Default my true love said to me: ‘The bankers are not happy, we ought to save our home, our friends are all around us and we’ve gained back our dignity.’”
The Oakland demonstration was part of a national day of protests organized by the Home Defenders League, a network of nonprofit organizations geared toward ending home foreclosures. The Bay Area chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Engagement (ACCE) set up the downtown Oakland rally to mark the one-year anniversary of the League’s Occupy Our Homes tactic, a strategy of protesting foreclosure notices by “squatting,” or illegally living, on the property until bank officers agree to modify the homeowner’s payments or loans.
Claire Haas, an ACCE leader, said that banks are mishandling the $25 billion that was given to the nation’s five largest mortgage providers—including Wells Fargo—last February by the federal government to relieve struggling homeowners. A press release issued by the Department of Justice at the time states that the money was given to the lenders, as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan put it, as a means of “forcing banks to reduce the principal balance on many loans, refinance loans for underwater borrowers, and pay billions of dollars to states and consumers.”
But banking practices have not changed, Haas said. “Many of the banks have not been using the money for principal deduction,” she said. “They have been using it for short sales instead, using it to push people out of their homes rather than keep them in their homes.”
Representatives from Wells Fargo could not reach be reached for comment.
Thursday’s rally began at 4 p.m., two hours before the bank’s closure, causing the business to close early. A few employees could be seen milling about inside the bank, but no one inside addressed the crowd.
Protesters attached yellow and black “Foreclosed” labeled caution tape to the bank’s entrance. Another person posted the name and phone numbers of bank executives outside the bank’s glass doors. Meanwhile, a camping tent labeled “Occupy Our Homes” was symbolically pitched on the concrete pavement in front of the bank’s only entrance.
Each person in the Oakland crowd said they either knew someone who had a home foreclosed upon, had experienced foreclosure themselves, or had successfully fought against a foreclosure notice that appeared on their home’s door. This included Helen Duffy, a 59-year-old West Oakland resident who attended the rally, she said, because many foreclosed homes in West Oakland have been abandoned by the corporate entities that regained possession of them. This has resulted in blocks lined with empty houses, plus more illegal dumping in Oakland’s low-income neighborhoods, Duffy said.
“Our community has been devastated by the foreclosures that have been going on,” Duffy said. “The people who are losing our homes—we’re just regular hard-working people. We don’t have time to spend hours and hours on the phone and getting the runaround and being tricked into a lot of really crazy wasteful negotiations that don’t lead us anywhere.”
Duffy said she bought two homes as a retirement investments, and now they have become liabilities. Despite taking out “really nasty loans” to pay for them, she said, she has struggled to manage the payments. “There’s really no way to keep them unless I want to work until I’m 91 years old, and that’s my situation,” she said.
At one point during the rally, Pamela Hall, an ACCE member who said that she almost lost her home, asked people in the crowd to call the vice president of Well’s Fargo and tell him their concerns. Cell phones were immediately whipped out of pockets and handbags and the dialing began.
One of the callers was Pamela Hart. The North Oakland house that Hart has lived in for 58 years is set to be repossessed by Wells Fargo on January 8, she said. Hart said she has been trying to get a loan modification that would reduce her payments or extend the payback time, but to no avail. “When the economy went bad, I went bad,” Hart said, adding that the death of family members had caused her to fall behind on her payments, putting her home in jeopardy of foreclosure. “I’ve been trying to struggle to get back up and once I was able to get back up, I called the bank and asked them if I could start paying my mortgage. They told me no,” she continued.
A few steps away from the rally, business for Wells Fargo continued as usual as a few customers slipped their bank cards into the yellow and red-logoed ATM machines. A 29-year-old downtown Oakland resident named Garrett, who declined to give his full name, had stopped by to use the ATM. He said he didn’t know what the rally happening beside him was about, but his banking experiences matched those of the protesters.
“I have had a home foreclosed by Wells Fargo. In February of this year, actually,” he said. He said he’d owned a two-bedroom home in Benecia, but after his job cut his hours and his adjustable rate mortgage increased, he could no longer afford the payments and the home was foreclosed upon. Now he lives in a studio apartment, he said. “I have nothing to show for it,” he said about the money he invested in his house.
Protester Pamela Hall said that her main goal at the rally was to alert homeowners that they can fight against foreclosure and win. When her Oakland home was facing foreclosure, Hall said, the ACCE team wrote modification request letters to the bank on her behalf, helping her get a principal reduction on her loan.
“I just want people to know that they’re not alone,” Hall said after the protest. “They’re not by themselves. I’m telling you all my business and I don’t care. Because, you know what? I’m going home.”