So far, Wall Street's reckless behavior and the resulting epidemic of foreclosures have not been major issues in the presidential campaign. But one year after Occupy Wall Street focused public attention on the disastrous predatory practices of major banks, a grassroots movement to resist bank foreclosures and evictions is gaining momentum around the country, and is hoping to inject the issue into the national debate and make it a priority for the next president and Congress.
As part of that crusade, Ana Casas Wilson is one of a growing number of American homeowners who are refusing to leave their homes when faced with an eviction notice. Last week Wilson, who turned 50 on Monday, received a final five-day notice to vacate from Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's office, after she desperately but unsuccessfully tried to get US Bank (which owns her mortgage) and Wells Fargo (which is servicing the loan) to accept her mortgage payments.
Wilson, who still resides in the same home she grew up in, lives with her husband James, a school employee, and her mother, a retired factory worker who now works as a home care worker. (Her teenage son, a freshman at Cal State Long Beach, just moved out). In addition to having stage-four breast cancer, Wilson suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair.
Wilson today informed Baca that she will refuse to leave her home if his deputies try to evict her tomorrow, when her five-day "notice to vacate" expires. Wilson will be joined by friends, neighbors, and fellow members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and other organizations, who have pledged to stand with her.
At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Wilson and her supporters will hold a press conference at her home at 8968 San Juan Avenue in the gritty blue-collar suburb of South Gate, near Los Angeles. Then they will caravan to Sheriff Baca's headquarters in Monterey Park to present him with a letter requesting that he not enforce the foreclosure eviction order by Wells Fargo and US Bank.
"This is Breast Cancer Awareness Month," said Wilson, who missed making a mortgage payment when she was in the hospital undergoing treatment for her breast cancer. "I can't believe that Wells Fargo, US Bank, and Sheriff Baca would take my family's home away because I was ill and in the hospital."
Wilson and her supporters will also call on Wells Fargo and US Bank to explain why they want her out of her home despite her family's stable income and its ability to make mortgage payments.
At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wilson and her supporters will attend the South Gate City Council meeting to request support from the city, and then pitch tents for the night in front of her modest home. (For more information about the protest, call (213) 863-4548 extension 210).
The family has lived in their tiny 949 square foot house -- which, thanks to plummeting housing prices brought about by the Wall Street mortgage collapse, is now worth no more than $175,000 -- since 1975.
In 2009, Wilson was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Her husband quit his night job as a security guard -- and reduced the family's income -- to tend to her. While Wilson was in the hospital and undergoing chemotherapy, the family fell behind on its mortgage payments and Wells Fargo started to foreclose on their property.
Once the family's financial situation stabilized, they repeatedly attempted to renegotiate their mortgage with Wells Fargo, but the bank eventually began rejecting their payments and foreclosed.
In April, after Wells Fargo repeatedly refused to help the Wilsons stay in their house, Wilson and her supporters from ACCE, SEIU and other activist groups showed up in front of the $5 million San Marino mansion of Tim Sloan, Wells Fargo's senior VP and chief financial officer, to demand that the bank stop foreclosure proceedings on Wilson and her family. Wilson brought a check for her mortgage payment, which she hoped to deliver personally to the Wells Fargo executive.
Instead, she got arrested.
While the protesters carried signs and chanted, "Wells Fargo, shame on you!" in the street in front of Sloan's home, Wilson crossed a police cordon in her wheelchair to deliver the check to Sloan. She knocked several times, but nobody opened the door.
According to the Los Angeles Times: "Just before 8 p.m., about 90 minutes into the demonstration, police formed a line around the home, declared the assembly illegal and ordered the group to move 75 feet up the street."
Wilson refused to go and was taken to San Marino police headquarters with the assistance of San Marino Fire Department paramedics. A trial is scheduled for November.
So far, Sheriff Baca hasn't sent his deputies to evict Wilson and her family. Last year he refused to evict Rose Gudiel, another ACCE member in similar circumstances, in the face of mounting protests by community activists and in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. Baca obviously doesn't want TV cameras showing up to film his deputies throwing people out of their homes, particularly if their supporters have linked arms to resist the evictions, as has happened with Gudiel and her supporters. After protesters went to the Bel Air home of One West Bank's CEO Steven Mnuchin, and the bank's Pasadena headquarters (where Gudiel and others were arrested), the bank renegotiated the Gudiel's mortgage on more reasonable terms.
Wilson is hoping the mounting publicity about her plight will result in a similar outcome. She does not want to be among the 4 million Americans who have lost their homes to foreclosure in the past few years, often as a result of circumstances beyond their control, including banks' illegal and/or predatory lending practices. Another 3.5 million homeowners are in the foreclosure process or are so behind in their mortgage payments that they soon will be confronted with losing their homes.
In the past six years, housing prices nationwide have fallen by a third. Families have lost nearly $7 trillion of home equity.
About 15 million homeowners are "under water" -- they owe $700 billion more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Many economists agree that the most effective solution would be for the federal government to require banks to renegotiate mortgages for "underwater" owners to reflect the new market values of their homes. The Obama administration has created several programs to help families facing foreclosure, but has resisted the idea of requiring banks to repair the damage they caused. The bank industry lobby, including Wells Fargo, has fought to stop any legislation mandating "principal reduction." Instead, they want any mortgage re-sets to be entirely voluntary.
Wilson is one of those many homeowners whom Wells Fargo refuses to help, which is why she wound up on CFO Tim Sloan's doorstep, trying desperately to pay her mortgage so should can stay in her home, and why she is now pledging to resist eviction, even to get arrested, if Sheriff's deputies try to oust her from her home.
While the Obama administration's efforts to stem the foreclosure crisis have been half-hearted, residential candidate George Romney has no plan at all. In an interview last October with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, in a state with a serious foreclosure epidemic, Romney said: "Don't try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom." Then he suggested: "Allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up and let it turn around and come back up."
Shortly after this interview, Romney further displayed his faith in the free market at a round table discussion at a hotel in Tampa, Fla., another state where housing prices have plummeted and has been hit hard by foreclosures. Candice Tammey told Romney about her situation, a plight familiar to millions of American families. She lost her job and asked her bank to negotiate a loan modification so she could keep paying her mortgage. The bank refused, so Tammey, out of options, stopped paying her mortgage and faced being foreclosed. "It will get better," Romney told her, according to CNN's online video stream of the event. "It will not always be like this."
California is ground zero in the battle between homeowners and Wall Street. ACCE, SEIU, and their allies (including groups like the National Council of La Raza, the Courage Campaign, and others) have won important victories on several fronts -- keeping families in their homes by pressuring banks to rewrite mortgages, getting cities to require banks to pay for the costs of cleaning up vacant foreclosed properties, and getting the state legislature to enact the Homeowners Bill of Rights to protect consumers from banks pulling the foreclosure trigger too quickly.
Nationwide, community groups, unions, and faith-based groups are laying the groundwork for a major assault on Wall Street greed. They intend to expand their protest actions by focusing on a handful of major banks that are responsible not only for the epidemic of foreclosures and declining home values, but also the implosion of family debt (due to outrageous student loans) and government austerity (due to declining property values and revenues).
And should Obama win a second term, groups like the Home Defenders League, a national network of activist groups of which ACCE is a part, expect to push the president and Congress to adopt regulations to require banks to reset mortgage loans (principal reduction) so that payments align with the reduced value of their homes. The Home Defenders League estimates that homeowners' monthly savings, if spent on consumer goods and services, would generate a million jobs a year.
"This is about more than helping homeowners stay in their homes," explains ACCE's Amy Schur. "This is about holding Wall Street accountable, fixing the economy and getting the government on the side of consumers, not bankers."
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, was recently published by Nation Books.