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Fighting foreclosure in East Oakland

Bruce Mirken is conducting what seems like a high-profile auction in New York City.

“As you can see,” he says to the gathered crowd, “we’re auctioning this lovely Manhattan luxury condo that was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Blankfein back in 2008 for $26 million. I wish you could see the lobby of this building. It’s bigger than some small countries!”

But Mirken is not actually an auctioneer. He’s standing on the steps of the Alameda County courthouse leading a protest. Mirken works for a nonprofit called the Greenlining Institute, and he’s here to make a point: that while millions of families have lost their homes to the financial crisis, wealthy CEOs like Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein have made huge profits.

People in the crowd are happy to play along with the mock auction.

“We’re going to ask for an opening bid of $100,” Mirken continues, “do I hear $100?”

After a woman in the crowd makes a bid of $12.50, Mirken calls out, “Twelve dollars and fifty cents? We can do better than that, folks! We could house several homeless families in here.”

He eventually closes out the sale at $550.

It’s hard not to notice the other group of people gathering behind him. They’re here for the real auction, of real foreclosed homes, that takes place on these steps almost every day. The demonstrators here today are interested in that group, too. For them, it’s not just important to know who moves out of a neighborhood. They also want to know who moves in.

“That has implications not only for the housing stock itself, but also for the social cohesion of the neighborhood,” Carolina Reid, of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, says. “Who’s going to be living in those neighborhoods going forward?”

Reid researches the impact of foreclosures in low-income and minority neighborhoods. She says investor-owned properties aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But when homes are vacant or poorly-maintained, they can attract crime and drugs, regardless of who owns them. It’s bad for resale value, and bad for communities. Reid says that’s the worst-case scenario.

“In the best case scenario, which is what I prefer to think about,” she says, "we see this as an opportunity to purchase some of those homes under the Neighborhood Stabilization Program and really renovate them for affordable home ownership opportunities, so that we get families back in those neighborhoods, living in those homes.”

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program – or NSP – sends federal money to local governments so they can buy and renovate foreclosed homes. In 2009, Oakland awarded $5 million in NSP funds to the Oakland Community Land Trust. Anne Griffith is the Land Trust’s executive director.

“We’re buying the least desirable houses,” Griffith says, “the ones that have sat on the market a long time and that investors have passed over.”

Griffith says the Land Trust would eventually like to buy 200 Oakland properties and resell them to low-income families. The process goes like this: the Land Trust buys both a house and the land underneath it, but what they sell you is just the house. Practically speaking, you wouldn’t notice anything different – the house would still be yours. But when you’re ready to move, you sell the house back to them, and they resell it at an affordable price.

The Land Trust has bought 17 houses so far, but they’ve only finished renovating six. Griffith sometimes visits the properties that are still in progress.

As she pulls up to one house on Cherry Street in East Oakland, she says the renovation process is slow-going.

“We keep painting over the graffiti, hence the brown paint,” Griffith says. “It’s a canvas otherwise, you know?”

But graffiti isn’t their only problem. Griffith had heard that there was a squatter using the house, and when she goes to check it out, she finds someone living there and has to ask him to leave. 

The house is not in good shape. It’s dark – most of the windows are boarded up – and there are little piles of shattered glass on the floor. The walls are crumbling, the bathroom smells awful, and there’s no running water. But it’s clear someone has been living here. There’s a sleeping bag and a teddy bear in one of the bedrooms, and the stairwell smells like old cigarettes. Griffith makes a quick call to her contractor, Fred Mackay.

“I just met our squatter over at Cherry,” she says on the phone. “I’m hoping this house is on your schedule for boarding and replacing locks today?”

Griffith says just knowing about the squatter is actually a good sign – someone in the neighborhood had told Mackay about him. Another neighbor, she says, wants to buy the house once they fix it up.

“There are definitely folks who are interested in being a part of rebuilding community,” she says. “I think people do appreciate that’s part of what this is about. It’s not just a house, it’s also about participating in your community and being a part of change.”

Even if the Land Trust does eventually buy 200 properties, there are still thousands of foreclosed homes throughout the city. But other initiatives are cropping up all over the Bay Area. Tenants’ rights groups have campaigned to make sure the water stays on in foreclosed rental homes. Cultural associations and church groups are working to connect bank representatives with families seeking loan modifications. And real estate agents are holding workshops to help people stay in their homes.

After locking up at Cherry Street, Griffith drives around the corner to another Land Trust house. This one’s done being renovated, and it couldn’t be more different from the first: white walls, clean hardwood floors, lots of air and light. A family’s going to move in soon – people who know the neighborhood. It won’t stop the foreclosure crisis, says Griffith. But for this home anyway, it’s a new start.

Since this story originally aired on February 16, 2011, Anne Griffith has left the Land Trust; she now works with Enterprise Community Partners in San Francisco. Carolina Reid now teaches at UC Berkeley. Meanwhile, the Land Trust bought 17 single-family homes; they have rehabilitated 9 and will have the rest done by sometime next year. They’ve sold three of those homes and are in contract on a fourth. They’re holding a free home-buying workshop on December 15th at Operation HOPE in Oakland.

KALW’s Audrey Dilling contributed reporting for this story.

Crosscurrents Oakland