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Foreclosures Making People Sick

 New America Media, News Report, Viji Sundaram


OAKLAND, CA – For 22 days this year, Gilbert Aguilar lived without gas and electricity in his one-bedroom, foreclosed rental apartment here in East Oakland.

When Indy Mac Bank foreclosed on his landlord's property, Moises Raymundo, a 32-year-old resident of San Francisco's Outer Mission district, repeatedly asked the bank to transfer the utilities account to its name, only to be ignored. This forced Raymundo, his wife and three children to take cold showers and live in a dark house for nearly a month. His 11-year-old daughter, who has asthma, experienced a deterioration in her health, the welder said through an interpreter.

“The banks have to be good landlords,” 50-year-old Aguilar said at a press conference outside his home yesterday, as he stood among other tenants of foreclosed homes in Oakland and San Francisco. Members of Causa Justa Just Cause (CJJC), Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) officials and an executive of the California Endowment also attended this media briefing. “They have to make sure that properties are safe and habitable.”

Dozens of mostly African Americans and Latinos stood in the sweltering heat, holding signs in English and Spanish that said, “Protect Tenants Right to Stay,” or “Foreclosure is a Health Issue.” They chanted, “Cough! Cough! Achoo! Achoo! Foreclosure is bad for you!”

The “Foreclosures Make Us Sick” press conference, jointly organized by ACPHD and CJJC, was to shine a spotlight on what tenants like Aguilar face when their landlords leave them to their own devices after banks foreclose on properties. For their part, once they repossess a home, banks seldom bother to maintain it before putting it on the auction block.

The event also served as an occasion to release results of The California Endowment-funded study done last summer by the CJJC, to see how the high rate of foreclosures in select East and West Oakland neighborhoods of Alameda County had affected the health of their residents. 

After talking to some 388 residents, the report concluded that “foreclosures make us sick.”

Between 2006 and 2009, one in four mortgages in Oakland, affecting 14,941 property owners, began to enter into foreclosure, according to the report, titled, “Rebuilding Neighborhoods, Restoring Health.”

“Communities of color are the worst hit,” said Dr. Sandra Witt, ACPHD’s deputy director of planning, policy and health equity, as she highlighted the report’s findings. 

Some of the key highlights were: 

• Almost one-third of tenants in foreclosed properties said they were living in sub-standard conditions with health risks due to mold, pests and utility shut-offs.
• Rates of stress, depression and anxiety were more than two times higher among foreclosed residents.
• Nearly 90 percent of foreclosed residents were struggling to make ends meet. Many were forced to choose between paying for food, health care, and their utility bills.
• The rate of foreclosure is twice as high among the unemployed compared to those working full-time or part-time.

“Right now we are standing on a hot spot of premature death,” where people in this community are dying 10 years earlier than the general population, asserted Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president of The California Endowment’s Healthy Families, calling the report “groundbreaking.” 

“Right now we’re also standing on a hot spot of home foreclosures that are leaving a legacy of stress,” he said. “And just as Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf and exacted a toll on vulnerable communities, we’ve created hazardous social conditions in this community.” 

Unfair lending practices by banks are to blame for this, noted Liana Molina, an organizer with California Reinvestment Coalition that advocates increased access to credit on behalf of California's low-income communities. In Oakland, banks like Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Chase were responsible for more than half of all foreclosures in 2008, she said.

“We have been targeted by the banks,” asserted Charlene Wedderburn, board president of CJJC. “This is no mistake. Let’s talk about terrorism in our communities.” 

Earlier this week the California assembly killed Senator Mark Leno’s bill, SB 1275, that required lenders to provide homeowners with a fully considered loan modification decision prior to foreclosing. However, Molina said she is hoping that the governor would sign Sen. Ellen Corbett’s bill, which gives homeowners greater protection from lenders. 

Iton believes that a concerted effort by CJJC, the ACPHD and his organization, the California Endowment, could bring about changes in policies that affect people like Aguilar and Raymundo.

The Deutsche Bank finally agreed to pay for Aguilar’s utilities recently, as per the rental agreement he had with his former landlord.This reprieve came after CJJC helped negotiate Aguilar’s case, following several months of unsuccessful attempts by him to negotiate with the bank.

But at the press conference he said he’s not sure how long it will be before his luck runs out.

“I got a notice from PG&E yesterday that they are going to turn the power off,” he said.



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