Homeowners to Banks: Clean Up the Mess You Left in Our Neighborhood

Amid all the deficit and campaign talk, it's easy to forget the foreclosure crisis continues to destroy neighborhoods. Community organizers in East Oakland got fed up and delivered the dirty problem to its source.

By Kai Wright Sep 29, 2011

Five years ago, millions of bad loans that banks had peddled–in order to feed the profitable securities market–began to fail and foreclosures began climbing. Washington ignored it then and continues to ignore it in all but name today. Millions of people lost their homes and millions more will follow. But amid all the chatter about deficits and coming presidential elections, it’s easy to forget this crisis continues apace. One in eight mortgages are past due; one in five black and Latino borrowers are believed to be at the brink of foreclosure. 

The consequences stretch past the families that get kicked out. The systemic fraud that drove up prices and flipped homeowners through large refinances has also left the market with a glut of ridiculously overvalued, foreclosed properties upon which banks are now squatting. The glut has spawned many new crises, including driving down the value of everyone else’s home and all the echo-effect problems that creates, too. It’s a series of dominoes that the banks’ failed mortgages sent tumbling and that continue to fall. 

And here’s one fallen domino that’s gotten far too little attention: banks are largely neglecting the homes upon which they are squatting, leaving them to turn into trash-strewn sources of blight. Many of the largely black communities where this crisis began had spent decades rebuilding after the divestment of the 1980s, turning once struggling neighborhoods into stable, working-class communities of homeowners. The banks and the mortgage brokers they encouraged swept through and reversed that work (median black wealth has plummeted to a lower point than it was in 1983), and now they have literally left their mess behind. They act as absentee owners of abandoned, decaying properties that draw crime and create blight.

So yesterday, homeowners and organizers in East Oakland, one of the communities hit hardest in the subprime lending boom, gathered up the banks’ trash and delivered it back to them. The action was part of a series of events around the country, organized by the New Bottom Line campaign, that aim to put the foreclosure crisis and banks’ responsibility for it back on Washington’s agenda. Photojournalist Sita Bhaumik went along to record the action yesterday. Participants charged that, within hours of their press release about the action, the banks sent crews to clean up some long neglected properties. They collected the remaining garbage and brought it to local branches of Citibank, Chase and Wells Fargo. 

Piles of garbage fill the front yard of a foreclosed East Oakland home.

Protesters deliver garbage from a foreclosed East Oakland home to local branches of Citibank, Wells Fargo and Chase. 

Protesters deliver garbage to At an Oakland Citibank branch, the protesters ask that a letter be faxed to corporate headquarters outlining their demands for the bank to be accountable for its foreclosed properties. 

A Citibank employee alerts police of the protest.

Lifelong Oakland resident Beverly A. Williams speaks to the crowd gathered outside a Chase branch. "The effort today is to expose the banks," she said.

Private security prevents Williams and other members of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment from entering the Chase branch.