Occupy Bernal, Petaluma zero in on foreclosures

Carolyn Said
SF Chronicle, February 6, 2012

Tim Nonn blamed himself when he and his wife lost their Petaluma house to foreclosure 18 months ago after his job was outsourced and her store fell victim to the economic downturn.

“I didn’t even tell anyone in my church, I was so ashamed,” he said.

When the Occupy movement launched last year, Nonn said, “all of a sudden I found my voice and was able to let go of shame and self-blame. I realized this wasn’t just my problem; people are being foreclosed upon by the thousands.”

Along with liked-minded neighbors, he formed an Occupy Petaluma movement in October that soon focused on a specific goal: prevent local foreclosures.

In San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, a group of residents has formed Occupy Bernal. Its aim, too, is to stop local foreclosures.

“Our model is classic community organizing where the people directly impacted by the issue share the leadership and speak for themselves with the support of their neighbors,” said one of the group’s founders, activist Buck Bagot, a Bernal resident since 1976.

The two homegrown Occupy groups exemplify new models springing up for the protest movement, even as they personify its message about economic inequality. Both are taking a hyper-local focus on an issue with national ramifications, while also lobbying for broad-based policy changes. Both rebut the frequent criticism that Occupy lacks goals and direction. As smaller, tight-knit, focused groups, they’re able to avoid the volatility of agitators who have caused some recent protests, notably those in Oakland, to veer into aggression and violence.

The two local groups employ different approaches. Occupy Petaluma ( www.occupypetaluma.com) has forged a cooperative relationship with banks, credit unions and police. Occupy Bernal ( www.occupybernal.org) is more confrontational, mixing some street theater with a plan to physically resist evictions. But they share a common thread of trying to forestall foreclosures and provide a voice for struggling homeowners.

Occupy Petaluma

“Vigils are the heart of what we’re doing,” Nonn said. Starting Feb. 19, the group will hold a weekly Sunday afternoon gathering in a downtown park for struggling homeowners to share their stories.

“The vigils and signs are different ways to help people in our community to come forward and begin to heal,” he said. “People have been deeply traumatized by the foreclosure crisis. Not only those facing foreclosure and eviction – the 20 million people whose mortgages are underwater are living with fear and stress every day about their financial situation. We need to let go of our shame and fear and help one another heal from this trauma so we can unite together and help keep people in their homes.”

The group is also declaring its town a “Foreclosure Prevention Zone,” pledging to organize participation, educate the public, advocate for government action and support neighbors.

At the end of the year, it persuaded the City Council to pass a holiday moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, something that many banks and other institutions were already doing. While much of that may be symbolic – the council has no jurisdiction over bank foreclosures, for instance – it has translated into some results.

Greg Morgan, president of Wells Fargo North Coast Valley, which handles seven counties north of the Golden Gate, said he has a “constructive, respectful” relationship with Occupy Petaluma.

“I was pleasantly surprised by their clear objectives,” he said. “We were able to come to common ground around realistic goals, not blanket statements.” At the group’s request, he was able to postpone some foreclosures to give former homeowners time “to get resituated and hold on to their dignity,” he said.

Morgan hopes that the government’s revised plan to refinance deeply underwater houses, which Wells will implement this month, will allow more homeowners to afford their mortgages.

Petaluma Mayor David Glass, a longtime municipal bond trader who says he never dealt in mortgage-backed securities, is fully behind Occupy Petaluma.

“They held one successful assembly after the other and built goodwill inside the community,” he said. “They got their message out without any hostility.”

Still, he admits: “Petaluma can’t wave a magic wand and pass a resolution and say somehow we will be an island where foreclosures don’t happen. This is more to set a stage where reasonable dialogue can take place.”

Petaluma resident Wendy Booth-Stahnke was laid off in 2008. After 18 months, she found a new job that pays much less. Her teenage son helps out by tutoring and doing odd jobs; she started raising her own vegetables and chickens and dipped into her 401(k) to make mortgage payments. But her home’s value has dropped, and her efforts to get a loan modification have been fruitless. She said the support of her neighbors in Occupy Petaluma has been heartening.

“Even though so many people are in this position, it is an isolating feeling,” she said. “I didn’t know where to turn, and they are filling that gap.”

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, said she considers Occupy Petaluma “a breath of fresh air.”

“They are giving a voice to those devastated by this economic crisis,” she said. “They take a very pragmatic, respectful, solution-oriented approach. They might be a model to others that there are ways to have a win-win.”

In fact, Nonn said similar movements have formed in Ohio, New Jersey and other Northern California towns. “We have weekly conference calls with people from around the country,” he said.

Occupy Bernal

Also inspired by the larger Occupy movement, Occupy Bernal sprang into being in December when several residents realized that dozens of their neighbors – largely people of color – were facing foreclosure. They drew 75 people to their first meeting and went door to door to struggling homeowners, offering to help them fight foreclosures.

“We all love our neighborhood and its diversity and don’t want to see it turn into a yuppie enclave like much of San Francisco,” said Beth Stephens, an art professor at UC Santa Cruz who helped start Occupy Bernal.

At a colorful protest on City Hall steps in January, Occupy Bernal, which included the self-styled “Wild Old Women” affinity group, got that day’s foreclosure auctions canceled.

Ed Donaldson, housing counseling director at nonprofit San Francisco Housing Development Corp., has worked with Occupy Bernal to advise the neighbors facing foreclosures. “I think it’s great that residents are raising their voices out of concern about what’s happening to their neighbors,” he said.

He thinks big changes can come from such steps.

“President Obama, who talked about the housing crisis in the State of the Union, takes his lead from what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “It’s been demonstrated time and again that if folks are interested in having their issues addressed, there has to be an outcry.”

Alberto Del Rio, a life insurance agent, is struggling to keep the Bernal house his parents bought in 1973.

“If it wasn’t for the members of Occupy Bernal, I would not have known where to go,” he said. “They came to my house and told me, ‘We want to save your house.’ ”

The group and Donaldson have gotten a foreclosure auction on his home postponed twice, while he continues to seek a loan modification, he said.

After discovering that Wells Fargo services more troubled Bernal mortgages than other banks, Occupy Bernal met with Wells executives and asked them to escalate resolution of those cases.

“It’s about pressuring the bank executives, right now Wells Fargo particularly, to have some kindness and compassion and work with people,” said artist and educator Annie Sprinkle, a longtime Bernal resident. “That’s all we’re asking for, is for them to be reasonable and make it possible for good people, families to stay in their houses.”

Bagot put it more bluntly. “We’ve tried talking with Wells Fargo and would like to continue, but if (they are unresponsive) we will have no choice but to try to embarrass the hell out of them,” he said.

Stephens said she and others are realistic about what can be accomplished.

“I’m not delusional enough to think it will be an easy thing or that banks will suddenly embrace us as a positive financial strategy for them,” she said. “We understand that. But they could renegotiate the loans.

“I think acting in local community and actually seeing those results – whether or not we’re actually able to stop the banks, the people at least know that their neighbors care about them,” she said. “Working at the local neighborhood level can be very empowering.”


Occupy Oakland: Protesters are planning to march through downtown Oakland today to show support for demonstrators who have been arrested. Their schedule is as follows, according to their website:

9 a.m.: Rally inside Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse.

Noon: Rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza.

1 p.m.: March to Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse again.

2 p.m.: Pack courthouse again.

Counterprotest: Residents and merchants plan to stage a “Stand for Oakland” protest today over the lost business, violence and cost of security they say have resulted from Occupy protests. Their countermarch is scheduled to begin at 11:45 a.m. at Frank Ogawa Plaza.