Lee and the foreclosure crisis

Pub date March 20, 2012

EDITORIAL More than 1000 homes in San Francisco are either in foreclosure or at the start of the process. Some 16,000 homeowners are underwater, and as many as 12,000 may face foreclosure in the next 12 months. A report by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment shows that the city could lose $115 million from the reduced property taxes and the costs of carrying out evictions.

That’s a crisis — and while the mayor has no direct control over home foreclosures, he ought to be speaking out and joining the protesters who are fighting this cascade of often-fraudulent bank actions.

The problems are legion: An audit released in February by Assessor Phil Ting shows that more than 80 percent of the foreclosure notices filed in San Francisco contain at least one legal irregularity, and many contain multiple. Banks back-date documents, use faulty information, and in some cases clearly and directly break the law when they move to seize property — often because of bad-faith loans that were more the fault of the banks than the homeowners.

A group from Occupy Bernal, the well-organized, sophisticated operation that’s been intervening in foreclosures and evictions in the Southeast neighborhoods, visited us recently, and the stories we heard were alarming. Some told of bankers who promised to make loan modifications — then went ahead with foreclosure anyway. Some people spend weeks just trying to figure out who actually owns the mortgage — and while the financial institutions are ducking calls and hiding from responsibility, they’re moving forward to toss people out of their homes.

ACCE and Occupy Bernal have had some successes — they slowed down foreclosure actions, forced banks to come to the table and in some cases saved homes. But the activists are up against big corporations and big numbers — too many homes on the block, too many financial institutions, and not enough people and money.

The Ting report showed enough violations of law that we’ve already urged the city attorney and the district attorney to start taking action.

But we’ve heard little beyond silence from the office of Mayor Ed Lee.

Lee’s the city’s chief executive, the person who has to handle the financial fallout of the foreclosure crisis as well as the human impacts — families evicted from their homes have a high chance of winding up on the streets, putting additional pressure on already-stressed social services.

Besides, this is a tragedy — and a lot of the problem is simply unaccountable, unreachable financial institutions. If Occupy Bernal and ACCE, through volunteer organizing and community pressure, can prevent a fair number of evictions, thing what the mayor of San Francisco could do — just by speaking out.

Lee ought to show up at some of the Occupy Bernal actions, but that may be too much to ask. But it’s not too much to suggest that he publicly support the foreclosure fighters and call on the banks to work with local homeowners.

The city keeps its multibillion-dollar short-term cash accounts in institutions like Bank of America, which is responsible for more than 10 percent of all foreclosures in the city. Wells Fargo, with its headquarters right here in town, is responsible for 22 percent of the local foreclosures. Lee ought to let the banks know the city won’t keep doing business with bad actors.

With a little visibility, the mayor could help save hundreds, maybe thousands of families from facing homelessness. This crisis calls for leadership; where’s the mayor?