Oakland foreclosure protesters “auction” luxury condo

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By Janis Mara

“Sold to the highest bidder for $550 — one luxury condo!”

A group of activists and foreclosed homeowners, along with Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan and other officials, staged a mock sale of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s luxury Manhattan condo Thursday to dramatize their demands that banks and the government stop foreclosures.

“We must put a stop to the human suffering caused by the foreclosures. We will work together to make sure the banks meet their legal obligations,” Kaplan told the group gathered on the front steps of the Alameda County Court House in downtown Oakland, where foreclosed properties are auctioned. Assemblyman Mike Davis, D-Los Angeles, and others also addressed the crowd.

Ironically, a real foreclosure sale took place just yards away as the demonstration unfolded.

Undaunted by Thursday’s drizzle, carrying orange protest signs and a panoply of green, blue, red and white umbrellas as bright as their signs, about 50 people marched outside the courthouse. Many were members of the Greenlining Institute, a social policy and organizing group in Berkeley that sponsored the event.

“Homeownership is under attack. Stand up! Fight back!” the protesters chanted.

Nationally, a record number of homes — almost 2.9 million — are in some stage of foreclosure, or an increase of 1.7 percent from a year ago, according to RealtyTrac, which keeps a detailed account of foreclosure statistics across the country. In Alameda County, 12,594 homes are in some stage of foreclosure. The county saw 1,000 notices of default last month, the first step in the foreclosure process.

Homeowners in the city, the county and the U.S. are struggling to save their homes, spending hours contacting banks that they say refuse to work out compromises.

Jed Riffe bought his Berkeley house in 2005 for $635,000. When his wife, Tina Ferguson-Riffe, lost her job in 2008, they could no longer afford the $4,000 monthly payments for mortgage, property taxes and insurance. The two leapt into action, applying to such programs as the Obama administration’s Making Home Affordable Program.

“We have been turned down every time,” said Riffe, an independent filmmaker who has kept up the payments by raiding his savings. His income isn’t enough to pay the couple’s mortgage. “My friend just got a 3.75 percent mortgage loan. We are paying 6.65 percent. Our bank won’t give us a lower interest rate.”

If the bank would simply lower the couples’ interest rate, he said, they could afford the payments. Instead, they may lose their home once their savings are exhausted.

The Greenlining Institute wants banks to modify loans by reducing the principal amount owed by distressed homeowners and to refrain from foreclosing on borrowers who are in the midst of loan modifications, among other things. The group chose to focus on Goldman Sachs, Wall Street’s most powerful firm, as a symbol of unresponsiveness to homeowners.

“Unlike other entities in the banking industry who seem to have at least taken some steps to offer assistance to homeowners, they (Goldman) are pretty much not doing anything to make the situation better. We thought we would have a little fun at their expense,” Bruce Mirken of the Greenling Institute said.