Activists Fight Back Against the 1% After Investors Lock a 75 Year-Old Great-Grandmother Out of Her Home [With Photo Slideshow]
View a photo slideshow at the end of the story.
Josephine Tolbert, a 75-year-old great-grandmother and cancer survivor who makes her living offering child-care for low-income families, was surprised to find that she was being locked out of the home she's owned since 1973.
On December 1, activists with Foreclosure Fighters, a grassroots organization, and Occupy Oakland protested outside her vacant house as San Francisco police blocked the entrance. They later rallied outside the San Francisco storefront offices of TrueCompass, LLC, the real estate investment company that locked Tolbert out.
“I had three kids with me,” she said to a scrum of reporters outside her house on December 1. “I have five daycare kids, but two were in school. I had a baby who was six months old, I had one that was 3 years old and another one that was 4 years old. And when I got back from taking one of my daycare children to school, I saw all these people at my gate. And I asked my granddaughter, 'What is going on?' They said they were the new owners and they were changing the locks on my door. And I said, 'Well, you've got to let me in to get my diapers, baby formula and I'm a diabetic and I need my medication.' And they said, 'You can't go in there.'”
Tolbert bought her house in 1973. She says that she fell behind on her mortgage when she was being treated for cancer, and took out a second loan to make ends meet. Tolbert says that she had enough equity in the home to get curent on the loan.
Bank of America, which held the loan, said it would work with Tolbert to modify its terms, but according to Tolbert, the bank didn't actually offer any help. Then, on September 2, Tolbert was told the house had been sold. Earlier in the week, she says she was given three days' notice to vacate. “There was no reason for TrueCompass to kick me out of my house,” said Tolbert. “They're not planning on putting the house up for sale in the near future.”
Grace Martinez, an activist with Advocates for Community Empowerment (ACE), told AlterNet that Tolbert was a victim of a so-called dual-track process, in which a bank offers to modify a loan at the same time as it forecloses on a property. Martinez said that Bank of America's loan modification unit was still calling Tolbert after her home had been sold out from underneath her. Community groups are fighting to prevent banks from pursuing a dual-track process because it gives homeowners a false sense of security.
Tolbert is the human face of a devastating foreclosure crisis that reverberates through many American communities. “I am the third person on this block to be displaced,” she said. “I not only lost my home yesterday, I lost my small business. The parents of the kids I care for are scrambling to find replacement caregivers, and I'm struggling to find a place to live three weeks before Christmas.”
She called TrueCompass “wicked.”
The California Secretary of State's office lists Ash Gujral as the company's only officer. According to activists, Gujral is part of the “1 percent” – he owns a $2.75 million home in San Anselmo, multiple restaurants, has an estimated net worth of over $10 million and is part of a number of multi-million-dollar private equity and investment groups, they said. A neighbor told AlterNet that the San Francisco storefront is a letter-drop that establishes local residence, but the principles are only present “every couple of months.” (A call to TrueCompass's office was not returned by press time.)
Ted Gullickson of the San Francisco Tenants Union said that situations like Tolbert's are unnecessarily destructive. He told reporters his group was pushing the city to adopt a so-called "right-to-rent" law that would allow “underwater” homeowners to remain in their properties and pay the banks market-based rents. (Economist Dean Baker has long called for such a measure at the national level, details of which you can read here.)
Actions to stop foreclosures and keep families in their homes appear to be gaining traction among community groups and the Occupy movement. “We have a people who are committed to working with the banks the way they should have been working with us -- in good faith,” Foreclosure Fighters activist Denise Collins told AlterNet by phone. “And when they don't, we're standing up and fighting back.”