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News & Media

Group documents Richmond housing crisis and demands action

Housing Opportunities

March 14, 2009 | Contra Costa Times

Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO)

RICHMOND — On maps showing foreclosed homes in Richmond and San Pablo, the crowded dots look like a giant smudge suffocating Irene Garcia's neighborhood.

Closer up, the dots representing foreclosed homes are more discernible, but they portray a neighborhood in trouble. One is across the street. Another around the block. The next, she said, could be hers.

"We don't know if we're going to have a home next week, two weeks, a month," said Garcia, who raised her children in the Visalia Avenue home she bought in 1989.

The magnitude of the housing crisis in West Contra Costa County might not be as deep as in communities farther east that grew quickly and cheaply in recent decades, but "for a place like Richmond, this is like a crisis on top of a previous crisis," said Alex Schafran, a researcher at the UC Berkeley Center for Community Innovation. "You're hitting somebody that's already down."

About 3,000 Richmond homes, or 9.8 percent of the total, could be in foreclosure by this time next year, predicts a report released this week by Schafran and the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative using numbers from the city finance department. Today, there are already more than 2,000 homes taken over by banks.

The city's predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods were most likely to be targeted for high-interest loans and have borne the greatest brunt of the crisis, he said.

The news was no surprise to a few hundred local residents, many of them threatened with foreclosure, who crowded St. Mark's Church in Richmond for a town hall-style meeting Thursday night. They demanded relief from big lending institutions — whose representatives were invited but did not attend — and action from local politicians, who appeared as frustrated with the problem as everyone else.

"My family is one of those black dots that's on that map," said Richmond City Councilwoman Ludmyrna Lopez, speaking of relatives who lost their house in 2007.

About 20 percent of Richmond renters and 15 percent of homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a marked change from decades past, according to the report.

"I owe more on my property than it was appraised for," said Yvonne Bayless, a lifelong Richmond resident whose family first moved to the city in 1922.

She said a loan officer came out and convinced her to get what she now calls a "predatory home improvement loan." A few days ago, her application to modify her loan to something she can afford was rejected.

Garcia, who refinanced her Belding Woods neighborhood home in 2006, said that months later, the adjustable rate kicked in and the rate grew by $600 a month.

"All my utility bills have gone to collection," said Garcia, main provider for a family of seven. "I stopped paying my mortgage in August."

More than 15 percent of Richmond households were already considered overcrowded in 2000, but as more homes are foreclosed and abandoned, larger families will be finding themselves in increasingly intense competition for limited rental housing, researchers said.

Jessica Peregrina recently got married and moved out of her family's home in San Pablo, but her mom, two brothers, sister-in-law and nieces still live there.

"We bought our house in 2002 and then ... the bank where we had our loan went broke," she said. "The new bank sent us a letter that we were going to get a higher interest and variable. We had it fixed for two years, then the payment went up from $2,500 to $3,200. After three months, it went up again to $3,700."

Meanwhile, the surrounding neighborhood has fallen into disrepair. Squatters took over an abandoned house across the street, using it as a drug den.

Richmond council members who attended Thursday's meeting — Lopez, Jeff Ritterman, Maria Viramontes and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin — all pledged to sign on to a platform drafted by the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative to aggressively fine banks that do not maintain abandoned properties and divest from banks that don't cooperate with local revitalization.

"We need to fine those banks $1,000 a day," said the Rev. Marvin Webb, summarizing the platform. "We're calling on Richmond to dramatically step up their enforcement program and hold (banks) accountable for the devastation they've created in our community."