Published in Oakland North, August 11, 2011

Holding banners and large withdrawal request forms, about 30 customers gathered on Wednesday in front of Wells Fargo’s main branch in downtown Oakland to announce that they would close their Wells Fargo bank accounts to protest the bank’s foreclosure practices.

“As a community, we no longer have faith in Wells Fargo bank,” said Jesus Nieto-Ruiz, one of the rally’s organizers. Nieto-Ruiz is a pastor at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church and a co-chair of Oakland Community Organization, an activist group based in East Oakland. Nieto-Ruiz said Wells Fargo had refused to help Oakland homeowners save their properties by offering them loan modifications. In response, he said, the church would move all of its deposits—worth $125,000—from Wells Fargo and close the account. “They don’t see the pain and depression they cause. We believe they’re a poor corporate citizen of the city,” Nieto-Ruiz said.

At the rally, representatives from a number of other community organizations, including the Oakland Education Association, a union that represents teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, also announced their decisions to close their institutional accounts.

In early 2009, the Obama administration initiated the Home Affordable Modification Program, which provides guidelines for financial institutions to reduce the loans of millions of homeowners whose properties are underwater. However, according to New York Times, as of June fewer than 700,000 permanent loan modifications have been made and three of the nation’s largest banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo—may be penalized by the Treasury Department for their “subpar performance” in administering the program.

Representatives from all three banks told the Times they disagreed with the Treasury Department’s findings. “It paints an unfairly negative picture of our modification efforts and contradicts previous written assessments shared with us by the Treasury,” Wells Fargo spokesperson Vickee Adams told the Times.

However, protesters on Wednesday said that Wells Fargo is turning a blind eye to homeowners’ request to modify their loans. Marilyn Reynolds, a West Oakland resident, said that since 2009 she had sent hundreds of letters and documents to the bank requesting a principle reduction on her home loan. She said that instead she recently got a phone call saying, “Sorry, we can’t help you.”

“That didn’t tell me anything—he didn’t say ‘You don’t qualify for President Obama’s program’ or anything like that,” Reynolds said, holding a binder of documents which she said would have proved her eligibility for the modification program. “I’m struggling every month. [The bank] is taking virtually all my salary to pay the mortgage and I have very little to live on,” she said, adding that she intended to close her Wells Fargo account and stop paying her loan.

Protesters on Wednesday also alleged that Wells Fargo has refused to pay a $1 million citation assessed by the city on blighted foreclosed properties owned by the bank, and charged that the bank had failed to properly maintain them. “Wells Fargo is hiding behind technicalities and denials of liability claims to resolve themselves of these fines,” said Richard Speiglman, another OCO co-chair.

But Wells Fargo representatives say the company has not fallen behind on maintaining foreclosed properties in Oakland. “As recently as two weeks ago, we did inspections of the foreclosed properties in Oakland we are responsible for, and identified no issues relating to their maintenance,” wrote Wells Fargo spokesperson Jason Menke in an emailed statement. “Our efforts to maintain those properties are ongoing. We continue to meet with City of Oakland officials and have ongoing dialogue related to this important issue, and have also met with Oakland Community Organization to discuss their concerns.”

Additionally, Menke wrote, some people may have erroneously concluded that Wells Fargo is responsible for foreclosed properties that it does not actually oversee. On some foreclosure and property listings, Wells Fargo is listed as a trustee, but a trustee is not responsible for maintaining the homes — the homeowner’s mortgage servicer is, he wrote.

“We understand the detrimental impact that vacant foreclosed homes have on individual properties, neighborhoods and communities at large. When we are made aware of issues on properties we are responsible for, we work to remedy those situations as quickly as possible. In situations where we act as trustee, we reach out to the appropriate loan servicer and advise them of the issue so they may take the appropriate corrective action,” wrote Menke.

At Wednesday’s protest, after testimonies and speeches, the protesters lined up in front of the bank to close their accounts as bank security officers only allowed one person to go in at a time. The crowd cheered whenever a protester came out of the bank with a confirmation letter of their withdrawal.

Wednesday’s rally is not the first protest against Wells Fargo in the Bay Area. Last October,residents filled the lobby of the bank’s branch in East Oakland to fax letters to the company’s headquarters, requesting a halt on foreclosures in California. In April and May, hundreds of protesters marched in San Francisco to disrupt the bank’s annual shareholder meetings, demanding better services for homeowners.

“I just want the banks to put more value in the work they’re doing with the community,” said Barbra Lafitte-Oluwole, a protester at Wednesday’s rally who lost her house in West Oakland two years ago. “This is desperate times,” she said. “The big banks need to step up.”