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Lloyd Canamore was in elementary school when he moved into his West Oakland home some 50 years ago. He had no idea then that the one-story house would become a popular selfie destination one day, or that he’d need to turn to strangers on the internet to help him hang onto it.
Canamore’s spot on 35th Street is known to many in Oakland as the “Warriors House” because it’s painted in Dubs blue and gold. Team banners fly from the roof and sun-faded posters hang in the windows. As a teenager, Canamore sold hotdogs at Warriors games, and his love for the team has only strengthened with age.
Canamore’s beloved team has, of course, left Oakland for a new arena in San Francisco. But the super-fan is trying as hard as he can to stay. After his mother Clemmie died in 2019, however, Canamore was startled to find out she’d taken out a reverse mortgage. That type of loan is a way of borrowing against your own home equity, meaning Clemmie could get an advance on the money she’d theoretically earn from selling the home. The downside was that once she died, her son owed the entire $350,000 loan amount. If he couldn’t pay, the lender would take the home from him. For a man living on disability payments, the concept of paying that debt outright was absurd.
“I was feeling like, ‘I don’t want to live no more,’” Canamore said. For years he’s lived around the corner from the people who camp under the freeway, and for the first time he considered moving into a trailer himself.
After a neighbor spotted Canamore’s home listed on the real-estate site Zillow, another neighbor, Ali Roth, launched a crowd-funding campaign for him. The fundraiser went viral, but the momentum has recently slowed and the amount has hovered around $250,000 for several days.
For Canamore, losing his house would not only propel him into homelessness, but it would be the latest in a string of tragedies he’s experienced. His house was painted blue and gold as a gift by a friend in 2016 who felt bad that Canamore had just lost two of his brothers. Two decades earlier he’d experienced another pair of devastating deaths: his son to cancer and another brother to AIDS. Canamore said that watching his friend paint the house that afternoon—with the aid of a hefty amount of beer and guitar-playing breaks—perked him up. He loves being a local celebrity and watching all the Warriors fans pull over in front of his house to take photos.
Canamore isn’t sure when or why his mother took out the reverse mortgage. But local housing experts say a pattern of predatory lending and lack of access to financial information in neighborhoods like Canamore’s are among the interconnected forces that have driven Black and low-income families like his out of Oakland in recent decades.
Predatory loans prevent wealth-building in Black communities
Clemmie fit the description of the people most frequently targeted by brokers selling products like reverse mortgages. Canamore’s mother was a senior citizen who was “house rich and cash poor.” Her home had increased in value in gentrifying West Oakland, but she didn’t have the income to comfortably pay property taxes and afford upkeep.
“There are insufficient resources to support seniors when they reach a certain point in their life, yet most of them statistically own their home,” said Maeve Elise Brown, executive director of Housing & Economic Rights Advocates, an Oakland-based organization that promotes fair and equitable practices in the housing sector. “Having an older adult who is very low-income and is facing foreclosure on the family home—that’s a story we see repeated over and over again.”
The practice of “redlining,” whereby banks denied people of color mortgages in white neighborhoods and used color-coded maps to steer government-backed investments in white neighborhoods, has gotten a lot of attention from scholars and journalists in recent years. But the sinister flipside to such blatant exclusion is what’s been called “reverse redlining” or “predatory inclusion.” Lenders target poor people and people of color with home loans in these cases, but jam them with higher fees and interest rates than those offered to white and higher-income people, knowing the borrowers will never be able to pay them off.
The outcome of redlining and predatory lending is the same: Both practices prevent inter-generational wealth-building in communities of color like West Oakland’s.
“Homeownership is the single greatest source of wealth for families,” said Shola Olatoye, who directs Oakland’s Department of Housing & Community Services. “We’ve seen just the erosion of Black wealth.”
The phenomenon was on clearest display during the 2007-2010 foreclosure crisis, spurred in large part by subprime mortgages, high-interest home loans given to people who don’t qualify for conventional mortgages.
“We know that the foreclosure crisis disproportionately affected African American and Latinx families, whether through unclear loan documents or surprise balloon payments,” Olatoye said. “It absolutely had an impact on Black families in Oakland, a city that was more than 40% African American and is now less than 20%.”
As many Oaklanders were losing their homes during the foreclosure crisis, there was a huge rush among investors to buy up the foreclosed properties, taking much of Oakland’s stock out of the hands of regular residents, often through auctions where corporations could buy hundreds of houses at a time. Black and Latinx people were much more likely to experience foreclosure and lose their homes through this process.
In the run-up to the foreclosure crisis, a local community organizing group called ACORN found in 1999 that subprime loans accounted for 53% of home refinance loans made to African American homeowners and 44% of those made to low-income Latinx people. The same types of loans accounted for just 16% of those made to low-income white people.
“It’s hard to make an argument that it’s not coming from a place of racism,” said Canamore’s neighbor Roth, on what he’s gone through.
Oakland was actually the second city in the U.S., after Philadelphia, to adopt an anti-predatory-lending ordinance, in 2001. The law required borrowers to get independent financial counseling before taking out a loan, and it prohibited Oakland from doing business with predatory lenders. It also cracked down on excessive fees and penalties. But in 2005, the California Supreme Court struck down the policy, saying it illegally conflicted with a similar but less comprehensive state law.
In 2015, Oakland sued Wells Fargo for allegedly causing so many foreclosures with its predatory lending that it cost Oakland millions of dollars in property taxes.
Financial advisors say reverse mortgages aren’t necessarily predatory. They can sometimes make sense for a homeowner, especially if the borrower is at the end of their life and just wants to be able to live their last years at home without passing the house onto their kids.
But Brown said her organization typically tells clients to “stay away” from those loans if at all possible. Reverse mortgages come with steep upfront costs, and “only get bigger, because you’re not making any payments as long as you live in the house,” she said. “On the other hand, we’re almost driven into reverse mortgages as a form of survival. Trying to live on 900 bucks a month in the Bay Area is just disastrous.”
That same cost-of-living increase has led more folks, like Canamore and his mother, to live in intergenerational households.
“When that homeowner passes, this type of scenario is coming up more often,” said Brown, who’s been helping out Canamore. “They may or may not know that their mom or dad got a reverse mortgage—even though mom and dad probably wanted them to be able to stay in the house.”
After Canamore made that discovery, yet another financial company made an unsolicited offer to him for a complicated loan with potentially harmful consequences. A “probate advance” company, upon learning of Clemmie’s death, sent him unsolicited checks, saying they’ll come for payback when he sells the house. One of the checks was worth $20,000.
In the U.S. Senate, there is a bipartisan effort to ban such “live checks,” named as such because the recipient can immediately cash them, in the next coronavirus relief package. The bill’s authors say the checks typically look like money from a trusted bank but are secretly high-interest loans.
“They say, ‘Hey, yeah, we know you’re going through a hard time and we’ll collect money from you when the estate closes,’” Brown said. “Approaching someone who’d never be able to pay it from his income is utterly unconscionable.”
Who gets to stay in Oakland?
Olatoye, Oakland’s housing director, said people often end up with dangerous loans because they don’t have enough information to choose wisely.
That’s by design, said Gloria Bruce, executive director of East Bay Housing Organizations.
Products like reverse mortgages are “really sophisticated and confusing financial tools on purpose,” she said. “They’re certainly a risk for seniors. They’re marketed to them, saying, this is going to let you cash in on your declining years.”
Olatoye said anyone local who’s considering taking out a home loan of any sort should reach out to Keep Oakland Housed, a collaborative effort providing legal and financial help to low-income residents, or to Housing Secure, a similar program administered by Centro Legal de la Raza and Housing & Economic Rights Advocates (people can call those organizations directly).
For someone like Canamore, access to that financial education doesn’t come easy. He doesn’t have a computer to look up phone numbers, and now most brick-and-mortar offices are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
His neighbor, Roth, has watched their West Oakland area undergo immense change since she moved to 35th Street in 2008. Seeing so many others be displaced has made Roth extra-intent on helping Canamore avoid the same fate.
“Just last year my next-door neighbor got his house auctioned off from underneath him,” she said. “They fell a little behind on their mortgage. This guy came to my house one day and was like, ‘I’m your new neighbor. I’m a flipper.’”
Canamore and Roth’s block is not particularly tight-knit. It runs parallel to the 580 freeway, so gory car crashes are more likely to bring residents out to talk to each other than block parties or neighborhood strolls, Roth said. But she and Canamore became friends when she used to hold big concerts in her basement and let neighbors in for free.
“Lloyd would always come down and party all night,” said Roth, who owns Blue Willow Tea in Berkeley. Another time Roth ended up with a stray dog caught by another neighbor. The animal, she said, hated her, but it immediately fell in love with Canamore, who said his four “doggies are my best friends.”
“They talk to me in their own kind of way. I’m like Dr. Doolittle,” he said. (The bacon lunches he feeds them might have something to do with their loyalty.)
While Canamore is currently getting help from some neighbors, he’s often the one who helps out others. During one phone interview with The Oaklandside, Canamore had to hang up because he was driving his neighbor, who can’t walk, to the store.
These days, Canamore is feeling “a whole lot hopeful” that he and his pets might be able to stay in their splashy house.
Some Oaklanders have suggested that the wealthy Warriors should simply buy Canamore’s house for him. The rapper Bizzle once filmed the music video for his Warriors anthem there, starring Stephen Curry. Canamore said friends told him he should have charged for the use of the set, but he was happy to let them use it for free, especially since he and his mother made cameo appearances.
Curry has promoted the Warriors House GoFundMe page on his Instagram, and last week the team launched an auction to support the cause.
But the “structural issues are just so big and can’t be solved by all the corporate philanthropy or all the Stephs in the world,” Bruce of East Bay Housing Organizations said.
And of course, most people’s homes aren’t celebrities in their own right.
With even Canamore struggling to keep his famous house, his neighbors across Oakland who are on the brink of losing theirs have fewer chances of holding on.