Grandma Challenges Real Estate Giant In Early Test Of New California Law
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
Credit: Beth LaBerge / KQED
Jocelyn Foreman was full of nervous energy and dread.
It was a crisp morning in early March. She arrived at the Pleasant Hill Community Center to find a handful of men and women in a semicircle outside the sandstone-colored building, clutching folders and holding cellphones.
They were there for a foreclosure auction, poised to bid on the house that Foreman rents: a single-story, 1,500-square-foot tract home in Pinole. It’s a simple home — set back from the street — with a steep sloping backyard, worn carpets and a roof that leaks when it rains.
A man with a clipboard started the bidding at $175,000. A woman in a maroon sweatshirt and another man offered competing bids. First $176,000. Then $177,000. Then $180,000.
“They just kept going higher and higher and higher,” Foreman said.
The bidding finally stopped at $600,000. Foreman’s stomach dropped. “And I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
Foreman had hoped she would be able to buy the house and continue living there thanks to a new state law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall, that is designed to prevent pandemic profiteering — and give tenants like her a path to homeownership.
But the law, which allows tenants and nonprofits a 45-day window to match any bid made at a foreclosure auction, provides no money to fund the purchases. So that means Foreman will have to find a way to raise the money herself.
To Foreman, 50, a Black mother of five and grandmother of three, the house in Pinole is much more than a place to rent. She’d been homeless for the better part of the past 20 years, and it was only after she began renting the home in 2018 that she had been able to pay her bills on time and find stability.
“I thought I was breaking the cycle,” she said. “And then I felt like my dreams and my memories were being auctioned away.”
Foreman chased after the woman with the winning bid, to find out who her new landlord would be.
The woman said, “Wedgewood.”
Foreman knew the name. The Redondo Beach real estate firm drew national scrutiny last year after a group of Black homeless mothers occupied a vacant house the company owned in West Oakland. The occupiers, who called themselves Moms 4 Housing, sought to spotlight increasing corporate ownership of housing, which they said had led to rising rents and growing homelessness.
But despite that controversy, and a global pandemic that’s caused mass unemployment, Wedgewood has continued to buy houses.
In fact, a review of public documents by KQED reveals the company went on a spending spree during the pandemic — funneling at least $152.6 million through a network of shell companies to purchase no fewer than 276 properties throughout California. All but 15 of those properties are single-family homes, like Foreman's three-bedroom house in Pinole.
Some houses have been quickly flipped for a profit. For example, Wedgewood bought a single-story, shell-pink bungalow in North Berkeley last September for $1.15 million and then sold it for $1.71 million in March, after installing new appliances and slapping on a fresh coat of slate-gray paint.
“This is the system we're up against,” said Steve King, the executive director of the nonprofit Oakland Community Land Trust. “Trying to carve out ways that we can retain some of these properties in the community’s hands, that's the real challenge.”
Wedgewood declined multiple requests for a phone interview.
“All we know is we bought a house and it is occupied,” company founder and CEO Greg Geiser wrote in an email. Geiser added that he knew someone wanted to match the firm’s offer, but that neither he, nor the company, knew who that was.
Wedgewood’s buying binge continued after the law went into effect in January, KQED found, with the company acquiring at least 102 homes. The properties were purchased across 22 California counties and, in almost every case, the company paid in cash.
That has left Foreman in a race against time. She has until April 18 to match Wedgewood’s bid on the house in Pinole. But the odds are not in her favor. With bad credit and no savings, she doesn’t qualify for a mortgage. Nor would the $2,100 she pays in rent cover the mortgage payments for a $600,000 home.
So, she’s going to need cash — and a lot of it — or she’s afraid she'll be forced to leave. Foreman reached out to a nonprofit legal aid organization who helped launch an online fundraising effort on her behalf.
The House That Moms Built
When they occupied the house in West Oakland, the women behind Moms 4 Housing argued Wedgewood’s rise was part of a fundamental shift in the housing market marked by a seismic transfer of wealth from individuals to corporations. That shift, they said, began in the wake of the Great Recession, when nearly 10 million people lost their homes through foreclosure.
Kevin Stein, deputy director of the advocacy group California Reinvestment Coalition, said speculators “were the ones that had a lot of cash on hand at the time and who were realizing there was a great opportunity to make a lot of money even as people were suffering.”
After armed sheriffs’ deputies came to evict the moms, Wedgewood agreed to sell the home to the Oakland Community Land Trust, a nonprofit created in the wake of the Great Recession to buy foreclosed homes and keep them permanently affordable. The home will soon become a transitional shelter for homeless mothers.
The controversy also inspired state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat who represents Oakland, to introduce legislation reforming the foreclosure process so tenants like Foreman would have the opportunity to compete.
“When I introduced and passed SB 1079, my purpose was to give individual homeowners the ability to compete against corporate [purchasers],” Skinner said.
But while the moms won their fight, there’s no guarantee the new law will help Foreman.
Without any funding attached to the law, tenants of foreclosed properties must raise the entire amount themselves, or secure a traditional mortgage — something that can be difficult for someone with bad credit, little savings or who does not have the ability to borrow from friends and family.
Would-be homeowners could also partner with a nonprofit or land trust to buy the home, as the Oakland moms group did with the Oakland Community Land Trust. But Ian Winters, the executive director of the Northern California Community Land Trust, said that even for groups like his, raising the amount needed on short notice is difficult.
“There are very, very, very few housing organizations and very few nonprofit organizations that are sitting on a giant pile of cash that can afford to regularly shell out $600,000 or $700,000 to purchase a property at auction,” he said.
Money aside, Winters said, his organization still wants to help. So the land trust is working to secure financing to buy Foreman's property and turn it into permanent, affordable housing.
Under this arrangement, Foreman would eventually secure a traditional mortgage to buy the home at an affordable price, but the trust would maintain ownership of the land. This way, if it’s ever sold, it would still be affordable for the next resident.
As of April 5, however, the $14,916 Foreman had raised online was still a far cry from the $250,000 the land trust estimates it needs to keep the $600,000 home affordable for Foreman.
Before Foreman moved in, the house in Pinole had been in the same family for more than 30 years. Reginald Mayfield, a longshoreman for 51 years, bought the house in 1984 and spent his retirement years there.
In the few years before his death in 2018, at age 82, he had planned a major rehab of the 1970s home, and took out a loan on the house. It was a project he planned to complete with his daughter, Rochelle Mayfield.
“I spent a lot of time going to stores, just doing a lot of window shopping, with him,” she said. “I would grumble, but it was fun.”
Although she didn’t grow up at the house, Rochelle said it represented one piece of the legacy her grandparents left for her. They moved to the Bay Area from Texas and Louisiana, as part of the Great Migration, when millions of Southern Black families migrated to the North and West in search of better lives.
Mayfield’s grandparents settled in Oakland and Berkeley, picking up war-time jobs and starting their own businesses.
“One thing that both sets of grandparents had in common was that they bought property,” Mayfield said. “And for Black folks at that time to be able to do that, it’s extraordinary.”
In 2018, Foreman and her teenage children were couch surfing — something they had done on and off since 2002 — when she first heard about the Pinole house. A coworker told her that his uncle, Reginald Mayfield, had just passed away.
Foreman at the time had two jobs. The first was at the Berkeley Unified School District, connecting families in need with food, employment or housing resources. She was also moonlighting as an in-home caregiver.
But she still couldn’t find a place to live that would accommodate her teenage children and didn't require a brutal commute to her job and to her kids’ school in Berkeley.
When she heard about the vacant home, she contacted Rochelle Mayfield, who was sympathetic to Foreman’s plight and agreed to rent to her.
“I took a chance on her,” Mayfield said, “when she needed someone to take a chance on her.”
Foreman met Mayfield in Oct. 2018 in the parking lot of a Whole Foods to hand over the deposit. Foreman’s car payment was due the same day, so she had to choose: give up her car or put the deposit down?
She handed over the check, and then, after Mayfield left, opened the trunk of her car. There, in neat stacks, were all of her belongings. She took a picture.
“Because in my mind,” Foreman said, “this was going to be the last time I was doing this.”
And Foreman said she hasn’t looked back: “I’ve been on my feet ever since.”
That is, until she got a notice, in February 2020, posted on the front door of her home, saying the house would be sold at a foreclosure auction the following month. Mayfield had been having a hard time making the mortgage payments on both the Pinole home and a house in Richmond she inherited from her mother, where she also lives.
Because of the pandemic, the house in Pinole didn’t actually sell until March, 2021, when Wedgewood made the winning bid.
The company declined to answer questions about whether it intends to resell Foreman’s house or rent it out. California law prevents evictions for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic, but it won’t protect Foreman if Wedgewood decides to sell the property.
A spokesperson for the company said that, in general, Wedgewood sells the homes it buys.
“We’re a real estate company that buys distressed housing and then heavily invests in renovating and restoring the homes as needed,” Wedgewood said in an emailed statement. “We then sell, in partnership with agents throughout the state, to new homeowners, the majority of which are owner-occupants, who have a vested interest in their home and community.”
Driving Up Prices
On its website, Wedgewood describes itself as a “leading acquirer of distressed residential real estate.” The company was founded in 1985 by Geiser with a fix-and-flip business model of buying up cheap foreclosed homes and selling them for a profit.
At a Florida real estate conference in 2015, Geiser called house flipping “hot and sexy” and claimed his company had bought and sold 3,000 homes in the past year, averaging about 250 foreclosure home purchases a month.
“Every day we cover every foreclosure sale from Denver to Seattle up through Idaho down to San Diego,” he told the crowd.
Even so, Geiser bristles at the suggestion that his firm is driving up housing prices by flipping property: “That view is just plain inaccurate,” he said in an email.
Among the houses the company has bought in the last year is a 1912 Victorian on a quiet residential street in North Oakland. Like the house in Pinole, the previous owners’ heirs lost it to the bank after the homeowner passed away.
Wedgewood repainted the tan and brown house in sage green with a golden yellow trim and installed new appliances. But when the new homeowners moved in, they discovered a host of other problems.
One of the homeowners, who declined to give her name, said new lighting fixtures had been installed incorrectly and had to be reinstalled. The electrical wiring had to be updated so the house was safe to inhabit. The chimney was caving in and had to be removed. And the foundation also needed work.
As of April 2, public records linked Wedgewood to at least 143 properties it has purchased in the Bay Area and 719 across the state, the majority of which are single-family homes. The homes are, on average, about 60 years old, and often located in more affordable cities or more affordable neighborhoods, including many communities of color, where residents have seen rents and home prices grow astronomically in recent years.
The company operates using an extensive network of shell companies, including Catamount Properties 2018, LLC, which flipped the North Oakland property. It’s one of at least 40 active entities in California controlled by Wedgewood, according to the California Secretary of State’s Office.
At a recent foreclosure auction in Oakland, a woman in sneakers and a gray sweatshirt represented the company. She bid aggressively on a single-family home in Castro Valley. It ultimately sold to another bidder for $661,100.
While some bidders shook their heads at the eye-popping price, others, like Robert Kramer, a veteran at foreclosure sales, said it doesn’t matter.
“The market (for single-family homes) is going up,” Kramer said. “By the time you get them fixed up and back on the market, there’s typically a pretty healthy profit there — 20% or more.”
The foreclosure rate in California is significantly down from its peak in 2010, and has even declined during the pandemic, largely because of a federal moratorium on foreclosures for federally-backed mortgages.
And Kramer said that means bidders are pushing the prices for foreclosed homes even higher, which makes it difficult for would-be homeowners like Foreman, as well as nonprofit affordable housing providers and community land trusts, to match the winning bid.
“The way foreclosure auctions are structured in California, it’s like the Wild Wild West,” said King, of the Oakland Community Land Trust. “The system is plainly not set up for those properties to be transitioned to some community use.”
A Plea for Funding
Winters, of the Northern California Community Land Trust, says that in order for Skinner’s SB 1079 to be effective, there needs to be funding. Most properties that go to foreclosure have deferred maintenance issues that need to be resolved to ensure the house continues to be livable, not to mention the accumulated cost of unpaid taxes and other fees.
And there needs to be a subsidy, he says, to ensure that those homes are affordable to would-be homeowners, like Foreman.
“There does need to be a revolving pool of money that helps the nonprofit housing sector acquire the property, stabilize it, get it back into use,” he said.
California’s network of community land trusts is lobbying the Legislature for dedicated funding to implement SB 1079 over the next five years. And Sen. Skinner is hoping to create a fund to enable those purchases through this year’s budget process.
Without a subsidy from the state, Winters is relying on the community to come together to fundraise for a subsidy for Foreman’s house, which will ensure it can remain affordable. And even though the land trust has agreed to help Foreman, it hasn’t secured the loan yet.
While those details are being worked out, Foreman is guardedly optimistic. She doesn’t like thinking about where she and her family will go if they can’t raise the money.
“I’ve said repeatedly to myself, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’” she said. “My grandson is not sleeping on somebody's floor. That’s not going to happen.”
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