Noe Valley Voice September 2012

Occupy Takes Root in Noe

Group Has the Back of Homeowners in Distress

By Corrie M. Anders


Homeowner Merrie Jo Musni (left) celebrates with Occupy Noe co-founders Kathy Lipscomb and Susan McDonough (right), after pressure from the group helped Musni keep her house off the auction block.    Photo by Corrie M. Anders 

Occupy Noe, a new group working to halt foreclosures in the area, has only been active a few months—but it has already helped one couple save their home.

The successful case involved Merrie Jo Musni, 68, and Edzel Musni, 67, who have lived four decades in their Randall Street residence, raising seven children and three grandchildren. Merrie Jo Musni said the family had fallen on hard times after she became ill and couldn’t continue working as a Kaiser Hospital nurse.

Just days before the home was scheduled to be auctioned Aug. 13, Occupy Noe pressured Bank of America to modify the Musnis’ loan.

“I’m just so proud of them [Occupy Noe],” said Merrie Jo Musni. “I just think it’s absolutely fantastic,” she said, adding that she’s become an active member of the group.


Targeting Big Banks

Occupy Noe, co-founded by longtime Noe Valley residents Susan McDonough and Kathy Lipscomb, has been busy since going public in July. Members have held petition drives, knocked on doors of imperiled homeowners to offer assistance, and picketed at courthouse auctions.

In one of its most visible actions so far, the group marched along 24th Street on Aug. 11, hoisting huge banners and chanting through bullhorns, demanding that three major banks—Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America—freeze their foreclosure activities against local homeowners.

McDonough, 60, and Lipscomb, 72, said they were fed up with what they saw as the deplorable treatment of struggling homeowners.

“I was just appalled at what the banks were doing,” said McDonough. “They were bailed out, but people who were facing foreclosure were not getting any assistance.”

As a result, Lipscomb said, “you found people just kind of in a terrible downward spiral.”


Veteran Organizers

It is not surprising that McDonough and Lipscomb are the driving force behind the grass-roots group. Together they have nearly 50 years of experience as professional organizers.

McDonough retired last year after working for a decade as an organizer for the Alameda Labor Council and five years for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). But she remained engaged in political causes around the city, and got involved in local community affairs after she and her husband purchased a home on 27th Street in 2001.

Lipscomb ended her career in 2004 as a healthcare organizer for the SEIU. The Cesar Chavez Street renter, who has lived in Noe Valley for 20 years, has filled her retirement with campaigns to reduce military spending and to preserve Social ­Security.

Lipscomb and McDonough got to know each other earlier this year while working with the Occupy Bernal Heights group. The women were startled to discover that foreclosures were not uncommon in affluent Noe Valley, where the average home is worth $1.5 million.


Surprising Number of Foreclosures

They found 70 properties on the chopping block in the 94114 and 94131 ZIP codes, which encompass all of Noe Valley and parts of Glen Park, Diamond Heights, and the Castro District.

Occupy Bernal suggested that “we should start something in Noe,” said McDonough. “We just plagiarized their model, with their permission,” and went to work.

The first meeting was held in April in McDonough’s home, with a handful of people in attendance. After two hours of discussion, the group settled on two main goals: stopping individual foreclosures and changing bank policies that might be precipitating them.

The latter objective focused on halting banks’ “dual-tracking” practice—engaging defaulting homeowners in loan modification talks while keeping the delinquent property listed on the foreclosure sale calendar.

Beginning Jan. 1, dual-tracking will be illegal under the new Homeowners’ Bill of Rights, a state law that also requires lenders to provide “a single point of contact with knowledge of their loan and direct access to decision makers” for homeowners seeking loan modifications.


First Case Was 40-Year Resident

Occupy Noe, which eschews tent city encampments, currently has about eight core members. To swell its ranks at rallies, as it did at last month’s protest on 24th Street, the group gets support from Occupy Bernal and the local Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).

One of Occupy Noe’s first efforts was to take up the Occupy Bernal cause of Kathy Galves, who had lived for 40 years in a purple Victorian on 24th Street near Church Street. Galves gave up her foreclosure battle with Wells Fargo in April and accepted the bank’s $7,500 in moving expenses. “We didn’t prevail in that instance,” said Lipscomb.


A Victory with Interest

The group had better luck with the Musni home.

For nearly four years, the Musnis got the run-around from different bank officials as they sought to modify their loan to lower their monthly payments, said Merrie Jo Musni.

McDonough claimed the couple could never get a straight answer from the bank. “Each time they called, they’d get a new person, and their paperwork was nowhere to be found,” she said.

On two occasions in July, Occupy Noe set up tables outside the BofA branch and gathered 500 signatures on a petition demanding that the bank stop its foreclosure proceedings and negotiate with the Musnis. Two weeks later, the bank agreed to a loan modification that dropped the couple’s mortgage interest rate to 3.625 percent from 6.5 percent.


Tense Time at City Hall

Nonetheless, the bank did not cancel the planned Aug. 13 auction of their house, said Merrie Jo Musni. “People are not talking to each other, and computer systems aren’t interfacing with each other.” 

On the day of the sale, Musni went to the auction site, planning to show anyone who would listen that she had a signed contract and was in good standing with the bank.

“At the last minute, they updated their list…while I was sitting on the steps of City Hall,” she said in relief.

BofA confirmed it “offered a modification” to the couple. However, spokesman Rick Simon said the bank could not corroborate “terms of the loan due to privacy restrictions.”


What the Future Holds

The number of homes in foreclosure is shrinking in the 94114 and 94131 ZIP codes—to 32 in August from 70 in May—as homeowners settle with banks, sell at a loss, or lose their property at auction.

Still, the founders of Occupy Noe believe they’ll be “occupying” for quite a while.

“I don’t think this thing is going away, unfortunately,” said Lipscomb. “There are probably more foreclosures that are going to happen.”


For more information about Occupy Noe, contact Susan McDonough, 415-734-0061, or Kathy Lipscomb, 415-641-1997.