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Squatting Homeowner's Persistence Pays Off

Breaking into her own home was just the beginning of Tanya Dennis' campaign to convince Wells Fargo to modify her mortgage

It's hasn't been easy, but nearly a year and a half after Wells Fargo foreclosed on her home of 27 years, Tanya Dennis has finally convinced the lender to modify her mortgage.

"They had to deal with me to pacify me and get me out of their hair," joked Dennis, who made headlines earlier this year by hiring a locksmith and breaking into her South Berkeley home after Alameda County sheriff's deputies evicted her. 

Since then, Dennis, a short, 63-year-old woman who was once vice principal of Oakland's Castlemont High, has been a thorn in the side of the nation's largest mortgage originator.

Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda said the deal — which Dennis said reduces the amount of money she owes on her home from $484,000 to $365,000 — occurred not because of Dennis' persistence, "but because we want to keep homeowners in their homes."

Yet it's hard to imagine that public pressure played no role in Wells Fargo's decision to reduce Dennis' principal and promise to transfer the deed to the property back to her hands.

Here are some of the steps Dennis took after breaking back into her home in January:

Representing herself, she sued Wells Fargo in federal court. When U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken dismissed her suit, Dennis appealed her case to the 9th Circuit — all without the help of a lawyer.

On May 3, Dennis was carted away in handcuffs after disrupting Wells Fargo's annual shareholders meeting.

On May 24, she confronted Jim Foley, the bank's regional president for the San Francisco Bay Area, at Wells Fargo's Oakland office. The meeting was arranged by Oakland's teachers' union. (The union's president, Betty Olson Jones, was also among those who disrupted Wells Fargo's shareholders meeting).

In June, three members of the state Legislature — state Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) and East Bay assemblymembers Sandré Swanson and Nancy Skinner — wrote to Wells Fargo on Dennis' behalf.

On June 17, with another eviction from the sheriff looming, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, an advocacy group founded by former employees of the now-defunct ACORN, sent an email asking its supporters to contact Foley and Leesa Whitt-Potter, the bank's senior vice president for consumer operations.

Tanya Dennis

According to ACCE organizer Anthony Panarese, the email blast generated 500 calls and 1,500 emails, and a delegation went to Wells Fargo’s San Francisco headquarters to demand that the bank negotiate.

"For the folks getting bullied around by the banks, she became a bit of a hero," Panarese said.

Following those calls, Wells Fargo asked the Alameda County sheriff to call off Dennis' eviction, and Foley set up a meeting at which the two sides could talk about modifying her mortgage. (Foley did not return calls and emails seeking comment.)

While the agreement is still not final, both sides say they now agree on the main points, which Dennis says are a reduction in her principal balance by more than $100,000 and a corresponding drop in mortgage payments from $1,800 to $1,300 a month.

Dennis said she believes fear of more bad press finally brought the bank to the table, while Wells Fargo spokesman Goyda blamed Dennis for the slow process.

"There would have been potentially more modification options available earlier, [but] we were not able to get the proper information from her," he said.

Regardless, Goyda said he looked forward to the end of the story.

"If we can resolve this situation, I think everyone will be happy," he said. 

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