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Union Members Fight Foreclosure Evictions With Sit-Downs and Blockades

Across the nation, labor activists are joining community action groups to fend off the foreclosure evictions of strapped homeowners.
 
 
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It took police four tries to evict the Cruz family in Minneapolis. After 39 arrests, the police broke the door down at 4 a.m. Many defense attempts have prevented evictions and saved homes. More photos here: http://peterleeman.tumblr.com
Photo Credit: Peter Leeman

 

Ramon Suero fell behind on his mortgage payments after he got fired for organizing a union.

Suero, a hotel worker and UNITE HERE Local 26 member in Boston, got his job back after a year. But then his wife had to quit hers and travel to the Dominican Republic to care for her sick mother -- and they fell further behind.

They applied to modify their home loan, but federally sponsored mortgage company Freddie Mac said no, foreclosed, and demanded the family get out by February 1.

The Sueros aren’t leaving.

“I want to send a message to the banks: we deserve a second chance,” Suero said. “That’s why I decided to fight -- not only for my family, but for our community.”

Local 26 members and activists from the housing justice group City Life/Vida Urbana vow to thwart the eviction with a human blockade if necessary.

Battering Ram

In the wake of Occupy, the tactic is spreading. Activists around the country are placing their bodies in the way of police doing the banks’ dirty work.

In the Twin Cities, supporters get text-message alerts from the grassroots group Occupy Homes MN and mobilize quickly to stop surprise evictions.

It took Minneapolis police four attempts -- and 39 arrests -- to evict the Cruz family last spring. When they showed up at 4 a.m. and attacked the front door with a battering ram, 60 volunteers held them off.

The whole effort cost the city $40,000, and activists carried the battered door down to city hall to shame elected officials for the misuse of public resources.

“It becomes really politically costly -- both to the banks who are creating this kind of chaos, and also to city politicians,” said organizer Nick Espinosa.

Many foreclosure resisters his group works with are current or former union members -- like Monique White of Service Employees (SEIU) Local 26, who lost her youth-counselor job to state budget cuts. White kept her house after she confronted the U.S. Bank CEO in front of 200 shareholders.

Dumpster Defense

When they evict you in Detroit, they bring a dumpster to throw away your belongings. That’s how the Cullors family found out they were being evicted last Halloween: the dumpster showed up.

The family had struggled to pay its mortgage after Jerry Cullors, a retired bakery truck driver, suffered wage and pension cuts in the run-up to Wonder Bread’s bankruptcy.

So Eviction Defense Committee activists improvised: they filled the dumpster with bags of leaves. The sheriff had to call for another dumpster -- buying allies just enough time to win a stay of eviction in court that morning.

A month later, after a march on the bank and a packed court hearing, Fannie Mae backed off and told Bank of America to negotiate a modified mortgage.

‘Moral Hazard’

Like millions of other homeowners, at the time of their default the Sueros were “under water”: they owed more on their mortgage than the house was worth.

Freddie Mac has already lost the money. It will have to resell the house at today’s fair market value, about $80,000, down from $283,000. The question is who will benefit from Freddie’s loss: the Sueros, or some hedge fund investor who buys up the property?

The Sueros want “principal reduction”: a new loan based on the house’s current value. A community bank has offered to buy the house from Freddie for $90,000 and sell it back to the Sueros on those terms.

Fannie and Freddie, which own or insure a majority of home loans in the U.S., could save taxpayers billions by adopting principal reduction, a Federal Housing Finance Agency study found last year.