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Houses Being Occupied, Banks Taking Notice: How 'Occupy Our Homes' Is Evolving

An internal Bank of America email that surfaced last week fretted that anti-foreclosure actions could "impact our industry."

When Monique White turned down Freddie Mac's “cash for keys” offer—a small reimbursement for vacating her property, under the terms—she knew she was facing imminent eviction.

White, who says her North Minneapolis home was repossessed and sold by U.S. Bank without her knowledge in January, had already caught the attention of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. But activists with that organization were also starting to worry they were running out of options—until they called on Occupy Minneapolis for help.

“The response was unanimous, overwhelming,” said North Minneapolis community organizer Anthony Newby. “It was an 'aha,' moment, a eureka moment for everybody there.”

Starting in early November, volunteers, sometimes dozens at a time, organized to camp out on White's property to defend her from eviction. And apparently cowed by the possibility of negative media coverage, Freddie Mac has postponed the eviction and is reportedly considering White for a program that would allow her to rent the property. White and organizers like Newby, though, are holding out for a “good faith negotiation” and an agreement that will let her stay in the home as an owner.

Neighborhoods Organizing For Change and many other local projects are allied with or fall under the banner of Occupy Our Homes, one of the first activism-oriented initiatives to emerge from the Occupy Wall Street movement and to subsequently receive widespread coverage.

“Banks got bailed out, but families are still getting kicked out of their homes,” said Karanja Gaçuça, an Occupy Wall Street protester affiliated with Occupy Our Homes, in a press release. “If we can bail out the big banks, those banks have a moral obligation to find a way to keep families in their homes.”

But in spite of that energy, Occupy Our Homes is at a crossroads, with organizers hoping to maintain the inertia they've built up even while they define what the movement will stand for.

Eviction defense and advocacy aren't the only fronts being tackled under the banner of Occupy Our Homes. In a more controversial tactic, some activists connected with the movement are also “re-occupying” empty structures—many of which had previously been repossessed—and helping homeless persons move into them.

Take Back The Land is an activist organization that has taken part in home re-occupations, as well as in successful instances of eviction defense. Ryan Acuff, an organizer with that organization in Rochester, N.Y., said he sees housing as an issue of human rights.

“There's a housing surplus in Rochester,” Acuff said. “We want to match homes with homeless people. It's a humane measure, a necessary measure.”

Acuff concedes that residency in a re-occupied structure is tenuous.

The strategy many re-occupiers embrace is to transform re-occupied structures into as welcoming, livable spaces as possible—by changing the locks, connecting the houses to the utility grid, and most importantly by integrating the inhabitants into the community. Doing so lends the new tenants credibility and can keep away unwelcome attention.

“There's always risk involved, but we try to minimize that risk by really making [a re-occupied property] into a home,” Acuff said.

There are strong parallels between the practice of housing needy individuals in unused structures and the genesis of Occupy Wall Street, where demonstrators took up indefinite residency in a space indelibly linked with global markets and income disparity.

The re-occupation strategy also takes inspiration from squatter culture, a punk-related movement predating Occupy Wall Street by decades that Jake Halpern characterized in a New York Times Magazine article as drawing on "a zealous do-it-yourself work ethic and an old-fashioned frugality of the sock-darning sort.”