We Win When We Live Here: How Occupiers Are Standing Up Against Foreclosures and Evictions
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“One of the officers said, ‘If that were my mom, I’d be here too,” recalls Kristiane Chappell, whose mother, a paraplegic schoolteacher, now has secure housing.
This coming year, the banks are threatening foreclosure on more than one million families in the United States, which raises the question: Why aren’tmore people coming together to resist eviction, especially considering the legacy of this movement? According to organizers across the country, one of the greatest barriers to collective action is the pervasive isolation and shame that surrounds homeownership and foreclosure. Every neighborhood — and in some states, every block — has a story like Eloise Pittman’s.
When Ms. Pittman moved into her family home on Glen Iris Street in Atlanta in 1953, the house represented a great source of pride. The home was a nice house in a historic African American neighborhood. Martin Luther King lived right up the street. The family had owned the house since the 1950s, paid off by Ms. Pittman’s mother who washed dishes for a living. It was a perfect success story of the American dream.
Eloise Pittman hosted every family birthday, Christmas and Thanksgiving, filling the home with meatloaf and oxtails, children and grandchildren. She was a strong, proud schoolteacher who raised her family to belief in the American values of hard work and self-sufficiency. Yet, in 1985, she took out a mortgage loan that she later learned was a predatory loan. She tried to outmaneuver her ballooning payments, taking out another loan to pay the first, then a third to pay the other two. Chase Bank, meanwhile, used loan modifications and double-digit interest rates to strip the house of all its equity.
“The banks preyed on her for so many years. And she never said a word,” said her granddaughter Carmen Pittman.
On November 29, 2011, Ms. Pittman died in the backroom of the house, carrying her secret and more than $400,000 in debt. Less than a week later, the family received an eviction notice.
Over the last 60 years, homeownership has been the embodiment of the American dream — an idea so pervasive that it was sanctioned by the government with the creation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Our country’s embrace of free-market ideology as a social and cultural value further reinforced the myth that a home represented not only a family’s economic net worth, but its moral worth. Under this twisted logic, well-painted shutters and white picket fences came to signify dedication and hard work, and a foreclosure sign, failure. Even as the government bailed out ever larger corporations against all rules of the game, missed mortgage payments were still being seen as an individual problem rather than a systemic issue.
“People would almost rather lose their home than be seen on TV trying to save their home,” said Matt Smucker, an organizer with Occupy Our Homes in New York City.
Yet people are beginning to realize that inscribing this economic theory into our national narrative has benefited only those individuals and corporations at the top of the economic pyramid. Communities across the country are now coming together to share stories about facing and fighting foreclosure. Led by Eloise Pittman’s granddaughter Carmen, the Glen Iris house’s front lawn has become a tent city where neighbors and Occupiers run 24-hour eviction defense, reach out to other homeowners and organize actions. Occupy Minneapolis hosts weekly homeowner-support gatherings, one of the reasons that the local anti-foreclosure campaign has saved more than five homes this winter alone. In Boston, the neighborhood meetings organized by City Life — one of the most successful anti-foreclosure organizations in the country — have so much cathartic energy that they are compared to religious revivals. As these neighborhood assemblies spread, the anti-foreclosure movement is becoming no less than a deep destabilization of our national narrative, a collective imagining of a world in which a family’s fight for shelter doesn’t divide communities but unites them. Inspired by recent successes in Spain, where hundreds of home takeovers by M-15 activists have won families the legal right to keep their homes, activists see these first targeted actions as building pressure toward structural change.