Occupy Homes Wins Crucial Victories for Struggling Homeowners Against Big Banks
This piece is an Op-Ed by Han Shan, an activist and organizer with Occupy Our Homes.
At the Netroots Nation conference in Providence, RI, I was catching up with Nick Espinosa, a promising young grassroots organizer from Minneapolis. For the past several months, Nick has been working with Occupy Homes Minnesota, one node in a growing network of homeowners, housing justice activists, and occupiers organizing to stop foreclosures and evictions and to hold banks accountable.
Nick was at Netroots to speak on a panel about the growing Occupy Homes movement, and eager to talk about a local campaign that had earned a lot of attention recently: the Cruz family's fight for their home in South Minneapolis. In 2011, the Cruzes’ mortgage lender PNC Bank failed to withdraw an online payment, and then punished the family for the bank's own mistake, demanding an entire extra month's payment as a penalty fee. Like so many working families, the Cruzes were operating month-to-month and suddenly owed more than they could afford. Before they knew it, they were another American family, among millions, facing foreclosure.
Nick was among the 23 Occupy Homes MN supporters of the Cruzes who had recently been arrested over the course of a weeklong vigorous nonviolent defense against five separate eviction raids by the Minneapolis Police and Hennepin County Sheriff's Department. The tenacity and perseverance of Nick and his cohorts got a lot of attention—from the city, from PNC Bank as well as Freddie Mac, the servicers of the Cruzes’ loan, and from activists across the country—and he was eager to keep a spotlight on the case.
But I was anxious for an update on another case I hadn't heard about in a bit; Nick and his family—his single mom, and younger sister and brother—were themselves facing foreclosure.
"The Sheriff's sale is on Wednesday," Nick told me as we sat at a bar near the convention center in Providence. "Shit, man!" I exclaimed. Why hadn't he been rallying the troops? I asked. "What the hell are you gonna do?"
Over the course of the Netroots Nation, we schemed a bit, along with other Occupy Homes activists, and Nick talked to his mom Colleen and some of his crew back in Minneapolis. For many months, Nick's mom Colleen McKee Espinosa had been appealing to her lender—Citibank's mortgage division—simply to accept her payments, but the bank had refused. Colleen told me how she had initially been reluctant to get involved with Occupy Homes. "Don't bring those Occupy people around here," she recalled saying to Nick.
With the prospect of losing her home of 16 years, Colleen’s outrage at the bank's unwillingness to find a solution grew. Before long, she was hosting Occupy Homes' "Foreclosure-Free" community BBQs at her home, canvassing the neighborhood for petition signatures, and asking neighbors to display lawn signs calling to "Stop Foreclosures." But the bank hadn't budged and the foreclosure auction grew closer by the day.
On the Monday after Nick arrived home from Netroots, he and the Occupy Homes MN crew launched into action with a social media blitz to gather petition signatures, press outreach to highlight the plight of his mom Colleen, a beloved community member and nurse of 30+ years. They even turned up the heat with a flurry of calls directly to Citibank's CEO. By Monday evening, Occupy Homes MN was firing on all cylinders, and people across the country were joining the chorus to demand that Citibank do the right thing.
And then the phone rang at Colleen’s house.
It was Citi calling with an offer to accept—and lower—the mortgage payments, and also begging for an end to the stream of emails and calls. "Uncle!" they essentially cried, and another home was saved, in this case only a day before it was scheduled to be sold at a foreclosure auction. Here was more proof that the banks are capable of doing the right thing—when they feel enough pressure.