Occupy Homes Wins Crucial Victories for Struggling Homeowners Against Big Banks
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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.
At a time when the federal government and law enforcement has failed to provide solutions for homeowners in crisis—let alone their failure to prosecute bankers for stealing peoples’ homes—this organizing is critical. Policy makers have refused to confront the scale of the problem in our housing system, with 8 million homes already foreclosed and another 7-8 million foreclosures expected in the next few years. While regulators, legislators, law enforcement and the President aren’t being responsive to the pain and suffering the 99% are facing in this crisis, communities are coming together, fighting the banks, and organizing to save their homes.
As Nick said on the day his house had been scheduled for the auction block, "When a community stands behind a family and draws attention to their case, the banks are more than capable of solving it. If they can fix it for our family, they can fix it for millions of others.”
And so with that fresh lesson, Nick and the Occupy Homes crew have turned their attention back to the fight for the Cruz family home. Siblings David and Alejandra Cruz, themselves DREAM Act activists buoyed by their recent immigrant rights victory, will arrive at the Pittsburgh headquarters of PNC Bank today, to deliver their loan modification documents to CEO James Rohr. PNC has thus far refused to accept them. And while Occupy Homes MN supports the Cruz family, other #OccupyHomes activists, Occupy groups, and housing activists will rally at PNC locations or phone-bank in support. At least fifteen cities nationwide have confirmed participation in a National Day of Action in support of the Cruz family.
While there are no guarantees for the Cruzes or anyone else fighting foreclosure, we've seen time and again that when people fight back—and communities stand with them in solidarity—they can win.
How do I know? A few months ago, I traveled to Minneapolis and to Atlanta, two places among scores across the country where occupy groups have turned to housing justice and organizing in direct support of people on the front lines of the housing crisis, the result of greed and recklessness and straight-up fraud by Wall Street and the banks that created the housing bubble. I've been working withOccupyOur Homes, an organizing project that aims to strengthen the #OccupyHomes movement by sharing training, 'best practices,' resources, and support of various kinds across a burgeoning national network.
In Minneapolis, I met two foreclosure fighters, Bobby Hull and Monique White. A former marine who looks like it, Bobby is simultaneously gruff and gentle, and isn't easily stopped when he gets going about how veterans and working people all across this country have been screwed while the banks and the super-rich have rewritten the rules they don't feel obligated to follow anyway. Monique White, a hard-working single mom from North Minneapolis was perhaps the first homeowner to approach the Occupy movement for support. Initially shy and guarded, she becomes focused and powerfully eloquent when talking about the byzantine bureaucracy the banks forced her to navigate just to get simple answers about paperwork she filed repeatedly.
After sustained campaigns that included occupiers in tents on their lawns, block parties, bank protests, phone calls and emails, marches on bankers' homes, and in the case of Monique, a direct confrontation with US Bank's CEO at the company's shareholder meeting, they both fought their foreclosures and won. The banks renegotiated their mortgages. They kept their homes. And they have both become community leaders, helping others find and exercise their power.
In Atlanta, I met Brigitte Walker, a decorated 20-year Army veteran. A few years ago, she was injured in Iraq and pushed into medical retirement, which cut her annual income by more than half. She reached out to Chase bank for a loan modification, showing them that she now had a fixed income for life, and would have no trouble making consistent, timely payments, provided they were slightly reduced. Chase stonewalled her and then started foreclosure proceedings. Brigitte teamed up with Occupy Atlanta and after two press conferences on her lawn, a national call-in day, and direct actions at local Chase branches, the bank suddenly figured out how to help, and Brigitte kept her home.
I also visited the Higher Ground Empowerment Center, a Baptist church in the historic Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta, only blocks from where Dr. King and his family were living when he was murdered in Memphis. In 2008, the church was severely damaged by tornadoes that wreaked havoc on the neighborhood. The church took out loans to rebuild but the economic crash only months later saw Pastor Dexter Johnson and the congregation struggling to pay the loans and praying for guidance. Soon, they too faced foreclosure by BB&T Bank. Pastor Johnson approached Occupy Atlanta and, well, you can guess the story by now. They occupied. They fought back. They won.
Each of these people—Colleen, Monique, Bobby, Pastor Johnson, and Brigitte—is featured in a new 30-second PSA that Occupy Our Homes is working to get placed on national TV, to raise awareness about the #OccupyHomes movement, and connect more people facing foreclosure with the resources to organize for justice. An initiative of LoudSauce, a crowd-funding site for TV ‘spots,’ as they call them, we’re appealing for contributions to amplify these stories — in order to attract more homeowners and more community supporters who are ready to fight back.
And while the 30-second spot features five foreclosure fighters who have won their battles, we also meet Christine Frazer, a 62-year old widow in Atlanta whose brutal 3am eviction left four generations of the Frazer family on the curb, including her 85-year old mother and 3-year old grandson. She has filed suit over fraud in the foreclosure process but her home remains locked down.
While we pay tribute to the hard work of Occupy Homes MN and spotlight the Cruz family’s fight today, Occupy Homes Atlanta and the #OccupyHomes movement have not given up on Chris Frazer and the millions of other homeowners, tenants, and homeless fighting for housing justice.
In urban centers like DC and Detroit to suburban LA and Midwestern towns, Occupy groups, community organizations, and housing justice activists are fighting unjust foreclosures, defending their neighbors from eviction, and liberating bank-owned vacant housing. These efforts are being led by frontline communities and supported by occupiers and activist allies who aim to spotlight the direct impacts of Wall Street greed and the pathology of corporate capitalism.
Someone smart once said, “political education begins at home.” Fighting for homes has been a political education for occupiers and newly minted activists, as well as homeowners whose experience of the economic crisis has brought the inequality and unfairness of our political and economic system into stark relief.
One-house-at-a-time battles have trained a spotlight on the problems as well as the solutions, and inspired new battles. But to fundamentally shift the power from the banks to the people—especially the millions who are underwater on their mortgages or can’t afford rent in cities that have become real estate speculators’ sandboxes—we need this movement to scale to the point where it’s impossible to keep track of the home occupations and communities fighting back.
As Christine Frazer says to the “banksters” who stole her home, “It was just that old evil thing called greed you let get the better of you. It’s time to let it go, and let us have ours. Your day is over.”
Please help us build this movement fighting for the Cruz family in Minneapolis and Chris Frazer’s family in Dekalb County Georgia, and millions more Americans who share their plight. One easy way to do so now is to help us get the new Occupy Homes PSA on national TV.