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

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.”

In some cases, according to Acuff, individuals who lived in re-occupied homes end up transitioning to other living situations voluntarily. Other times, they are evicted by the owners.

Take Back The Land has placed homeless individuals in five or six unoccupied structures in the Rochester area, Acuff said. A number of activists now working with Take Back the Land in Rochester, he said, are themselves formerly homeless.

Acuff and Take Back the Land have also assisted Catherine Lennon, an evicted Rochester resident who activist and Center for American Progress fellow Van Jones called a “modern day Rosa Parks,” in resisting eviction and in the fight to work out a deal with Bank of America.

“We want to link up with people across the country, across our neighborhoods, to build this movement,” Acuff said. “The Occupy movement has brought us some positive momentum. I feel like we're entering a new phase.”

One thing is for sure: Banks are taking notice.

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

“We believe protests will likely take place tomorrow at auction sites, homes that are being foreclosed, homes in the eviction stage and vacant homes,” reads the email, which was addressed to the bank's Field Services suppliers. “We want to make sure you are all prepared.”

Bank of America confirmed to ThinkProgress that the email is authentic, but did not respond to a Campus Progress request for comment on the Occupy Our Homes movement.

“This is standard operating procedure,” Bank of America spokesperson Jumana Bauwens told ThinkProgress. “The safety of our associates and third party contractors is our first priority. It is the bank’s policy to protect and secure our properties for the investors who own them. Bank of America is committed to helping our customers with home retention solutions and other foreclosure avoidance programs. Foreclosure is always our last resort.”

Safety concerns are misplaced, according to Newby. It serves organizers best, he said, to “de-escalate any confrontational situation.”

"The goal is to get banks to work with people in advance of the eviction, so that people who want to stay can find a solution to stay,” Newby said. “Violence is not part of the answer."

As far as squatting goes, Newby said he thinks the people of North Minneapolis are best served by eviction resistance and advocacy rather than re-occupation, though such efforts become crucial after the fact and in today’s economy. But his primary goal, which he says is to empower residents of disenfranchised communities like North Minneapolis to seek positive political and social change on their own, is widely embraced by Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Our Homes.

There is some concern that lenders and mortgage associations will just bide their time until protesters move on, and then fall back into the same predatory tactics that inspired activists to stand up for individuals like White and Lennon in the first place. But Newby thinks the energy is here to stay.

“I'm not at all worried that this is going to go away,” Newby said. “The question is whether and how it becomes sustainable.”

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