Last Week in Poverty: Homeowners Take the Foreclosure Fight to the DOJ

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Gisele Mata of Whittier, California, never considered herself a political activist. Other than making some calls on behalf of President Obama during the 2012 campaign, her focus was on her work, family, church and volunteering as a Girl Scout troop leader.

But on Monday morning at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, she was ready to march to the Department of Justice, where she would risk arrest in order to save her family’s home and stand up for other people facing foreclosure.

“Banks are doing extreme things to get people out of their homes, so it requires extreme action,” Mata told me. “I wouldn’t be here except the banks are not being monitored so we have to stand up as citizens. They are getting away with acts of inhuman behavior and the Justice Department is not reacting.”

Mata was among 500 activists from across the country who came to the nation’s capital to “Bring Justice to Justice”—participating in three days of action organized by Home Defenders League and Occupy Our Homes. They were calling for the criminal prosecution of banks for ongoing illegal activity, including illegal foreclosures; and for resetting mortgages to a property’s fair market value for the more than 13 million homeowners still at risk of foreclosure.

Mata and her family have been in their home for more than ten years. Their struggle began in 2009 when she and her husband were laid off from their jobs in retail and engineering, respectively. They survived by cashing out on their 401(k)s and working in low-wage jobs.

“We didn’t have any problems until last year,” she said, when they no longer could afford both their home and food for their family of five. So Mata and her husband requested a mortgage modification from Bank of America.

“We asked them to tack on what we owed to the principal, and to give us the going interest rate because we still have a high rate,” she said. “We aren’t even asking for a principal reduction. Plus we’re both working, we have equity in our home—but they still refuse.”

Her eldest daughter is now working as a massage therapist. Her husband is again employed as an aircraft parts quality inspector—for $13 an hour, compared to the $19 hourly wage he previously earned—and Mata earns commissions as a sales representative for an energy company. But the high interest payments they are paying force them to choose between a roof over their head or food for the family.

“Right now we’re choosing the roof and getting food from our church in order to make payments on the mortgage,” she said. “And we go to the 99 cent store and buy Top Ramen [noodles] and tuna fish. That’s pretty much how we make it.”

But even as the Matas continue to make their payments, Bank of America continues to push for foreclosure. Her dealings with the bank in an effort to get a modification tell a story that is now all too familiar in this country.

“Negotiating means paperwork multiple times over and over again,” she said. “As soon as you get it in they switch your point-of-contact and then you have to start over again. And as many times as they ask is how many times you do it, or else they won’t consider you for the modification. No one is holding them accountable.”

Ann Haines of St. Paul, Minnesota, was also ready to get arrested after experiencing an even more extreme nightmare in dealing with US Bank. She had lived in her home with her three sons for thirteen years, and was struggling to meet a monthly mortgage payment that had risen from $800 to $1300.

“I work in intake at a methadone program,” she said. “I see people at their lowest and my nature is to help. So I was foolishly thinking that by asking the bank for help I would get it.”

Instead, what she got was US Bank telling her to stop making payments for three months so she would be eligible for a modification, followed by the bank sending her the wrong modification application. She then arrived home one day to find her locks changed and a realtor going out her back door. The bank proceeded with a sheriff’s sale.

“It was terrifying and you don’t know what to do,” said Haines.

Legal Aid was able to stop the sale of her home, since the bank admitted it had sent her the wrong modification application and foreclosed while she was still in underwriting—a process known as “dual tracking.” (This is now barred under the California Homeowners’ Bill of Rights and the just-passed Minnesota Homeowners’ Bill of Rights.)

“But what really inspired me to fight was the attorney for US Bank sitting across from me in court and saying, ‘The only negotiation US Bank is willing to do right now is to get her out,’ ” said Haines. “He didn’t have enough courage to look at me, but he said it.”

Haines hooked up with Occupy Homes MN and traveled last month to the US Bank shareholders meeting in Boise, Idaho, to confront CEO Richard Davis.

“Two days later the eviction case was magically closed,” said Haines.

She described herself as “elated” that she no longer fears losing her home at any moment. But she still felt the need to be in Washington, DC, to support other struggling homeowners.

“I don’t want to be arrested, jail is scary for me,” she said. “But I’m willing to do it to show that this is serious. There are too many people going through this, and the banks have to be held accountable. If I did something wrong they would hold me accountable.”

Cammy Dupuy of Gonzales, Louisiana, isn’t affiliated with any particular group—she had learned about the action in recent weeks on the Internet. She was also prepared for arrest, though not particularly looking forward to it.

“I’m really nervous and scared to go to jail,” said Dupuy. “But if that’s what it takes to let people know they’re not alone—the shame shouldn’t be put on people.”

Since 2006, Dupuy’s mortgage has had so many different banks and loan servicers attached to it that the trail is dizzying. As a result, she has had her paperwork lost as servicers change, not been provided new mailing addresses for payments, fought off two sheriff’s sales and even received modification “offers” that would have had her paying double-digit interest rates and waiving her right to sue for the mishandling of her note.

Throughout her struggle, Dupuy has found herself alone.

“The thing about Louisiana, nobody talks about foreclosures, and they don’t put signs out in people’s yards like in other states, so they really keep it from the public,” she said. “But I’ve been pulling up the sales on my local sheriff’s website and every month there are quite a bit just in my parish alone.”

Dupuy said a lot of people are “just walking away because they don’t know what to do.”

“I’m tired of feeling alone. I want people in Louisiana to start talking about it, start standing up, start doing something,” said Dupuy. “The people in Louisiana fear the law. But if all of us come together and take a stand then fear shouldn’t be a problem.”

By the end of the day on Monday, Mata was arrested on the steps of the Department of Justice along with sixteen other nonviolent activists. (The nonviolence by activists didn’t translate to nonviolent arrests by Homeland Security officers, who used tasers.) The demonstrators had set up an encampment and also blocked traffic along a very busy Constitution Avenue. Mata and others didn’t give their names when booked—they didn’t want this to be just another routine booking and quick release—so she was held until Tuesday evening.

“I told them I was [Bank of America CEO] Brian Moynihan,” said Mata, and many of the other demonstrators who were arrested used the names of bank CEOs as well.

Dupuy was arrested along with six other homeowners Wednesday morning while blocking the lobby entrance to Covington & Burling—a prominent international law firm that has represented JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, UBS and other major banks. Haines was one of the demonstrators blocking the entrance too, but because she was on the outside of the building, police just removed her from the space.

In addition to representing the large banks, organizers said the law firm epitomizes the “revolving door” between serving government and serving Wall Street’s interests, noting that Attorney General Eric Holder was a partner at Covington & Burling before coming to the DOJ, and former Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer left his post in March to become vice chair of the firm.

For three straight days, these homeowners and their supporters—mostly low-income people of color—demonstrated what it means to personally sacrifice for the good of others, to move beyond hopeful words to deeds and actions.

I hope that those of us who seek change feel their urgency, and will follow their lead to take more and greater action—together.

Victories in Minnesota: Progressive Budget and Homeowners Bill of Rights

According to Carol Nieters, executive director of SEIU Local 284, in 1971, Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson called education equity—poor school districts that were struggling—and high property taxes “the issue of our time.”

The state legislature responded by creating a “general education levy” that equalized and created dedicated funding for schools, and also lowered property taxes.

“It went forward like that for like the next four decades,” said Nieters. “It put Minnesota in a place to be a premier state in education.”

But then along came Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura who body-slammed the levy, and Governor Tim Pawlenty who presided over nearly a decade of disinvestment from schools and taking from school appropriations to plug other holes in the budget.

“As a result, we’ve now got ten or eleven four-day school districts, and other than core curriculum, everything else is cut out—arts, music, in some cases languages,” said Nieters.

But this week the state reaffirmed its commitment to education. At a time when so many states are opting to close schools that primarily serve low-income students, Minnesota passed a budget that closes corporate tax loopholes and increases education funding and equity.

The 2013 budget erases the state’s $627 million budget deficit, raises the income tax by 2 percent on the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans, raises $424 million by closing corporate tax loopholes and reduces property taxes by $400 million.

The budget uses new revenues to make key investments in education, including: fully funding optional, all-day kindergarten; increasing special education funding by $236 million; and importantly, passing two levies that will make funding for all school districts more reliable, while also providing additional resources to local districts with the greatest need.

“This budget gets to equity in education and reduces property taxes,” said Nieters. “Over four decades later we are doing the same thing we did right in 1971.”

She said the budget was achieved by the union and its progressive allies reaching out to groups all across the state that were pursuing a “common interest of stronger communities [through] an educated society and workforce.” They began organizing prior to the 2012 election with a message that wealthy individuals and corporations must pay their fair share in order to strengthen education. Many Democrats ran on that platform, and the party picked up enough seats to win majorities in both the House and Senate.

After the election, the grassroots coalition kept the pressure on the newly elected legislators to follow through on their commitments. In the last few months alone, there were thousands of calls, visits, letters and e-mails to representatives, and a “Students’ Day” for parents and children at the Capitol, with students from kindergarten through high school attending.

The budget was passed Monday night by the legislature, and Democratic Governor Mark Dayton signed it into law yesterday.

“We engaged organizations all over the state—and we can make a difference if we do that,” said Nieters. “The voice of the people can be heard over the folks with the money. But you gotta get out there.”

* * *

On Sunday, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights by a bipartisan 123-0 vote. The Senate passed a companion bill last week, so now it just awaits Governor Dayton’s signature.

The bill protects homeowners through a number of provisions, including: requiring loan servicers to offer modifications to all eligible homeowners; banning “dual tracking,” which occurs when a bank forecloses on a homeowner before communicating a decision on a loan modification application; and allowing homeowners to take the servicer to court to stop foreclosure if the servicer fails to comply with any aspect of the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights. (Also important, lawyer’s fees and court costs would be covered if the homeowner proves his or her case.)

Ann Haines, the homeowner from St. Paul interviewed in the DOJ story above, testified along with other homeowners at a House hearing on the bill in January.

Democrats and the Farm Bill

I always expect the worst from the House Republicans when it comes to SNAP (food stamps) and the Farm Bill. So while much attention and anger has been focused on the $20.5 billion cut proposed by the House Agriculture Committee—which would take food stamps away from nearly 2 million people and result in several hundred thousand low-income children no longer receiving free school meals—my reaction was more along the lines of… yeah, what did you expect?

I was actually more disturbed that the Democratic Senate Agriculture Committee would vote for a $4.1 billion cut in food stamps—even though the average benefit is about $1.46 per person, per meal, and a recent Institute of Medicine report demonstrates that benefit levels are already too low to stave off hunger. The cut “would mean $90 less a month for 500,000 families already struggling to make ends meet,” according to Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Berg noted that an amendment by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand would have prevented the SNAP cuts “by instead cutting subsidies for crop insurance companies, many of which are foreign owned.”

Unfortunately, the committee failed to pass Senator Gillibrand’s amendment, and Senate Democrats proved yet again that the party’s commitment to those who are the most economically vulnerable is about as thin as Republican cut proposals are deep.

But the party outdid itself on Wednesday when the Farm Bill was debated on the Senate floor. As Center on Budget and Policy Priorities president Robert Greenstein describes:

Senator David Vitter offered—and Senate Democrats accepted—an amendment that would increase hardship and will likely have strongly racially discriminatory effects. [It] would bar from SNAP, for life, anyone who was ever convicted of one of a specified list of violent crimes at any time—even if they committed the crime decades ago in their youth and have served their sentence, paid their debt to society, and been a good citizen ever since…. The amendment would [also] mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members. So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren’s benefits would be cut…. Senator Vitter hawked his amendment as one to prevent murderers and rapists from getting food stamps. Democrats accepted it without trying to modify it to address its most ill-considered aspects.

Antipoverty advocates suggest contacting your senators—particularly Harry Reid, Debbie Stabenow and Richard Durbin—to tell them that you oppose this provision. They suggest doing it as soon as possible since it’s unclear how quickly the Farm Bill will move.

You might also suggest to them that the party check Lost and Found for its spine, too.

But at Least We Have Congresswoman Barbara Lee

Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer introduced the Half-in-Ten Act of 2013, which would establish the Federal Interagency Working Group on Reducing Poverty. The working group would develop and implement a national strategy to reduce poverty by half in ten years, integrating federal policies on poverty reduction, and also provide regular progress reports to Congress.

“Our policies and programs addressing poverty have not kept pace with the growing needs of millions of Americans,” said Congresswoman Lee, who chairs the new Democratic Whip Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity and consistently represents the interests of low-income Americans. “It is time we make the commitment to confront poverty head-on, create pathways out of poverty and provide opportunities for all.”

I would imagine this bill has about as much a shot at passing the House as this blog has at becoming Speaker Boehner’s favorite bedtime reading. Nevertheless, I’m always thankful for Representative Lee—I’m glad the Democratic whip is supporting her efforts—and it’s always worthwhile to keep up with her work and listen to what she has to say.

And That Goes for Senator Bernie Sanders, Too

Senator Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, introduced legislation yesterday to reauthorize and strengthen the Older Americans Act, which supports Meals on Wheels and other critical programs for seniors such as in-home care, transportation, benefits access, caregiver support, chronic disease self-management, job training and placement and elder abuse prevention.

“With 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, our country’s growing population of seniors includes many who rely on these critical programs to help them stay in their own homes and communities,” said Sanders, speaking at an Older Americans Summit.

Funding has not kept pace with the growth in need or numbers, and recent cuts before the sequester hit have further eroded investments in key services.

In a letter endorsing Senator Sanders’s bill, National Council on Aging president and CEO James Firman writes that the legislation “can empower seniors and improve their health and economic security, bend downward the long-term entitlements cost curve, and promote greater program efficiency and coordination.”

The bill would also require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to create a consumer price index for the elderly that would account for spending on high-inflation goods and services like healthcare, prescription drugs and heating homes.


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