Mass. activists stop auction

January 3, 2011

SPRINGFIELD, Mass., --More than 40 protesters joined Noelia Ramos outside her home on December 23 to successfully prevent a foreclosure auction and keep her family in their home for the holidays.

The auction, organized by PHH Mortgage Solutions, would have sold off the home of Ramos, her daughter and her 2-year-old granddaughter two days before Christmas, tossing them onto the streets at the beginning of a bitter New England winter.

Ramos, who was laid off in 2008 from her job teaching in the Springfield Public Schools, made payments as long as she could, through most of 2009, before asking PHH for a loan modification. PHH claimed to be working on the details of a modification, only to tell the Ramos family in July that they planned to foreclose instead.

Though the economy is supposedly in recovery, for homeowners, the crisis is only getting worse, disproportionately impacting Black and Latino working-class families. According to Newsday, "When the books close on 2010, banks will have repossessed a record 1.2 million U.S. homes, up 33 percent from 2009."

Springfield, a multiracial, working-class city in western Massachusetts, has had more completed mortgage foreclosures in the first 11 months of 2010 than any other city in the state, according to The Republican newspaper. This is despite having a population less than one-fourth that of Boston, the largest city in Massachusetts.

Ramos' case is typical: she wants to renegotiate the terms of her loan so she can afford to stay in her home, but the servicer has refused. Government efforts at foreclosure prevention have only prevented a fraction of foreclosures and lack the teeth necessary to force lenders to negotiate. As Newsday pointed out, "In our system of bundled, resold mortgages, the companies that service the loans can sometimes make more money by charging fees throughout the foreclosure process."

Similarly, Ramos is one of the hundreds of thousands of local public-sector workers who have lost their jobs since the financial crisis in 2008 (more than half in education, according to Barrons ), as public-sector workers and homeowners are paying the price for declining government revenue and the cost of bailing out the banks in the wake of the housing crash.

THE PROTEST, called by the No One Leaves Coalition in collaboration with the Springfield Bank Tenants Association, demanded that the Ramos family remain in their home and that PHH "negotiate a modification that reduces the principal and is affordable." As their statement said, "The Ramos' are NOT leaving their home without a fight, and [we] are prepared to stand up and fight back to keep the Ramos family in their home!"

Some 20 protesters gathered on the Ramos family's lawn by 3:30 p.m., and the number grew to more than 40 by the time the auction was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Ramos stood in front of her home with a sword and shield made of cardboard and tinfoil, joined by members of No One Leaves, Western Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, the UMass Graduate Employees Organization (United Auto Workers), the International Socialist Organization and other community members.

Also supporting the Ramos family was Carlos Peña, whose own home was saved from auction the previous week after a protest called by No One Leaves bought him enough time to declare bankruptcy and freeze foreclosure proceedings.

Protesters formed a line between the home and the street, chanting, "Banks get bailed out, we get thrown out" and "What do we do when the banks attack? Stand up, fight back!" Neighbors driving by gave the thumbs up, and some stopped to talk to protesters, including a mailman who expressed his support.

Addressing the crowd, Ramos said that PHH waited until the last minute to tell her they were auctioning her home two days before Christmas: "I have been here 20 years...the people from the bank never talked to me or negotiated, even when I said I wanted to pay. I decided I wanted to fight for my house, and I will never leave!"

Miriam Kudler-Flam, an organizer with No One Leaves, said, "With all those billions in bailouts...the banks need to make meaningful modifications. No more homeless in our communities!"

Shortly after the auction was set to begin, no potential buyers had attempted to get past the line of demonstrators, although protesters did spot two people in a late-model SUV who were parked for a few minutes up the street, but drove away.

An employee of PHH appeared and walked up to Keith Peters, who was leading chants with a bullhorn from the Ramos' front steps. Peters confronted him, saying, "Nobody is buying this house today!" The employee said that he was there to inform Noelia Ramos that the auction was being postponed for one month, until January 25.

Protesters immediately began cheering and chanting "Sí se puede" and "We'll be back." Ramos thanked protesters for their solidarity, saying, "They're not just dealing with one person, they're dealing with all of us."

Kudler-Flam said, "This is a victory. For now, Noelia Ramos can stay in her house, but we will be back to support her [if PHH does not renegotiate]."

With the action at the Peña home one week before, this was the second victory for the newly formed No One Leaves coalition, which one protester pointed out is "two for two." The coalition is modeled on City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots organization with the motto "Building solidarity to put people before profit" that has played a leading role in stopping foreclosures and evictions in Boston.

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