Saving homes from the banks
reports on how activists joined with homeowners and tenants facing eviction to shame the banks into backing off--and where the movement goes next.
LONG BEFORE the Occupy Wall Street protest movement began last fall, Bertina Jones and Dawn Butler were fighting their own battles--battles with banks that were trying to take their homes in the Washington, D.C. area.
Now, after joining Occupy Our Homes D.C. and helping to build a movement to save their homes and those of others, both have won victories over the banksters.
The day after a spirited rally and press conference outside Freddie Mac's D.C., office on February 27, Jones was offered a new loan, and her foreclosure and home auction have been reversed. And on April 2, an eviction defense at the foreclosed house where Butler is a tenant bought her time to get a stay of eviction so she could continue to fight her illegal eviction in court.
These victories, like others around the country, are providing momentum to a growing movement to challenge the banks. They provide the best hope for solving the foreclosure crisis in favor of the people who need homes--and not the banks that are stealing billions of taxpayer dollars.
BERTINA JONES, a grandmother whose son and grandson live with her, had been trying for over two years to save her home after getting behind on payments during a brief period of unemployment.
After she got a new job, she immediately began saving money. "I called Bank of America and asked them how I could get caught up with my mortgage," Jones says. Bank of America--who was the loan servicer, although Freddie Mac had previously purchased the loan--offered her a loan modification.
The stingy modification offer included no interest or principal reduction, but actually increased Jones' monthly payment and added a few years to the end of the loan to make up for missed payments. And the bank requested that Jones send in a $12,000 lump sum to accept the offer.
Jones sent in the money and paperwork, but the paperwork kept getting lost, according to the bank. "I had the paperwork notarized and sent directly from two different Bank of America branches, and always included the payments in the same envelope as the paperwork, yet they always got the money, but not the paperwork." This phenomenon of "lost" paperwork turns out to be a common experience among struggling homeowners.
After six months, the bank abruptly told Jones that the modification was off the table, and a year later, she was given notice that her home would be auctioned off in 30 days.
Jones continued to file what legal motions she could on her own. By this time, she was fairly well versed in the law after spending many hours in law libraries trying to act as her own counsel. She was getting some advice from a county legal services lawyer, but her income was too high to qualify for free representation from this lawyer. And, of course, if she paid the thousands of dollars that private lawyers were asking just to look at her case, she'd deplete the savings she needed to keep paying the mortgage.
Jones wrote to the law firm handling the foreclosure to ask what lump sum she would need to catch up on payments without a modification, something homeowners are allowed to request before an auction. She gathered as much monetary help as she could from relatives to cover what they asked, collecting $74,000. The law firm refused to reply, waiting until her auction was done to send her the lump sum amount: $69,000.
Freddie Mac purchased the home at auction for the loan amount plus $50,000, which is likely the full amount paid to Shapiro and Burson, the law firm that handled the foreclosure. In this way, Freddie Mac and Shapiro and Burson stole Jones' equity, but bought the house for far less than it's worth, while funneling large sums to the firm. Jones never got a penny of what had been her only wealth, her backup plan in case of emergency and for her retirement.
Six months later, Jones was already desperate when she received a notice that the bank had asked the court for an eviction order. Luckily, the newly formed Housing Working Group of Occupy DC--which calls itself Occupy Our Homes DC--was put in touch with Jones.
Our first action on February 27 was a rally outside Freddie Mac's D.C. office. At the action's peak, we had about 100 protestors chanting, "Save Bertina's house," "Housing is a right" and "Banks got bailed out--we got sold out!" Rev. Graylan Hagler, a fiery local pastor and activist, demanded a meeting with Freddie Mac immediately, and he and Jones were allowed past the police line and into the building.
An hour later, a spokesperson announced that Freddie Mac would work with Bank of America toward a "positive resolution" to the case, claiming the case's merits, and not the rally, motivated it. But of course, we saw this for what it was--a victory for our movement. Jones was relieved and energized as well. ""I'm glad I stood up and fought," she said. "I hope more homeowners will join us."
We were able to shame the bank into responding immediately by taking advantage of the fact that the banks are worried about their public relations image after being exposed for their fraud, scheming, huge executive bonuses, ruthlessness and culpability in the entire crisis. Activists around the country can use this situation to our advantage and make the bankers think twice before foreclosing.
Since the end of February, Jones' foreclosure has been reversed, but we are still keeping an eye out to make sure that her new loan is a decent deal. And Jones is leading us in organizing her community.
Jones, who is African-American, lives in Prince George's County, Maryland, adjacent to D.C., and the only predominantly African-American county in Maryland. It is no coincidence that Prince George's County has the highest foreclosure rate in the state, given the racist, predatory lending practices of the banks, coupled with an economic crisis that has disproportionately affected the Black community. That's why members of Occupy Our Homes D.C. think of this housing struggle as an antiracist struggle as well.
OUR SECOND case was in D.C. itself. Dawn Butler is a tenant in a house that was foreclosed on after the landlord got cancer and got behind on his mortgage. Butler had been planning to try to buy the house eventually, and her lease stipulated the improvements she was making to the property should be credited toward her future purchase.
But although D.C. law requires that tenants be given the first opportunity to buy the home they are living in, for a year, realtors for the bank that foreclosed avoided responding to her offers. It seemed they wanted her out so they could sell the house without credits to another buyer. They even accused her of forging the lease.
Butler was also given only 30 days to vacate the home, rather than the 90 required by law for tenants. She contacted Occupy Our Homes D.C. to ask us to defend her from eviction so she could go to the court one last time and ask for her case to be heard.
On the morning of the eviction, 40 people, including Bertina Jones, crowded in front of Butler's home, chanting and singing while waiting for the U.S. marshals to come. They arrived at 9 a.m. with their usual crew of workers hired to move tenants out. The marshals are indifferent to the irony of making these temporary workers, many of them homeless themselves, move others out of their homes.
During the hour-long standoff with the marshals--before Butler was granted a stay and the eviction crew moved to another home, the Butler family and members of Occupy Our Homes explained the case to the workers and gave each the group's eviction resistance hotline number. Many of them told about their own recent evictions and about other struggles they face. Perhaps we will be working with one of them soon.
Speaking on the success of this latest action, Occupy Our Homes DC member Rooj Alwazir commented, "A beautiful part of this work is that homeowners are organizing for their own defense and then organizing their own communities." Like Bertina Jones, this is certainly true about Dawn Butler, who plans to start organizing on other people's cases now that she can take a breath in her own.
As our group achieves these victories and as our hotline becomes increasingly busy, we have to ask ourselves the next set of questions. How do we translate this momentum into a bigger and even more effective movement? How do we bring in more new activists and involve them in a democratic process for making change? What broad demands should we want to make beyond each individual case? Certainly, the recent settlement with major banks over robo-signing is much too little and much too late.
Whatever we decide to do next, we should be proud and confident about how we are laying foundations for the next step--in the same way that the housing struggles of the 1930s and 1960s laid the basis for reforms in tenancy laws and overturning the federal redlining policy.
Each victory is a victory for an individual family--but also for the future of a movement we desperately need.