In motions filed Monday in Dekalb County Magistrate Court, the group argues that when Mark Harris refused to leave his home as police attempted to evict him at gunpoint, he wasn’t criminally trespassing – he was standing his ground.
Mawuli Davis, the lawyer representing Harris, and the members of Occupy Our Homes Atlanta who also were arrested during the eviction say they aim to challenge the double standard by which Stand Your Ground laws often have been applied.
The corporation in question is Fannie Mae, the government-run mortgage servicer that ordered Harris’ eviction last August. Davis’ goal is not only to save his clients from the 12- to 24-month jail sentences they face. The four defendants had a chance to take plea bargains that offered lesser punishments such as community service, probation and paying a fine. But they unanimously rejected the deals to take the case to trial. They want to use the opportunity to force transparency from the company that strung Harris along for years, leading him to believe he could save his house, then suddenly slammed the door on negotiations.
“Our objective is to subpoena some of the folks that are hiding their hand as they evict people,” Davis says. “Our hope is that, by having the trial, we will expose the lengths that banks and lenders will go to and how it impacts the everyman and -woman who are just trying to survive.”
In Georgia, that’s a lot of people. There were 35,000 foreclosures in the state last year, the fifth-highest rate in the nation, according to the data and analytics company CoreLogic. That’s a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of foreclosures that Georgia has seen in the seven years since the housing market crashed. Mark Harris’ story is not uncommon.
Harris is a Desert Storm veteran who retired early after 25 years of working for UPS to start his own trucking service in 2006. When the recession hit in 2008, he suddenly he couldn’t get contracts, and he fell behind on his mortgage payments for the first time since buying his modest one-story house in Decatur in 1996.
In the next few years, his employment was sporadic, and so were his mortgage payments. Paying the $1,200 per month became more difficult as late fees piled up. He says he communicated his circumstances to Fannie Mae from the beginning, and the company offered him a loan modification. But it was a bad deal.
Harris was seeking principal reduction, which is when a lender reduces the amount of a borrower’s overall debt, as opposed to a modification, which only changes the terms under which the borrower will pay it off. Homeowners generally seek principal reduction when their mortgage is “underwater,” meaning the value of the mortgage is higher than the market value of the house. Harris’ mortgage was deep underwater. When the housing market imploded, the value of his house plummeted to $215,000, while his mortgage remained at $380,000.
“When you’re in a position of begging for help, you can’t really negotiate,” Harris says. “I was so fixated on keeping the house that I accepted the bad deal.”
His hope was that a disability claim, for PTSD-related issues and arthritis, that he filed with the Veterans Administration would come through and he could put the money toward his mortgage. That was in 2009. To date, Harris’ claim is still pending.
With no windfall in sight and a continually sluggish job market, Harris kept appealing to Fannie Mae to renegotiate. The back-and-forth stretched over the course of three years. At one point, Fannie Mae offered him a two-year lease on the home, a prospect Harris says he couldn’t stomach after working toward home ownership for more than a decade.
Then in May 2012, Harris found out he might qualify for assistance from a program called Homesafe Georgia, which was established with federal funding to provide aid to people hit hardest by the housing crisis. He began the application process, with the possible outcome of having his mortgage covered in full for 18 months.
In fall 2012, Harris started taking classes at a technical college, where he studied bioscience.
He had education benefits from the military and started receiving a small pension from UPS that bolstered his financial stability. If Homesafe Georgia could help him renegotiate his loan and cover some of the payments, he would be back on track.
On a Friday in October 2012, Harris had a meeting over the phone with his case manager from Homesafe Georgia and a representative at Fannie Mae. Everything seemed to be in good order. It would just take a little more time for his paperwork to make it through the many levels of bureaucracy.
So he was stunned when, three days later, he received a notice in the mail informing him that his house had been foreclosed.
“Fannie Mae led me to believe that we could work something out,” Harris said. “But they weren’t interested in me getting help. They wanted the house. They really baited-and-switched me.”
Harris had been dual-tracked, a process the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently restricted with new rules. For years, banks have been able to initiate the loan modification process and the foreclosure process at the same time within two departments that typically don’t communicate. A homeowner’s fate in this situation usually depends on which department works faster.
Homesafe Georgia could no longer assist Harris because the mortgage was not in his name. It was game over. That’s when he turned to Occupy Our Homes Atlanta.
OOHA is affiliated with an umbrella organization called Occupy Our Homes, one of three major housing justice coalitions made up of grass-roots organizations nationwide. Like many of these groups, OOHA uses direct action to intervene in foreclosures and evictions and moves people back into their homes after evictions take place. In its two years of existence, OOHA has had more than 20 victories, saving homes, churches and even a farm.
“There is a huge number of struggling Georgians that the legal system isn’t going to help and that aren’t going to qualify for the aid programs,” says Tim Franzen, an OOHA organizer. “The gap that we fill is for the large number of Georgians who have nowhere to turn and have decided they want to keep their house.”
Franzen explains that, until recently, Homesafe Georgia served only people who defaulted on their mortgage because of unemployment. This left out the underemployed and those for whom medical issues were a major factor in falling behind.
Georgia received nearly $100 million from the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement, in which the country’s five largest mortgage servicers agreed to pay a total of $25 billion of restitution for illegal practices that caused the foreclosure crisis and the ensuing recession. This money was intended to help struggling homeowners – and could have expanded programs like Homesafe Georgia. But Republican Gov. Nathan Deal decided instead to divert the money to two state agencies that offer incentives to lure corporations to Georgia.
It’s no small wonder that Harris’ application for Homesafe Georgia had been pending for five months when Fannie Mae foreclosed on him.
OOHA advised Harris not to leave his house. Too often, Franzen says, people “self-evict,” thinking their foreclosure notice means they have to leave. In Georgia, lenders have to go through the courts to evict, giving homeowners time.
With OOHA’s help, Harris was able to stay in his home for nine months while they fought to reverse the foreclosure. During that time, OOHA held regular rallies outside Fannie Mae’s regional headquarters in Atlanta. The public pressure led the company to re-enter negotiations with Harris. He and Franzen even flew to Washington to negotiate directly with top executives. They were within $100 of a deal, when they reached a sticking point: principal reduction.
“Fannie Mae went into bankruptcy because of their irresponsible practices,” says Franzen, pointing out the irony. “The only reason they still exist is because the US government stepped in and bought them out. Yet there’s no assistance for people like Mark, who lost his job because of the housing market crashing. The wealth in his home was stripped as a result of the market crash.”
As Harris and Franzen pushed for Fannie Mae to narrow the $165,000 gap between the value of the mortgage and the market value of the house, the company shut down negotiations yet again.
At 7 AM on August 8, 2013, Harris was drinking coffee and watching the morning news when his telephone rang. It was his neighbor wondering why police were outside Harris’ house.
Harris rushed to his room to get dressed. He had one leg in his pants when the doorbell rang. When he peered through the peephole in the front door, he saw two Dekalb County marshals on the porch. Their guns were drawn. One was pointed at the door.
“They took me outside like I was a criminal,” Harris said. They questioned him while other officers went inside the home. One officer opened the garage, as a pickup truck pulled up with four men inside. The men began hauling out the contents of the garage and strewing them on the lawn.
Harris started making calls on his cell phone. OOHA put out the word and supporters began arriving one by one. Within an hour there were 30 people standing in solidarity with Harris.
The police and eviction crew eventually left. Officers warned that anyone on the property the next day would be arrested. OOHA members pitched tents and had a cookout.
Police returned the next afternoon and gave the crowd 30 minutes to disperse, threatening to arrest anyone who remained on the property. Harris refused to leave. Franzen and two supporters, Daniel Hanley and Miriam Asad, stayed with him. They made their stand in the driveway with American flags, handmade signs and a big banner. The rest of the people moved to the street, where they sang and chanted. One by one, police handcuffed Harris, Franzen, Hanley and Asad and led them to a paddy wagon.
Harris has been homeless ever since. He stays in hotels and with friends. He didn’t return to school this semester. He says it’s too hard to concentrate on studying “when you have court dates and don’t know where you’re going to be living.”
After the eviction, Fannie Mae hired private security guards to patrol Harris’ home. Until the house sold – for only $190,000 – at least three guards were on the property 24 hours a day. According to OOHA, Fannie Mae spent an estimated $15,000 each month to monitor the home.
It’s details of decisions like this one that Davis wants to expose in court.
“Our hope is that this trial will document – and allow more community members to see and hear – how this process works,” he said. “And it’s our hope, quite frankly, that they will become outraged and politicized to action.”
As for keeping his clients from going to jail, Davis will have to prove that the orders police gave were unlawful for the Stand Your Ground defense to stick. To this end, he must prove that Fannie Mae did not have a right to Harris’ home. He may be able to accomplish this by demonstrating that the company did not negotiate in good faith, which Georgia law requires lenders to do.
For Harris, the trial serves as a way to push back and make his voice heard.
“People suffer in silence,” he said. “You feel like you’re a failure, and you feel like you didn’t man-up. Whatever you feel like, you suffer in silence, and that’s what [big banks and lenders] expect you to do. That’s how they’re able to continue to abuse you. I want people to understand that this could happen to them. And unless we do something, it will continue to happen.”
The trial dates are expected to be in March.