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How “Occupy Our Homes” Can Win

An Occupy Real Estate march in East New York protests bank foreclosures and encourages people to occupy empty buildings on December 6, 2011. (Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh)

How “Occupy Our Homes” Can Win

An Occupy Real Estate march in East New York protests bank foreclosures and encourages people to occupy empty buildings on December 6, 2011. (Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh)

Since most of the original Occupy encampments were evicted by wintertime, the question now is, what's next for activists? One of the most popular suggestions is “Occupy Our Homes,” a campaign in which occupiers around the country would do actions at foreclosed houses or at bailed-out banks that are throwing people out of their homes. A national day of action on December 6 focused on this approach and featured home occupations or solidarity marches in 25 cities, including New York and Chicago.

Occupy Our Homes has three particularly good instincts.

First, it takes the general critique of inequality that the movement has been voicing – something often expressed in abstract charts and tables – and makes the issue concrete.

Since so many people in America are dealing with insecurity about their homes, the shift to doing foreclosure prevention and anti-eviction actions allows new groups of people with a clear sense of their own connection to the struggle to engage with the Occupy movement. Social movements at their best are about helping people take their individual troubles and link them to a public problem and shifting the focus from trying to personally cope to taking collective action.

Second, the campaign connects the Occupy movement with organizing that has been going on for years. Community-based groups have been resisting foreclosures and evictions at least since the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, if not before. Bringing the energy of Occupy to bear affords these campaigns more visibility and helps scale up local struggles, which can see themselves as part of a national movement.

Third, Occupy Our Homes identifies an arena for concrete change. Thus far, Occupy has been successful in creating enough general unrest to keep issues of inequality from being ignored and to shine a spotlight on the real economic problems affecting the majority of Americans. But as the movement progresses, it will benefit from targeting its discontent. Yes, we need to create a crisis in public consciousness, but the movement also needs to be able to drive specific changes.

As a new frontier for action, Occupy Our Homes raises a variety of difficult questions: How can we make sure that protests at a home or bank are actions that get real results instead of merely momentary occurrences? And how do we scale up so that we are not just addressing the problems of a few homeowners but instead making an impact that can resonate throughout the national economy?

I will be devoting two columns to these pressing questions.

To begin to understand the tactics and prospects of Occupy Our Homes, I spoke with Steve Meacham, organizing coordinator at City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston. City Life is one of the groups that has long been at the forefront of grassroots anti-eviction actions, and I was excited to get Meacham's insights.

Read more columns from author, activist, social entrepreneur and labor veteran Amy Dean here.

First, I asked him about the history of City Life's anti-foreclosure work.

“Our organization was formed in 1973,” Meacham said. “We launched our anti-foreclosure, anti-eviction effort about five years ago. It was really focused on fighting displacement more than fighting foreclosure. We discovered that other people were intervening on behalf of homeowners either at the moment they got their loan – advising them on how to be successful first-time homebuyers – or they were intervening at the moment people faced foreclosure. We opened up a third area: We started to intervene after foreclosure, to fight eviction.

“We discovered that for people who are underwater, foreclosure itself isn't such a big deal. They don't really have much equity in the house, so they're not losing that. What they are really losing is their ability to physically stay in their home. They can fight that independent of fighting foreclosure. I think that's especially true in Massachusetts, but it can be true almost anywhere.”

I asked Meacham what made Massachusetts unique.

“The tenants' rights protection here doesn't allow anyone to say they shouldn't be evicted on principal,” he explained, “but it does require the banks to jump through some hoops to get them evicted. The time it takes the banks to jump through those hoops gives us time to put maximum political pressure on them.”

Why focus on evictions rather than foreclosures?

“Fighting evictions is a much more collectivizable fight than loan modifications,” Meacham said. “It's hard to take five people doing loan modifications and bring them together in one fight because their situations are so different. There are all these different types of horror stories with loan modification. Instead of making demands on the banks to tweak the process, we decided that the key thing was principal reduction. That's the one thing the banks were never going to give, under any circumstances, unless you force them. We saw we could use the leverage gained during the eviction fights to force them to do that.”

So how does that process work?

“As one of the slogans of our movement, people put up signs in their windows before or after foreclosure, saying, 'We shall not be moved' in different languages. We engage people in making the same demand from their pre-foreclosure status right up through their eviction. That demand is, 'I want my house back at its real value.'”

“That demand links to an understanding that the housing bubble was the real predatory loan. Yes, there were terrible, individual, bait-and-switch predatory loans. But the entire housing bubble was a predatory environment. There were people who got standard 30-year mortgages but bought at a price that was inflated to three times the historic value of a house. That was a deliberate result of what the banks did, and it was equally predatory.”

But is there a realistic way homeowners can base their fight on the fact that housing values were inflated?

“The political pressure becomes: Here's the bank trying to evict a family that is saying, 'Look, we'll pay you rent.' The reason they can pay market rent but not their mortgage is that their mortgage was at a level that was grossly inflated.”

“Other families are saying, 'I will buy the building back from you at exactly the same value that you'll sell it if you evict me. So, sell it to me, don't sell it to an investor.' If Deutsch Bank or Bank of America is out to get as much money as possible after foreclosure, why not sell it back to the person? What difference does it make? Of course, they won't do it. Frankly they are into punishing owners for daring to default on their mortgages – even though we all know that corporations very, very frequently use strategic default and renegotiate their principals with their lenders. So, they are asking something of homeowners that they themselves don't practice.”

I agreed that, throughout the business world, everyone is trying to secure better terms and conditions on contracts now that the economy is resetting.

“That's what makes the fact that the banks won't let the vast majority of people with home loans renegotiate all the more obnoxious. The bankruptcy procedure allows owners to renegotiate their principal on their yacht, let's say, but not on their primary home. It's a bias in how bankruptcy works. In fact, in the opening months of the Obama administration, he introduced a bill to allow bankruptcy judges to lower principal. It was defeated in the Senate.”

I asked about the successes they've had with this strategy.

“We've now had over 100 families get their homes back at about 55 percent loan value on average,” he said. “And a lot more tenants have been preserved from bankruptcy by the banks.”

When I asked how the Occupy movement has changed the work of housing activists, Meacham pointed to an increasing level of activity. But he also commented on some of the difficulties involved in expanding the work.

“We've done something like 32 eviction blockades since January of 2008,” he noted. “In the previous ten years, we'd done two or three. Eviction blockades are really hard things to do because there are all sorts of things that have to line up in order for them to take place. One thing is that the person has to be willing to fight right up to the end. Our experience with tenants was that, very often, they would say, 'You know what, I think what the landlord did to me is really unjust, but I don't want to go through all that. My children can't take it. I'm going to move.'”

“With homeowners, in addition to a sense of injustice, they have a sense of connection to that space that's very significant. They will fight to the last, especially given the fact that we often win. Ironically, there has been a gradual radicalization of the anti-eviction movement as it has focused more on fighting evictions against homeowners.”

“Our ability to use militant tactics has increased as the base has grown. That's been an astounding thing, to see many of the folks who come into our meetings – which are huge – being voiceless and shy and unwilling to even say they are in foreclosure and ready to move out. A year later, they are getting arrested and writing articles in the newspaper about why they're getting arrested.”

When I asked if he had national-level strategic insights for Occupy Our Homes, he focused on connecting direct action to a wider organizing strategy.

“Eviction blockades and building occupations should be seen as tactics that serve a strategy. It's not the act of occupying a building that is radical. It is how it relates to development of a base that's radical. What that means for the Occupy movement is that if you occupy a home with folks who aren't from the neighborhood, that could be counterproductive – especially on class and racial dimensions. We are trying to make sure that both eviction blockades and building occupations are feeding into a base-building strategy, so that the people directly affected by this are the ones leading the campaigns.”

“Here in Boston, we have meetings of 100-plus people every Tuesday night, and there are new organizations cropping up – there are now eight in Massachusetts and one in Rhode Island. And those organizations are in a network. The organizers meet by phone or in person every week and do joint actions. They protest the same banks at the same time, or they go to each others' rallies. We are developing a regional movement that we think can be replicated in other regions.”

Finally, I asked what kind of outcome could result if this work were scaled up.

“There are so many people out there affected by this, One quarter of all loans are underwater right now. I heard recently that if you sum up the negative equity that people have around the country, there's about $700 billion worth. Compare that to the current negotiations between the state attorney generals and the big banks around the robo-signing lawsuit [a class action concerning improper foreclosures]. The proposed settlement was that Bank of America, Wells Fargo and the others would do principal reduction to the tune of $20 billion – even though the total negative equity in the country is $700 billion! You get an idea from that of how far apart the tepid public proposals are from the crisis that's out there.”

“To the degree that all those people with $700 billion in net negative equity start demanding principal reduction – start understanding that it's their right and that they have power to get it – that would be a sea change. It has been a sea change in Boston. That's why some banks, in a recent presentation, described Boston as 'ground zero' of the anti-foreclosure movement. We do two actions a week against the banks. That's a drumbeat of activity that affects the whole culture of the area. It affects the courts; it affects the police; it affects the banks. If you had people all over the country resisting displacement and demanding their homes back at real value, it would be one of the largest radical movements the country has seen.”

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