Could the next step after camping in Zuccotti Park be camping out in homes facing foreclosure?
As people think a bit more critically about what it means to “occupy” contested spaces that blur the public and the private and the boundaries between the 99% and the 1%, and as they also think through what Occupy Wall Street might do next, I would humbly suggest they check out the activism model of Project: No One Leaves. It exists in many places, especially in Massachusetts — check out this Springfield versionof it — and grows out of activism pioneered by City Life Vida Urbana. It is similar to activism done by the group New Bottom Line and other foreclosure fighters. Here is PBS NewsHour’s coverage of the movement.
The major goal of Project: No One Leaves is to mobilize as many resources as possible to protect those going through foreclosure and keep them in their homes as long as possible in order to give them maximum bargaining power against the banks. For those focused on “weapons of the weak,” this moment — with banks and creditors using state power to conduct massive amounts of foreclosures, thus impoverishing poor neighborhoods through a financialized rationality — is a crucial opportunity for resistance. From the webpage:
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Post-Foreclosure Eviction Defense. We mobilize tenants and former homeowners living in recently or about to be foreclosed homes (bank tenants) to stop evictions, protect Springfield’s housing and communities, and mobilize bank tenants to fight back against major lending institutions and banks that are tearing our communities apart.
Their model, a two-step process known as the Sword and the Shield, works:
“The Sword”. Encouraging residents to stay in their homes, and to make their stories public, we organize blockades, vigils and other public actions to exert public pressure on the banks. The sword works together with:
“The Shield”: We inform bank tenants of their rights and work with legal services & progressive lawyers, to use aggressive post-foreclosure eviction defense to get eviction cases dismissed, win large move-out settlements (if it makes sense for that family/person), and force the banks to reconsider foreclosure evictions.
They use public action through blockades, protests, and marches, along with smart legal advice on how to maximize legal resistance to forced removal. Beyond the fact that this is a major space for resistance, it is also a great way to mobilize people. And as JW Mason notes, there is power in having a clear opponent as well as a special type of bargaining power people might not realize they have:
Homeowners who still have title have a lot to lose and are understandably anxious to meet whatever conditions the lender or servicer sets. But once the foreclosure has happened, the homeowner, paradoxically, is in a stronger negotiating position; if they’re going to have to leave anyway, they have nothing to lose by dragging the process out, while for the bank, delay and bad publicity can be costly. So the idea is to help people in this situation organize to put pressure — both in court and through protest or civil disobedience — on the banks to agree to let them stay on as tenants more or less permanently, at a market rent.
But there’s another important thing about No One Leaves: They’re angry. The focus isn’t just on the legal rights of people facing foreclosure, or their real chance to stay in their homes if they organize and stick together, it’s on fighting the banks. There’s a very clear sense that this is not just a problem to be solved, but that the banks are the enemy. I was especially struck by one middle-aged guy who’d lost the home he’d lived in for some 20 years to foreclosure. “At this point, I don’t even care if I get to stay,” he said. “Look, I know I’m probably going to have to leave eventually. I just want to make this as slow, and expensive, and painful, for Bank of America as I can.” Everyone in the room cheered.
Slow, expensive and painful indeed — it’s like putting the banks through their own version of HAMP. Some may reply, “But wait, aren’t foreclosures healthy for the economy? Mitt Romney thinks so.” But according to the latest research using discontinuities across state lines, “estimates suggest that foreclosures were responsible for 15% to 30% of the decline in residential investment from 2007 to 2009 and 20% to 40% of the decline in auto sales over the same period.” This research is being debated, but the opposite evidence — that quicker foreclosures help the macroeconomy — can’t be found there or anywhere else.
So does this fit well with Occupy Wall Street’s agenda? Given the rampant fraud and abuses in the current foreclosure chain, from manufacturing documents to “robo-signing” to fee-stacking to everything else, the Obama administration’s refusal to support a serious investigation is a major example of the government-financial alliance and two-tier system of justice that those in Occupy Wall Street hate. Occupy Wall Street likes to pick spaces that are legally contestable — like private-public parks — and draw attention to real conflicts between those with power and those without. A residence post-foreclosure is one of those spaces.
This type of demand allows Occupy Wall Street to tap into already existing networks of foreclosure fighters, avoiding the risk of looking powerless by relying on Congress to do anything. And ultimately, it gets at the banks in a way occupations normally don’t: Banks may or may not feel that they aren’t appreciated enough because of these protests, but they’ll definitely be mad if someone is disrupting their foreclosure mills through occupation and refusal to leave.
Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.