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OccupyHomes Rallies Around Homeowners Facing Foreclosure

The average citizen facing foreclosure doesn’t have the tools to combat big banks, so OccupyHomes is stepping in to give people support against the banks.

(Photo: Mark R. Brown / Mark R. Brown Photography)

Retired postal clerk Jaymie Kelly of Minneapolis, Minnesota, is holding onto her home by a thread, despite having paid five times its value in ballooning monthly payments. She received a letter from the attorney general dated in May agreeing to delay eviction for 30 days past her redemption period, which expired April 24. The next day Freddie Mac filed an eviction summons, and shortly thereaftershe appeared in court with representatives from activist group OccupyHomes Minneapolis (OHM), which managed to convince Freddie Mac’s attorney to back off temporarily.

“I’ve been on the block I’m living on for 58 of my 63 years,” Kelly told Truthout. “This is my neighborhood. It’s my everything. I really feel like I’m invested in this community. I have no plan B. Without [OccupyHomes] I would be homeless. It seems to me that it makes more sense for the bank to work with me.”

With reports like these stockpiling under the OHM radar, activists spearheaded an initiative called the Eviction Free Zone (EFZ), encompassing the Powderhorn and Central neighborhoods in Minneapolis, where there have been 835 evictions since 2007, not including renters.

According to EFZ project organizer Chris Gray, the runaround Kelly is experiencing isn’t unusual; homeowners frequently are served with eviction notices while actively negotiating with banks.

Shortly after appearing in court, Kelly received a letter from Chase Bank that said the bank could no longer work with her, because things were in Freddie Mac’s hands. Days later, she received another letter from Chase, in which the bank wrote it was considering her request to purchase her home again and that she would hear back by June 20.

On July 9, Kelly received a second eviction notice from JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s lawyer. Meanwhile, she has a letter from the bank agreeing to work with her this month. If JPMorgan Chase, refuses to negotiate, she might end up like another EFZ citizen, Sergio Ceballos , who lives just three blocks from Kelly and could get a visit from the sheriff at any time.

In preparation for Ceballos’ eleventh hour, OHM has attracted support for him from Occupy groups in 10 cities. They will deliver petitions to local Chase Bank branches. Back in Hennepin County, activists put together a march on the sheriff’s office July 11.

EFZ activists – a mix of OccupyHomes veterans and neighbors – hunker down in foreclosed properties, warding off attempts by police and banks to change the locks. When banks do oust homeowners, activists peel the boards off of windows and install an OHM representative to stay with the homeowner 24 hours a day until the case is settled.

“We use a 1,000-pound barrel with a tube that someone can put their arm into, which the fire department has to cut them out of with special tool,” Gray said. “They’re not used to this kind of resistance. If the sheriff comes, we intend to build a rally and delay eviction in any way that we can, and that’s a whole new ballgame. Jaymie will be in the same situation in two weeks after eviction court.”

EFV activists also refurbish vacant properties for those rendered homeless through eviction. And between acts of civil disobedience, they host barbecues and potlucks to foster the sense of community the group says is essential to win bank concessions and empower citizens.

In a successful case last year, OHM drew 60 neighbors to defend a home from eviction at 4 AM, largely through social media. Gray said that in the afternoon they sometimes draw about 200 people. This is the sort of community engagement OHM hopes will pervade eviction attempts all over the country.

“We’re looking to create a national model in Minnesota to win large-scale concessions from the banks,” OHM activist Becky Z. Dernbach told Truthout. “Here and there banks will negotiate, give houses back, but they don’t change their policies.”

She added that the average citizen facing foreclosure doesn’t have the tools to combat big banks, which is why the EFZ is built around the notion that entire communities stand a better chance against banks than isolated homeowners.

“Homeowners are often ashamed to talk about their experience with foreclosure,” Dernbach told Truthout. “But when you bring foreclosed homeowners together to share their stories, you begin to notice some patterns: ‘The bank lost my paperwork.’ ‘I provided all the paperwork they asked me to and made all my trial payments, and they still denied my modification.’ ‘They said they never received my paperwork, and I had to send it again. Then they said I had missed the deadline.’ You start to wonder -where is all that paperwork? And how could it possibly be an accident for the banks to lose everybody’s paperwork?”

In June, Bank of America employees came forward and admitted these practices actually were encouraged by the bank to prolong the foreclosure and eviction process.

“This latest news from Bank of America confirms what we’ve been seeing over the past year and a half: that the big banks would rather profit off of throwing people in the streets than keep them in their homes,” Dernbach wrote in an email to Truthout. “Wall Street’s greed has no place in our homes.”

The EFZ is an effort to harness community support, which, if sustained long enough, may be an effective antidote to big banks’ exploitation of homeowners, Gray told Truthout in a phone interview.

“The basis of the Eviction Free Zone is that it’s politically impossible to carry out eviction for every family facing eviction,” Gray said “In our neighborhood [there have] been 835 since 2007, and it’s just three or four square miles. The vast majority have been invisible; you’d think it’s just people moving or renting. In our minds that’s not good for families facing foreclosure. They feel isolated and alone, and they move out.”

Kelly described this sense of isolation and impotence when she tried to grapple with the system on her own.

“We bought this house for $74,900 in 1983, and I’ve paid $425,000 for it so far,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t have gone into foreclosure if these house payments weren’t so high. I’m in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Minneapolis. I was embarrassed to tell anyone what I was paying. Now with OccupyHomes, I have hope.”

Kelly found herself repeating her story to countless bank representatives over the phone, with nothing to show for it.

“I talked to a number of people, and they just kept shuttling me around from different people,” Kelly said. “Then [OccupyHomes] did a march of the home mortgage modification center.”

According to Dernbach, Kelly’s experience is common. Most people never speak to the same bank representative twice. They find themselves explaining their stories over and over to different representatives without making headway. Kelly said her struggles began with mistakes of her own, with misplaced trust and perhaps a few too many assumptions.

“It started with a predatory lender after my husband died,” Kelly told Truthout. “I had insurance money and thought I was paying off my house, but instead I was signing off on a loan at 5.5 percent interest. It went up 13.5 percent, and it had a prepayment penalty. I had to buy my way out of the deal. I was so ignorant. This was someone who I met in church who basically took advantage of the situation. I was trying to get out of that and refinanced several times.”

OccupyHomes insists that no one actively attempting to negotiate with their lender should be evicted and that vacant, bank-owned properties should be given back to their communities and converted into affordable housing, rather than left to rot. In Hennepin County, homelessness is at a six-year high; meanwhile, hundreds of houses remain unoccupied.

While banks are profiting from this business of ousting homeowners, it actually costs taxpayers more to keep homeless shelters open at capacity than to make use of vacant homes or find ways to keep people in their homes, according to Dernbach.

At the same time, communities around the United States are a patchwork of vacant and occupied houses with a growing homeless population. The EFZ has led to seven victories for OHM, and activists hope to serve as an example to other communities and individuals fighting to keep their homes.

OHM is winning small political victories, too; several cadndidtes are campaigning on housing justice in Minneapois in local eleictions this year, which gives Gray hope for real change for homeowners in the future.

“It’s not just about this big concrete thing in someone’s living room; we’re changing the dialogue about what the city’s role should be and what people can do,” Gray said. “It’s abstract to think that this huge bank in New York is trying to evict your neighbor, but the idea of turning over vacant [properties] to community control offers the potential for movement growth.”

Last night OHM gathered neighbors to prepare for an act of civil disobedience, and drew encouragement from some unlikely participants.

“There were a lot of people who wouldn’t typically consider being involved who have been dragged in because they know Jaymie. And I think if we can win and show that this is viable, that we can really turn a corner and it will become more accepted,” Gray said. “Most people we meet know who we are but don’t want our help because they’re too ashamed. Everyone in the community knows about a high-profile eviction, so one that wins would be really important.”

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