Long before the recent revelations of widespread foreclosure fraud, a group of community organizers in Chicago was taking on one of the nation’s most pressing issues from the grassroots – and winning.
The Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, a group of renters, homeowners, activists and professional organizers, employ a range of tactics in the battle against evictions they have been spearheading for nearly a year.
By offering legal resources, organizing public pressure campaigns against building management companies and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and, in some cases, forming a human blockade to stop an eviction, the group has gotten two families back into their homes and delayed the evictions of countless others.
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One of their campaigns was the delivery of a six-foot-tall five-day notice to Tom Dart, sheriff of the city of Chicago and the surrounding suburbs of Cook County, giving him five days to “halt … the dozens of evictions processed by his office each day,” much like the five-day notice given to tenants prior to an eviction.
Five days later, on October 19, 2010, Sheriff Dart, placed a moratorium on foreclosure evictions by Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and GMAC/Ally Financial in his areas of jurisdiction.
Holly Krig, co-founder of the campaign, says that while not all of the demands in the notice were satisfied – “what we have seen now is only a partial moratorium on foreclosure evictions, ones that banks have made and certainly not because there is something unjust but because they are worried about liability” – she still considers the moratorium as a boon for the movement.
Dart told The Washington Post that after news broke about the mass “robo-signing” of foreclosure documents, in which employees signed off on thousands of documents legally authorizing foreclosures without any knowledge of the individual cases, Dart and his deputies took a closer look at 400 random foreclosure cases – only 20 had the proper paperwork and most were missing “very significant” documents.
Dart says that he asked attorneys from the banks to personally confirm whether each eviction they ordered were justified, and when he did not hear back, decided to stop carrying out their requests.
A number of banks also halted foreclosures nationally after the crisis, but have resumed them – alongside a joint investigation by 49 state attorneys general into fraudulent foreclosures, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s investigation into 23 mortgage servicers.
Foreclosure filings in Cook County, where the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign organizes, have risen dramatically in the past year – an average of 25 percent between the third-quarters of 2009 and 2010, and 70 percent in some city neighborhoods – according to data from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the US Postal Service, 131,459 residential properties in the Chicago metropolitan area are vacant.
This is expected to impact about one-third of the 37,000 annual eviction orders filed in Cook County, sparing roughly 1,250 homeowners and renters, according to George Vournazos, a legal adviser to the Cook Country sheriff.
However, some individuals, including the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, have doubts as to whether this gets to the crux of what is wrong with the system.
Brian White, executive director of the Lakeside Community Development Corporation, said Dart’s moratorium is unlikely to “have a systemic impact.”
This is where the Anti-Eviction Campaign comes in: they have been advocating for the idea of adverse possession in Chicago and challenging foreclosures and evictions based on the idea that land belongs to the people who live there.
Adverse possession, where an individual who has lived in the land or a building for a certain period of time can gain possession of it, is being used around the country as the answer to the large number of foreclosed on empty homes in cities around the country as well as families without a roof over their heads.
Jorge Ortiz, an immigrant rights activist and member of the campaign whose family’s day care center is being foreclosed on, said that what separates the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign from other organizations offering workshops on how to stop foreclosures is that few “are fighting for housing as a human right.”
Because “we are building a social movement” on the basis that “land should belong to those who work and live on the land,” Ortiz says the movement has been able to galvanize individuals facing foreclosure as leaders in the struggle.
The Ortiz’s case is the latest public pressure campaign waged by the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign – Krig has attended most of the court hearings for the day care center, which fell behind on mortgage payments when the financial crisis hit, and was rejected for a loan modification to make the payments more manageable.
Along with getting Erica Bledsoe and Carol Vialadores back into their homes, Krig is now also helping tenants in public housing on Chicago’s South Side become recognized as a tenant’s association, and by doing so, greatly increasing their ability to bargain for their rights.
Though not all the cases the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign takes on will be won – Ortiz says that his family is expected to get a final order of eviction from the courts soon – what matters for Ortiz is that the people who came to court with his family will also be there to help with a blockade to avoid eviction and enforce their belief in housing as a human right.
Krig agrees: “If we are going to fight this on that basis that we have a right to housing then we are going to have to do this together. That’s something that’s really unique,” about the campaign, says Krig, who stresses that their movement is multiethnic and made up of different classes. “I think that when people come together along lines we have traditionally been divided, that is really threatening to those who are interested in keeping us divided.”