MIAMI — Two years ago the Ramos family moved into a small house in the Little Haiti neighborhood here. They did so without a title, a lease, or permission from the property’s owner.
After the father’s construction company shut down, a victim of the housing crash, they couldn’t pay their rent. Their possessions were literally thrown on the street.
“For a time we were basically living in our car or at our friends’ houses — pretty much without a home,” Mr. Ramos said.
Now the Ramos family, naturalized citizens who spoke through an interpreter and asked HuffPost not to use their first names for fear of being kicked out, have succeeded in making the house a home. They cleared out the trash that drug users had piled in mounds. With a leafy lawn and a couple of dogs barking happily, the place looks pretty comfortable.
“For myself as a mother in the United States, this is the place that I’ve been the happiest in,” Mrs. Ramos said. “And in my consciousness this feels right. Instinctively it feels right.”
Many would simply call it squatting. But Take Back the Land, the Miami-based group whose members helped the family move in, calls it a home “liberation.”
According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 there were 1.6 million homes sitting vacant in Florida. A 2010 report estimated that 57,643 people go homeless on any given night. In between that unused capacity and unfilled need stands the law, which protects banks’ and other owners’ property rights.
On Tuesday, Occupy Wall Street will take the group’s unorthodox anti-foreclosure tactics national. Activists will move to “Occupy Our Homes” in a nationwide series of civil disobedience actions, challenging the big banks over the thousands of vacant homes across the country that lie empty even in the midst of a homelessness and foreclosure crisis.
“Here we have a chance to occupy and liberate: it’s a one-two punch and that’s what works,” said Max Rameau, the Haitian-born activist who has braved and sometimes endured arrest while defending families from eviction as part of Take Back the Land, a group that he helped found. The group is now listed on the Occupy Our Homes website as an “ally.”
Rameau’s “liberations” mostly helped people of color. “The Occupy side,” Rameau said, “has mainly happened with young whites.”
Now he hopes that with the help of the Occupy movement, community groups like his can mainstream their fight against the banks. But as Occupiers move into neighborhoods hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, they will be greeted by a confounding knot of problems that Take Back the Land has been wrestling with for years: race, responsibility and property.
Take Back the Land’s struggles in Miami started in a vacant lot in Liberty City. Fed up with gentrification, the group moved on October 2006 to set up a makeshift village of shanties made from shipping pallets and cardboard. They quickly rebranded the plot Umoja Village; the first word is Swahili for “unity.”
They were responding to the human impact of the housing bubble, what Rameau calls a mentality of “gentrification: buy low, fix up, sell high.”
In April 2007 the village burnt to the ground in a furiously quick fire. No one was seriously harmed. Just as it was forced out of its Liberty City lot, however, Take Back the Land was expanding its scope. The group’s playing field had become the whole state of Florida, hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.
In February 2007, even as foreclosure filings dropped nationally over the previous month by 4 percent, Florida’s shot up by 63.5 percent, according to RealtyTrac. It was a harbinger of things to come.
After Mary Trody’s mother stopped making payments on the family’s house northwest of Miami, her family was evicted in February 2009 — but Take Back the Land and another local group that Trody is a member of, the Miami Workers Center, very publicly moved them back in, with TV stations, a crew sent by filmmaker Michael Moore, and the Miami Herald looking on.
The eviction was halted.
“If it’s worth fighting for, yes, I would say the same thing: take arrests,” Trody said. “That’s the only thing that’s going to make a difference. If we organize. If we stand together and try to show the world.”
The struggles Take Back the Land has encountered since late 2007 in legalizing their “liberations” may serve as lessons for the people taking part in Occupy Our Homes. Trody’s family house, for example, has seen a parade of four owners since the eviction defense, none of whom have been willing to settle on terms to let them stay.
Today, Take Back the Land has stopped moving in families to newly “liberated” properties. Rameau and other core members have left or are leaving Miami for other opportunities.
“We haven’t won homes. We haven’t changed people’s lives,” Rameau said. Without more public pressure on banks, he said, Take Back the Land’s successes could only be incremental.
“We were only doing defense,” Rameau said.
On Tuesday, with the help of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Our Homes will begin. Activists in dozens of cities — some members of the Take Back the Land affiliates that have sprouted in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Portland, Washington, DC, and more — will be following the group’s example. They hope to shame banks into cutting mortgage payments or creating a “right to rent” foreclosed properties.
As actions begin, however, Take Back the Land members say the Occupiers should know what they’re getting into.
“Leak in the roof, water, electricity’s out, whatever minor issue — I think it’s something we did not necessarily foresee as becoming our responsibility, in terms of providing social services, which is what it ended up being in addition to it being a political organization. And that’s very stressful,” said Mamyrah Prosper, another activist with Take Back the Land.
The toll on families who move into “liberated” houses, too, can sometimes be taxing. Since Trody’s family defended their house, they have been living in it without any sort of agreement from its owners, under constant threat of eviction or arrest. The Ramoses have had their house broken into twice.
If occupiers are white, meanwhile, they may also end up moving into the black or Latino communities that have been hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis.
Rebecca Wood, a white, 30-year-old self-described anarchist who is a supporter of Take Back the Land, said the group “was very intentionally black-led and focused on working within black communities and working towards self-determination for those communities.”
“I think that that’s a pretty different goal than continuing the occupation through the winter,” she said.
Rameau drew a contrast between the mostly white “occupiers” and the more diverse “liberators.” The occupiers, he thinks, should take actions like sitting down in banks in “direct confrontation with core parts of the system.”
“How does that manifest itself for the liberate side?” he asked. “That manifests itself in home liberations.”
If and when the Occupiers move families into houses that they have not previously inhabited, they will be running up against some very strongly held beliefs about ownership.
The goal of Take Back the Land, Prosper said, was to change the framework: to make people think about “moving away from what’s legal versus illegal into just versus unjust.”
“Some of us just challenged the whole notion of private property, period,” said Prosper. “If you go that route so radically, you’re going to ostracize yourself.”
Still, there is precedent in the United States for squatters taking possession of homes. On New York’s Lower East side, residents were able to eventually gain control of buildings on East Seventh Street.
The Ramos family would welcome any help it can get. At the mention of the Occupy movement, Mrs. Ramos beams. She doesn’t ever want to leave her house, she said, “because as human beings we have the right to live dignified in a home.”
By Arthur Delaney, Huffington Post
Bobby Hull is scheduled to be evicted from his Minneapolis house in February, but he won’t leave without a fuss. He’s invited 100 people from the local version of the Occupy Wall Street movement on Tuesday to protest his foreclosure.
Hull said he doesn’t know if the attention will help him win back his home, which Bank of America sold at a sheriff’s sale in August, but he considers the effort worthwhile no matter what.
“If I lose it, I lose it. But I might be able to open the door for somebody else,” Hull told HuffPost. “It might inspire somebody else to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, what the banks are doing is wrong.’”
That’s the idea behind the action at Hull’s house: to draw attention to an unending foreclosure crisis. The rally is one of several events scheduled across the country as the Occupy Wall Street movement, defined in part by its broad critique of economic inequality, focuses in on the narrower issue of housing. Events like the rally at Hull’s house will occur in more than a dozen cities, according to organizers, who have received help from more traditional community organizing and labor groups.
The “Occupy Our Homes” protests come as banks face a reckoning for foreclosure malfeasance nationwide. A coalition of state law enforcement officials and the Obama administration have sought a settlement with the biggest lenders over rogue foreclosures and poor treatment of homeowners. But the talks, led by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, have dragged on for longer than a year, and several state attorneys general have defected because they say the $25 billion settlement Miller’s seeking is too small and would let banks off the hook for too much bad business.
From Democracy Now!
“The banks are occupying many of our homes. And we are removing the banks from their occupation, and we’re liberating those homes.” -Max Rameau
A loose-knit coalition of activists known as “Occupy Homes” is working to stave off pending evictions by occupying homes at risk of foreclosure when tenants enlist its support. The movement has recently enjoyed a number of successes. We speak with Monique White, a Minneapolis resident who is facing foreclosure and recently requested the help of Occupy Minneapolis. Now two dozen of its members are occupying her home in order to stave off eviction. We are also joined by Nick Espinosa, an organizer with Occupy Minneapolis, and Max Rameau, a key organizer with Take Back the Land, who for the past five years has worked on direct actions that reclaim and occupy homes at risk of foreclosure. “The banks are actually occupying our homes,” Rameau says. “This sets up for an incredible movement, where we have a one-two punch. On the one hand, we’re occupying them on their turf, and on the other, we’re liberating our own turf so that human beings can have access to housing, rather than them sitting vacant so that corporations can benefit from them sometime in the future.”
Read the full story here.
Related: Occupy defends the homefront
By Mira Luna, The Huffington Post
A group of low-income San Franciscans has come up with a positive, long term solution to the housing crisis that is causing millions of Americans to be evicted and some to embrace the “Occupy Homes” movement: buy the buildings.
In October 2011, residents of the Columbus United Cooperative (CUC) in San Francisco celebrated final approval of the ownership of their building as a permanently affordable, resident-owned limited-equity housing cooperative. The residents can now purchase shares in the co-op for only $10,000 in the heart of San Francisco (where most housing starts at $500,000) to become cooperative homeowners, though most earn less than 50 percent of area median income. Previous to the conversion they had been living in their building under the threat of eviction.
According to a Lender Processing Services report on November 18, “just under 6.3 million properties nationwide are either 30 or more days delinquent or in foreclosure.” Another study published in June by Templeton LPA states that the number of court orders to evict tenants have risen by 9% over the last year, and the number of tenants in serious arrears with their rental payments is up by 13%, with 2.1% of all tenancies in arrears nationwide.
Long waiting lists for public housing mean that people remain homeless or in shelters longer. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported that in 2007, before the economy went into full recession, the average stay in homeless shelters for households with children was 5.7 months. Rising foreclosures and tenant evictions have been helping to fuel the fire of the Occupy movement. “Occupy Homes” is a new offshoot of Occupy Wall Street that links homeowners with activists in direct action to halt foreclosures in some of the local strongholds across the country of the Occupy movement. Occupy Oakland has announced it will start occupying vacant homes starting in December and Occupy Portland is already starting to move into foreclosed homes. Homeless advocacy group “Homes Not Jails” is teaming up with Occupy San Francisco to turn abandoned hotels into homeless shelters.
After Occupy L.A. organized a vigil and camp at her home and occupied the local Fannie Mae office, Rose Gudiel was able to keep her and her disabled mother’s home from which they were being evicted, as the bank opened up to renegotiating their mortgage.
Chicago, New York and Minneapolis have branches of Occupy Homes, too.
But in the US, squatters have few rights and face an steep uphill battle to stay in the homes they’ve claimed. Owners of foreclosed homes might have some ability to bargain with banks if they can afford to, but many can’t, and others are being kicked out of rentals, especially as former homeowners are now moving down the housing chain and renting. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that “40 percent of families facing eviction due to foreclosure are renters and 7 million households living on very low incomes are at risk of foreclosure. Squatting isn’t for everyone, in particular the sick, disabled, elderly and children, and living in substandard housing under threat of the police isn’t exactly ideal. Unless the mainstream joins Occupy Homes and the government starts recognizing squats of vacant and foreclosed properties, the movement will likely remain on the fringe.
Tenant-owned, cooperative housing can provide a more stable solution to the housing crisis. When the residents of the 21-unit Columbus United Cooperative (CUC) in San Francisco converted the building to a limited-equity housing cooperative, the low income, Chinese-speaking resident families were able to stay in their homes.
The San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT) used the limited-equity housing cooperative model to prevent eviction, which Director Tracy Parent says is a first.
“This building represents the community,” said longtime resident Miao Yan Wen. “It is important to take care of the low-income people who live here. There are many seniors who live in this building. If the building were torn down, they would have to move out of the neighborhood and lose their access to doctors, stores, services.”
Now that the building is a cooperative, she says,”I feel stable and safe.”
SFCLT Director Tracy Parent remarked, “This is a victory not just for these 21 families but for the greater community of San Francisco. Limited equity housing cooperatives ensure that other families can buy these homes for an affordable price in the future.”
SFCLT has several of buildings in the queue at various stages to become new housing cooperatives, including a rental coop with an income cap and a 139 rental unit that will be converted to tenant-owned housing – both in a rapidly gentrifying, African-American community. These coop conversions can take many years to complete, but they make a long term impact. Families that are being evicted are able to buy their homes for only slightly more than than their controlled rent.
Community land trusts are local non-profit organizations that retain ownership of the land under the coop housing and separate it from the ownership of residential buildings. Residents control their buildings by owning one share in the housing cooperative, which allows each household one vote in the affairs of the co-op. By separating the ownership of the land from the buildings, using permanent deed restrictions to restrict maximum resale increases (limited equity), and receiving government and private grant money, the CLT can drastically reduce the cost of owning to slightly more than the cost of a rent controlled unit. Other nonprofits which are not land trusts, like the Alliance to Develop Power in Massachusetts, are developing new housing coops (1,200 units so far) run by their low income members as part of their social justice mission.
This is not an entirely new concept. A housing advocacy group called the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board in New York City, has since 1974 enabled the conversion of over 1,600 foreclosed, city-held rentals into limited-equity, resident-controlled co-ops, preserving over 30,000 units of affordable housing. In 1977, while many NYC landlords were failing to maintain and pay taxes on their properties, the city passed Local Law #45. This law allowed the city to begin foreclosure proceedings after just one year of non-payment of taxes, resulting in thousands of buildings, some of them occupied, to be confiscated by the city of New York through in rem foreclosure. In 1978, the city’s housing agency created new housing programs that gave residents and community groups control and eventual ownership of in rem buildings.
Pressure for housing will likely only continue to grow at current unemployment rates. Local governments and police will have to spend more and more money and time on evictions and property security and on shelters and subsidized housing.
Or they can proactively support permanently affordable, limited equity, tenant-owned housing development, which is a much more cost effective, humane and safe plan for everyone in the long run.
For more more info on how to start a tenant-owned housing cooperative see http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-to-start-a-housing-coop.
Mira Luna is a community activist working to develop an alternative economy in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her article was originally published at Shareable.net. If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post’s coverage of American political life, please sign up at www.offthebus.org.
Some worry that camping on private property may invite more extreme police attacks.
A couple of days after the Occupy Portland encampment was busted up by police, 15 occupiers took over a vacant, foreclosed home owned by Bank of America. ”We have occupied a bank-owned house in the northeast suitable to house 30 to 40 people (and encourage others to do the same)” they wrote on a flyer left at the house.
Bank of America, the Portland police department and the homeowners of nearby condos were not pleased by the occupiers’ experiment in egalitarian living and on Friday, police battered down the door, kicking the occupiers out and throwing two in jail, the Oregonian reported.
Other cities also haven’t taken it well when occupiers set up camp on private property. Two weeks ago, police armed with assault rifles stormed into an abandoned car dealership in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to arrest protesters who’d taken over the vacant property. “We had breaking and entering of private property downtown. The government has to respond, ” the mayor said in a press conference the next day, unapologetic about the use of military firearms to subdue a handful of unarmed protestors.
After a coordinated national crackdown that dispersed occupations from the public parks and plazas of Portland, Denver, Oakland and New York, occupiers have floated the idea to camp on private space, confronting banks and mortgage servicers at ground zero of their disastrous policies: the foreclosed home.
One tactic is to occupy the home of a family facing eviction, in the hopes that media attention will encourage the bank to rethink whether the homeowners have exhausted their options after all. Another, more radical action is to take over a vacant property, co-opting it for use by a family that’s already homeless (or by occupiers).
There’s a clear difference between the two tactics, but both confront big banks and mortgage servicers’ virtually unchecked exploitation of struggling homeowners, through such shady, or outright illegal practices as pushing foreclosures based on shoddy or falsified paperwork; robosigning; kicking people out of their homes when they are eligible to refinance; starting foreclosure proceedings after just one late payment; and capping it all off by letting foreclosed homes sit vacant and fall apart.
Occupations around the country are already holding actions to aid homeowners threatened with foreclosure, using their bodies — and the TV news vans Occupy actions attract — to pressure banks into negotiations.
Rose Guidel fell just two weeks behind on her payments after a family member who was helping out financially was shot and killed. Despite being served with an eviction notice in September, she’s still in her home, thanks in part to a series of protests that grew larger as members of Occupy LA joined in.
After getting kicked out of Woodruff Park, Occupy Atlanta relocated to the lawn of a police officer who thought his family would be evicted within days. The family ended up leaving the house following threats by the local sheriff that they could be arrested for being accessories to trespassing, the occupiers claimed.
In Ohio, a single mother expecting eviction papers contacted Occupy Cleveland through Twitter, prompting the group to set up tents and stage a sit-in at her house. The action earned her a 30-day extension, which she tells the Cleveland Plain Dealer helped her secure a rental for herself and her two kids.
Right now, members of Occupy Minneapolis live on the lawn and in the home of Monique White, a mother of two who lost her job when her nonprofit employer was hit with budget cuts. When her part-time job at a liquor store couldn’t cover her payments, US Bank moved to foreclose, even though White says she was eligible for a program helping laid-off homeowners stave off foreclosure.