We win when we live here: occupying homes in Detroit and beyond

    Detroit Occupiers oppose a house eviction. Photo by Stephen Boyle, via Occupy-Detroit.us.

    A truck pulling an enormous construction dumpster came rumbling down Pierson Street in northwest Detroit on January 31. It was a cold Michigan morning, and the whole street was slick with ice. The 20 activists standing on Bertha and William Garrett’s front lawn had been there for over an hour. One Teamster had been waiting since 4:30 a.m. because he was afraid the dumpster would come early; as a driver he knew that his co-workers often worked before the rest of the world woke.

    Suddenly, a car screeched to a stop in the middle of the street between the house and the dumpster. A young man ran down the road and jumped onto the driver’s side of the truck, shouting for him to turn around. An older man with Parkinson’s planted himself in front of the bumper and shook his fist. The coalition of neighbors and activists — including People before Banks, Occupy Detroit, Moratorium NOW!, Jobs for Justice and the Local 600 United Auto Workers — all knew that by city ordinance an eviction must occur within 48 hours of the dumpster arriving in front of a foreclosed home, that without a dumpster there would be no eviction. Blocked and confused, the driver left.

    That afternoon, 65-year-old Bertha Garrett lay down on the floor in front of the office of the Bank of New York Mellon Trust Company, and refused to leave until the bank agreed to negotiate her eviction. The next day, the Garretts’ lawyer received a call from Mellon Trust’s lawyers asking the family “to call off the dogs.” Less than a month later, Bertha Garrett signed papers to buy back her home for $12,000.

    Across the country, homeowners, activist organizations, lawyers, unions and Occupiers are uniting to create a direct-action campaign against foreclosures. In Minneapolis, a former Marine erected an anti-foreclosure fence around his block to win a loan modification. In Nashville, a 78-year-old civil rights activist stopped Chase’s eviction by occupying her home with neighborhood support. In San Diego and L.A., 24-hour front-lawn occupations saved two families’ homes. In Rochester, New York, nearly 1,000 people protested outside Wells Fargo, winning a family an indefinite stay and prompting the bank to fire their foreclosure law firm. In Atlanta, front-lawn occupations have stopped the eviction of two homes, a homeless shelter and a historic church. In New York City, Occupiers stopped home auctions by singing in the courtroom and moved furniture into a Bank of America branch, arguing that the taxpayers’ $230 billion (and counting) bailout bought Americans not only the right to resist eviction, but the right to live inside the bank itself.

    As preexisting anti-foreclosure organizations and Occupy merge, the campaign is spreading to nearly every major city, with front-lawn occupations, eviction defense teams or auction blockades currently underway in Boston, Tampa, Maui, Detroit, Nashville, Birmingham, New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Delaware and cities across California.

    These successful anti-foreclosure actions are not merely one crack in the armor of a historically unjust global economic system. Because the housing market bubble was responsible for the collapse, foreclosures powerfully represent the hypocrisy of the current system, in which the orchestrators of the bubble receive trillion-dollar bailouts, and the victims of its burst receive eviction notices. It’s no wonder that the most recognizable symbol of Occupy — the tent — is a form of shelter. In this era, housing is the personal made political. Homes are both the symbolic and real site of Wall Street’s injustice, as well as an opportunity for collective intervention.

    Detroit is arguably the best example of how individual foreclosures create systemic injustice. The city’s infrastructure was built for two million people; today, just over 700,000 remain. Full square miles on the east side are fully abandoned except for the occasional deer or fox. Even in populated neighborhoods, charred houses with twisted metal roofs are remnants of recent Devil’s Nights when residents torched hundreds of abandoned homes. In a country whose national identity has expansion and unchecked growth at its center, Detroit’s depopulation has been such a curious challenge that urban planners have proposed reforesting — literally planting trees — in the middle of city blocks.

    The media has been quick to attribute the recent exodus of a quarter million Detroit residents to the decline of the manufacturing industry. But just as important a part of this picture is the banks’ forced removal through foreclosures of more than 100,000 families over the last five years, the majority of whom were African Americans who had been targeted for predatory, subprime loans. In the late-2000s, the rate of eviction was so high that the city hired private “Blackwater bailiffs” to keep pace.

    In depleting the city of its residents and tax base, the banks are quietly waging an economic war against the government of Detroit and its people. It’s a war whose weapons are eviction notices, property devaluations and shame, yet whose strategy is classic “shock doctrine”: reduce the city to a compound of building shells, declare it a “blank slate,” then privatize the hell out of it. The state is already threatening to take over the city through Michigan’s emergency financial manager law — a power grab that would remove any budgetary accountability and nullify all the city’s contracts, including union contracts, except one: the city’s annual $600 million debt to the banks.

    Against these odds, however, Detroit’s residents are fighting to preserve control and ownership of their city.

    “I never saw myself moving anything,” said Bertha Garrett, seated in the living room of the home that, after 22 years, she finally owns. An elegant, deeply religious woman, Ms. Garrett was clad in her Sunday best: a white dress suit, an embroidered muslin shawl and a wide-brimmed hat with delicate tulle and a large flower. In the next room, her husband William practiced navigating the house. Multiple strokes have left him partially blind, forcing him to close his hair salon and making it impossible for the family to meet their ever-increasing mortgage payments.

    “People were saying that she needed psychiatric help, because she just didn’t ‘get it,’” said Ms. Garrett’s daughter, Michele Finley. “But it wasn’t that she didn’t understand that the bank has a legal document, it was that the bank didn’t understand that this was our home.”

    This loyalty to their homes and their city, this rough pride in the city’s long history and thriving culture is voiced across Detroit. As someone had scrawled on the bathroom wall at a downtown bar:

    Detroit Wins
    When We Win
    And Fucking Live

    If the foreclosures continue as expected, Detroit is poised to become the nation’s first major bank-owned city — but others will follow.

    “Foreclosures create the same pattern everywhere,” said Jerry Goldberg, one of the most prominent anti-foreclosure lawyers in Detroit. “It’s just more extreme here.”

    Historically, the housing movement is among the most constant in our nation’s history of activism — a country where private property is a right but a family’s basic shelter, security and safety is a privilege. Most often led by women and people of color, the block-by-block grassroots movement boasts considerable success: the implementation of rent stabilization laws in the 1920s and ’30s, dozens of state moratoriums during the Great Depression, and hundreds of building and home takeovers in the 1970s and ’80s that led to squatters’ rights and more stringent foreclosure laws in cities like New York.

    Today’s anti-foreclosure movement is decentralized and action-based, with hundreds of organizations using a range of tactics, including front-lawn tent occupations, bank protests, furniture move-ins, media scandals, home takeovers and auction blockades. In New York City, Organizing for Occupation (O4O) and Occupy Wall Street are planning to disrupt every home auction during the third week of April with soulful singing in the courtrooms, a tactic that has already stopped a handful of auctions this winter (and, for full disclosure, landed me with disorderly conduct charges earlier this week). In San Francisco, Buffalo, Detroit and other cities, homeowners are moving their furniture and families back into their homes after being evicted. Some actions are more scalable than others. In Birmingham, Alabama, for example, an extended eviction defense team has lived in tents on a family’s front lawn for more than two months, weathering freezing weather and a tornado. (“It came within a hundred feet, and it scared the fuck out of me, pardon my language,” said Allyn Hudson, one of the Occupiers.) Many of the anti-foreclosure protests have such widespread support that union members turn out en masse and even the police refuse to intervene. In Murrieta, California, the police tasked with arresting Kristiane Chappell and Occupy San Diego activists for trespassing outside First Mortgage Corp. of Ontario, California, ignored the bank’s complaint and allowed the protest to proceed.

    “One of the officers said, ‘If that were my mom, I’d be here too,” recalls Kristiane Chappell, whose mother, a paraplegic schoolteacher, now has secure housing.

    This coming year, the banks are threatening foreclosure on more than one million families in the United States, which raises the question: Why aren’t more people coming together to resist eviction, especially considering the legacy of this movement? According to organizers across the country, one of the greatest barriers to collective action is the pervasive isolation and shame that surrounds homeownership and foreclosure. Every neighborhood — and in some states, every block — has a story like Eloise Pittman’s.

    When Ms. Pittman moved into her family home on Glen Iris Street in Atlanta in 1953, the house represented a great source of pride. The home was a nice house in a historic African American neighborhood. Martin Luther King lived right up the street. The family had owned the house since the 1950s, paid off by Ms. Pittman’s mother who washed dishes for a living. It was a perfect success story of the American dream.

    Eloise Pittman hosted every family birthday, Christmas and Thanksgiving, filling the home with meatloaf and oxtails, children and grandchildren. She was a strong, proud schoolteacher who raised her family to belief in the American values of hard work and self-sufficiency. Yet, in 1985, she took out a mortgage loan that she later learned was a predatory loan. She tried to outmaneuver her ballooning payments, taking out another loan to pay the first, then a third to pay the other two. Chase Bank, meanwhile, used loan modifications and double-digit interest rates to strip the house of all its equity.

    “The banks preyed on her for so many years. And she never said a word,” said her granddaughter Carmen Pittman.

    On November 29, 2011, Ms. Pittman died in the backroom of the house, carrying her secret and more than $400,000 in debt. Less than a week later, the family received an eviction notice.

    Over the last 60 years, homeownership has been the embodiment of the American dream — an idea so pervasive that it was sanctioned by the government with the creation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Our country’s embrace of free-market ideology as a social and cultural value further reinforced the myth that a home represented not only a family’s economic net worth, but its moral worth. Under this twisted logic, well-painted shutters and white picket fences came to signify dedication and hard work, and a foreclosure sign, failure. Even as the government bailed out ever larger corporations against all rules of the game, missed mortgage payments were still being seen as an individual problem rather than a systemic issue.

    “People would almost rather lose their home than be seen on TV trying to save their home,” said Matt Smucker, an organizer with Occupy Our Homes in New York City.

    Yet people are beginning to realize that inscribing this economic theory into our national narrative has benefited only those individuals and corporations at the top of the economic pyramid. Communities across the country are now coming together to share stories about facing and fighting foreclosure. Led by Eloise Pittman’s granddaughter Carmen, the Glen Iris house’s front lawn has become a tent city where neighbors and Occupiers run 24-hour eviction defense, reach out to other homeowners and organize actions. Occupy Minneapolis hosts weekly homeowner-support gatherings, one of the reasons that the local anti-foreclosure campaign has saved more than five homes this winter alone. In Boston, the neighborhood meetings organized by City Life — one of the most successful anti-foreclosure organizations in the country — have so much cathartic energy that they are compared to religious revivals. As these neighborhood assemblies spread, the anti-foreclosure movement is becoming no less than a deep destabilization of our national narrative, a collective imagining of a world in which a family’s fight for shelter doesn’t divide communities but unites them. Inspired by recent successes in Spain, where hundreds of home takeovers by M-15 activists have won families the legal right to keep their homes, activists see these first targeted actions as building pressure toward structural change.

    “When you look at most of the quantum leaps forward for this country for progressive movements — whether it was child labor laws, women’s rights, emancipation, civil rights — you can see that all of these injustices were legal at one point,” said Anthony Newby, an activist with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change in Minneapolis. “Can we create new narratives? That’s been our goal from the beginning: to reframe the way that we’re thinking about this issue.”

    To foster this cultural shift, some are focusing on building neighborhood eviction-blockade teams to institute an on-the-ground people’s moratorium on foreclosure. Others are organizing rent and mortgage strikes to show that missed payments are not a personal family’s shortcoming but an act of community resistance. Still more are using home takeovers to demonstrate that — in a country with 24 empty houses for every homeless person — our nation has the resources and wealth to make housing truly a human right.

    Over the long term, this movement does not simply demand that the banks and the government address the systemic injustice that they oversee; it demands that we re-imagine our relationship to housing and to each other. What the housing crisis has taught us is that we’ve all been complicit in upholding a false and failed national narrative that property rights are more important than the needs of people. Our challenge, then, is not only to build a new economic system, but to imagine a new national narrative, a new social contract.

    On the first spring day in Detroit, J.B. gave a tour of his kingdom on Goldengate Street.

    “Just look at this floor!” he exclaimed, gesturing at cream-colored tiling mostly obscured by trash and piles of plaster. A 20-year-old man with facial tattoos and a fist-shaped comb rising from his short afro, J.B. sounded more like a real estate agent than what he is: an artist who has lived on his own since he was 12. Now, he’s working with other Occupiers to take over bank-owned houses. “Wait till you see the bathrooms,” he continued. “Matching his and hers sinks. A rose marble tub. I would never have left this house. It makes me so mad.”

    The homes in this neighborhood were so thoroughly gutted by strippers after the banks forced out the residents that the whole area is slated for demolition, threatening the precarious stability of all the surrounding homes and families. This block embodies anti-foreclosure activist Bartosz Kumor’s observation that “Detroit is a place where policy is insufficient, where we need people taking over neighborhoods and providing for themselves.”

    J.B. has already installed wood-burning stoves, water collection systems, drywall, and new plumbing in many of the seven homes his team has occupied. One is already filled with books, paintings and an artists’ studio where J.B. plans to host free classes; another is to be a martial arts dojo. They want to bring all the houses up to code so that the overcrowded homeless shelter nearby can move people in when the team migrates to the next block. It’s an ad hoc project: In one of the houses, the walls have both knives embedded in the plaster and sharpie-scribbled diagrams for solar-panel roofing.

    Like Bertha Garrett, J.B. and his team are fighting for the city piece by piece, using their bodies to preserve a neighborhood that the banks seized for cash, stripped of life and then left to die.

    “We don’t own none of these houses,” J.B. said honestly. “But if we stay in them, keep working on them, we can save them.” He leaned off the balcony on one of the houses and staring at his handiwork: half a dozen homes already filled with the clutter, knick-knacks, love and memories that make a four-walled structure one’s own.

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