About two weeks ago, Laura Gottesdiener released her new book, “A Dream Foreclosed” about the widespread single-family foreclosure crisis throughout the countries, particularly in African American communities. (There was a fabulous event sponsored by Housing is a Human Right, The Cornell West Theory, and Nomadic Wax simultaneously celebrating the book and the release of an international mixtape about housing rights. Check out the mixtape’s free download here.)
While I haven’t had the opportunity to read Gottesdiener’s book yet, I do want to highlight her reporting on some of the most important, creative, and successful activism taking place in our time: moving people back into foreclosed homes. On August 1, 2013, Gottesdiener published a powerful article in The Nation about her work in communities with widespread foreclosure. While she recognizes that people of all ages, races and income levels have been displaced by the foreclosure, she writes that:
At the height of the rapacious lending book, nearly 50 percent of all loans given to African-American families were deemed ‘subprime. The New York Times deemed these contracts as a ‘financial time bomb.’
In addition, she writes:
[Wells Fargo mortgage brokers] received cash incentives to aggressively market subprime loans in minority communities…Between 2009 and 2012, African Americans lost just under $200 billion in wealth, bringing the gap between white and black wealth to a staggering 20:1 ratio.
It’s too easy, as Gottesdiner points out, to see this as a militarized displacement effort by the banks. Evictions are violent, in the middle of the night, sometimes at gunpoint, involving guards literally throwing all of one’s possessions on their lawns and forcing families into homelessness. The impact of mass displacement has major effects on communities, cities, and states. Schools, hospitals, and crucial city programs are closing all over the nation as a result of lowering property values and community abandonment. In cities like my hometown, Chicago, there’s been increased violence and crime revolving around empty “bank-owned” homes which aren’t being maintained or secured. (We see this increase in crime in partially vacant buildings where drug users break in and use vacant units to shoot up all night, understandably frightening current tenants.) As the Furman Center recently discovered, there is also a link between high incidences of foreclosure and crime in New York State. According to Gottesdiner’s reporting, while vacant homes exist in both majority white communities and majority African American communities, vacant/foreclosed homes in communities of color are 80% more likely to have a broken or boarded up building, and 30% more likely to have a broken or boarded up window.
Investors are buying up scores of foreclosed single family homes all over the country making money by renting them out to families, often the very families who were displaced because of the crisis. Sound familiar? Investment companies here in New York City like Seryll LLC or Stabilis Capital are also buying up cheap multifamily homes in foreclosure with what we believe to be intentions of flipping the buildings for more money or displacing long-term tenants.
Groups are organizing throughout the country to shift that national consciousness and assert that rather be a commodity, housing should be recognized and treated as a human right. With this framework, organizers are working to move homeless and displaced families back into vacant homes, fight evictions, and increase community engagement in “reclaiming” a neighborhood. And they’re doing it successfully.
A few months ago, New York Times magazine published an incredible article featuring J.R. Flemming and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign. This group of organizers is working with community support to rehabilitate homes and move families into them. Publicly. Using a combination of legal strategy and action (what City Life/ Vida Urbana in Boston terms “the Shield and the Sword”), these groups are taking over abandoned homes. Edward Voci, an attorney working in Chicago with Occupy our Homes and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign argues that the
legal justification for the home takeovers comes not from adverse possession but from an exception in the Illinois trespass statute that exempts someone from prosecution if he or she enters an abandoned and unoccupied property and “beautifies” it. Voci admitted that his reading of the trespass law had never been tested in appellate court. But he said, “Putting a family in an abandoned building, ridding an area of blight, if that’s not beautifying, I don’t know what it is.”
In New York City, rent regulated tenants living in foreclosed multi-family buildings are supposed to be protected from displacement through laws such as always having the right to renew a lease and only having specific rent increases, no matter who buys the building. However, in buildings across the city (and this is particularly true rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Crown Heights or Ridgewood) tenants are often displaced through less-than-legal means. Predatory landlords and private equity companies by buildings for cheap with hopes of flipping the building or displacing residents to bring in higher paying ones.
We hope that we can contribute and learn from incredible housing organizers all over the country to ensure that housing is available and affordable for all.