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'Occupy' turns to housing

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Those who rely on mainstream media to tell them what's happening can be forgiven for coming to the same opinion as ex-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who wrote in his recent column "Capitalism on trial" (June 3) that the Occupy movement has disintegrated.

While aggressive law enforcement has prevented Occupy in many cities from re-establishing a prolonged and public presence, activists have put their energy to use by linking with community and neighborhood activists to fight the most visible footprint of the speculative 1 percent: foreclosed-upon homes.

Occupy Our Homes Baltimore, one of a number of local activist groups that has emerged from the Occupy Baltimore demonstration last October, is currently visiting the homes of families targeted for foreclosure in the Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore. Community meetings thus far have brought those at risk of homelessness together with lawyers and organizers who are ready to assist, defend and join homeowners and tenants in fighting for their homes.

Similar Occupy Our Homes' groups have formed around the country. In north Minneapolis, 50 Occupy members camped in and around the house of Monique White as she faced a foreclosure related eviction. Their tenacity and solidarity with neighbors resulted in the May renegotiation of Ms. White's loan, including principal reduction.

Occupy Atlanta took up the cause of a 108 year old community church, the Higher Ground Empowerment Center, to fight off BB&T bank's effort to foreclose after the church could not repay a 2008 loan used to repair tornado damage. Occupy's camp-out on church property forced BB&T to re-negotiate, and the church was saved. The Atlanta Occupiers also saved a war veteran in Riverdale, Ga., whose home was targeted for foreclosure. While the group was unable to save an 85 year-old woman from eviction last month, they were able to publicize it by putting the woman's personal property on the evicting sheriff's lawn.

Occupy Nashville successfully defended Helen Bailey, a 78-year-old former civil rights activist from foreclosure by J.P. Morgan Chase, and Occupy Detroit and others waged an aggressive anti-eviction campaign that allowed a Detroit husband and wife to remain in their home of 22 years.

As Allison Kilkenny of The Nation wrote last month, "these kinds of Occupy victories used to receive a fair amount of news coverage, though never at the same level as the more dramatic aspects of the movement, such as violent camp evictions and mass arrests. However, as of late, the work done by Occupy Our Homes has almost entirely dropped off the media radar."

This is a mystery to us. Since 2007, 8 million households have faced foreclosure. Ten million more are underwater. The recent $26 billion settlement by five major banks with state attorneys general contained limited relief for homeowners relative to the damage done by those who amassed fortunes by speculating on collateralized mortgage payments.

Of the $60 million in hard cash that Maryland will receive from the settlement, almost $20 million will fill the gaps in government, Legal Aid and Housing Counseling budgets, sustaining or providing employment to professionals who will "help" the victims of the predatory crisis. Many unemployed homeowners would like these jobs and would prefer employment to professional help. Occupy Our Homes, by the way, is staffed by volunteers.

In Baltimore, where 69,206 notices of intent to foreclose have been filed since April 2008, the Housing Authority is directing $9.5 million of the settlement money to demolish vacant housing. "This is so fortuitous," an authority official crooned in The Sun, apparently oblivious to the 32,397 people waiting for housing on the authority's own list, as well as the 4,088 people who are homeless in Baltimore on any given night. The fact that the authority wants to use millions to destroy housing rather than house people shows their preference for serving the private real estate market first, the poor second. Ostensibly, demolitions in blighted neighborhoods will increase property values for all in Baltimore, but chances are that the profits of a healthier real estate market will redound most favorably to private housing developers and speculators.

We occupied public space last year to reclaim and model the democracy we all deserve. We now knock on doors and meet in Park Heights to recognize that all of us, by virtue of our humanity, deserve housing. Both democracy and housing are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document the United States endorsed when it joined the United Nations. And human rights are founded upon the interdependence of political and economic rights — in short, democracy, free speech and privacy are empty without education, health care, housing and jobs that pay fair wages for all.

We now live in a society where income inequality is at the highest it has been since the Great Depression, where increased productivity by workers is not returned to them in the form of higher wages, where only 47 percent of parents believe their children will have a higher standard of living, and where the ratio of foreclosures to housing stock parallels the Great Depression. Worse, those who profited from the housing bubble are now re-circling like vultures, investing in rental housing to make profits from evicted homeowners on the rebound.

It appears to us the game is fixed. Faith in the god of profit has done little to advance the values we and the folks in Park Heights embrace: dignity, equity, and universality.

Jessica Lewis, Alex Bennett and Saba Nazeer are members of Occupy Our Homes Baltimore, and can be reached at occupybaltimorehomes@gmail.com. Contributing to this article were fellow Occupy members Athena Tsakos, Asa Wilder, Christopher Lavoie, Casey McNeill, Donielle Zapanta, Felipe Busko, Lila Kara and Amy Annable.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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