The Occupy Wall Street movement, which cut its teeth last fall by occupying streets and parks across the country, is moving into a new phase as it gears up for spring: occupying homes.
The movement that claimed to speak for “the 99 percent” and made income inequality part of the national discussion now is organizing protests at housing auctions to support those affected by the foreclosure crisis.
“At first, we were occupying parks, then homes,” says Sofia Teona, an organizer with Occupy Atlanta, of the movement’s evolution. “We are starting locally, but it’s a national movement.”
On Thursday, dozens were arrested when a group in New York interrupted a foreclosure auction in a courtroom, and Occupy organizers say more events are planned nationally in coming weeks.
According to Michael Premo, an organizer for “Occupy Our Homes” in New York, the movement has carried out 50 similar actions nationally in the past month, including foreclosure disruptions, eviction defense actions, and home re-occupations.
Although sales by banks of foreclosed houses were down in the third quarter of 2011, they still made up 20 percent of all homes sold. At the height of the housing boom in 2005 and 2006, that number was less than five percent.
Foreclosure sales lower property values, and many economists don’t think that the economy will restart without dealing with the issue, says John Taylor, president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit that urges banks to provide credit and investment capital to low-income communities.
“I think that it’s good that they are focusing on something the average person can understand and something specific like foreclosures,” Mr. Taylor says of the Occupy activists. “It makes sense because foreclosures are the smoking gun. They are evidence of the malfeasance of predatory lending.”
At the foreclosure auction in Brooklyn on Thursday, nearly 100 protesters started singing to disrupt bidding on foreclosed homes. Approximately 35 people were arrested, according to the National Lawyers Guild. A video of the event posted on the Internet shows the protesters singing slightly off-key and out of sync as some are arrested and led out of the auction.
Websites organized by Occupy activists have sprouted up to help connect people across the country who are battling foreclosure, providing such information as where supporters can donate money. But some of the actions are very specific and center on saving one family home at a time.
In one such case in Hawaii, a letter-writing campaign organized by members of a family to stay in their home has met with some limited success. Wells-Fargo, the bank that issued the loan, has agreed to let them stay until mid-February.
Another case in Atlanta illustrates both the wrenching nature, and the complexity, of the foreclosure process.
The Pittman family thought they were going to inherit the house that their grandmother had lived in since 1953. Instead, they are now occupying it.
Eloise Pittman’s house in Atlanta was foreclosed on early last fall, but her family didn’t find out until shortly before she died in November.
In 2006, Pittman, a retired school secretary whose only source of income was her retirement checks, refinanced her house and got a loan of $300,000, according to her granddaughter. Pittman couldn’t keep up with the high payments and she avoided telling her family.
For the past 51 days, the Pittman family and members of the Occupy Atlanta movement have camped in a tent outside the house and stayed in the house to protest what they call Chase’s policy of predatory lending.
A spokesman for Chase has a different story, saying the bank did not originate the loan.
“We worked with Ms. Eloise Pittman in 2009 to modify her loan, and when her payments stopped in mid-2010, the foreclosure process started,” says Greg Hassell, a spokesman for Chase. According to Mr. Hassell, Chase is offering to let the family buy the house back for the market rate.
According to the Pittmans, the bank offered the family two options. Either they pay $100,000 to keep the house, or else accept $2,500 to leave.
They are choosing a third option – joining Occupy Atlanta to march to the bank to demand the deed back.
“We are going to march to Chase to demand that they give back the deed,” says Carmen Pittman, Eloise Pittman’s granddaughter. “We won’t stop fighting until justice is served.”