On Monday, a collective of about 40 housing activists and homeowners facing foreclosure thronged the Bronx Supreme Courthouse, where six foreclosure auctions were scheduled for the day. Their “auction blockade” attempted to halt the proceedings through song. Fourteen of the singing activists were arrested, a spokesperson for the Bronx Supreme Court confirmed to MetroFocus.
“Listen to your soul, you can’t buy these homes/Y’all are speculating off people’s pain/With all due respect, you should be ashamed,” the group sang in the courtroom of Hon. Douglas E. Mckeon, as the court officer began handcuffing some of the protesters. Those hoping to bid on the foreclosed homes looked on in confusion.
Paul Keefe, an attorney and member of the National Lawyers Guild, observed that the protest and arrests were handled smoothly by police.
The protesting group, Organizing for the Occupation (O4O), was practicing its seventh foreclosure blockade. On Thursday, they’ll try again at the Supreme Court in Kings County, along with members of the faith-based organizations like Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and Occupy Faith, and again on Friday at Queens Supreme Court, where they’ll be joined by students from Columbia University and the New School. Although O4O has managed to temporarily stop a portion of past foreclosures (“three out of four auctions, two weeks ago in the Bronx,” according to organizer Blair Ellis), the court system has wised up to their ongoing actions.
“It’s becoming more and more challenging for us,” said Ellis, who joined O4O in January. The organization itself was formed in April 2011, five months before Occupy Wall Street set up camp in Zuccotti Park. “We’ve been trying to change our strategy to extend our time in the auction room before being arrested. The goal of the blockades is both to stop the auction and create a place for new people to join the growing housing movement in New York. Videos of the action are often what moves people to come participate.”
One of those people was Carlos Rivera. Rivera, who said his home in the Bronx, where he lives with his wife, son, daughter and three grandchildren, has been in foreclosure proceedings with Bank of America for four years. He said he has been attempting to modify his loan with the bank during that time, and that he was arrested on disorderly conduct charges at the Bronx Supreme Court on Monday during his first experience with the auction blockade.
“The banks took a lot of taxpayers’ money and the only thing they gave themselves were huge bonuses,” said Rivera, referring to the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the until recently clandestine $7.7. trillion bank bailout from the U.S. Federal Reserve. “They’re refusing to modify home mortgages, they’re refusing to invest in communities. I believe that was one of the pretenses for the bailout, that they would help provide jobs so people could pay their mortgages. It’s all interconnected but people don’t really see that.”
In January, The New York Times detailed how over the course of the housing crisis, foreclosure auctions in Phoenix, AZ, transformed from quiet affairs into “a scruffy economic circus” where anxious homeowners and potential buyers pack courthouses. New York State has offered many protections for homeowners facing foreclosure, but the “circus” description is still quite apt here.
There are an estimated 100,000 pending foreclosures in the state — the highest concentrations are in the New York City neighborhoods Jamaica, Queens, and the South Bronx — and 75 percent of New York City homeowners facing foreclosure do not have a lawyer. The process can take months or years as meetings are scheduled, emails sent back and forth and courts in every borough experience severe backlogs. But most homeowners eventually make it to the final stage, the auction, where savvy bidders come looking for a great deal on property.
In January, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reached a $26 billion settlement with five big banks to help provide relief for homeowners, but many homeowners, like Rivera, say it’s a drop in the bucket.
“It’s really shameful that our elected officials are allowing these things to exist, and the banks aren’t being held accountable. The attorney general’s settlement doesn’t go far enough, if you can even call it a settlement,” said Rivera.
In New York City, the auction process is particularly complicated. While many people being foreclosed upon, like Rivera, own single-family homes, even more of the residential buildings in foreclosure are home to multiple tenants who pay rent. Those tenants are often stuck in limbo for years while their landlords sort matters out in court. When the subprime mortgage crisis hit in 2007, nearly 40 percent of foreclosures filed that year in new York City were on multi-family residences.
Besides just singing to disrupt the auctions, O4O is attempting to organize both homeowners and tenants going through foreclosure, and is working with a lawyer to explain their options to them.
In addition to drawing attention to the foreclosure auction process, there are broader goals.
“There is a huge backload of homes that have been stuck in the foreclosure process for the last three or four years,” said Andrana Horgan, another O4O organizer. “So within the next six months or so, a moratorium on foreclosures is going to be absolutely important.”
A moratorium is an ambitious goal, to say the least, but just last week San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors ordered a moratorium on all foreclosures within their city. It is not, of course, legally binding, so the banks don’t actually have to stop doing anything.
In the meantime, O4O is advocating for land use policies, such as reforms to zoning texts, that would put more decision-making power in the hands of communities themselves, instead of the city’s planning department or banks.