The Sword and the Shield

Boston's City Life/Vida Urbana is finding success by turning conventional wisdom on its head and entering the picture after a foreclosure has taken place.

City Life/Vida Urbana: image shows a group marching through the streets of Hyde Park, Mass.
City Councilor Felix Arroyo, far left, joins a Bank Tenant Association march through the streets of Hyde Park. Photo by Kelly Creedon, kellycreedon.com

It was a hot August day when more than a hundred people gathered outside Drusilla Francis’s home in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. Signs emblazoned with “We Will Not Be Moved” and other candid sentiments regarding bank behavior were on display as two policemen looked on. A constable, equipped with a moving van and orders to evict the 60-year-old Francis and her two foster children, talked frantically on the phone to his client, U.S. Bank. Perhaps he did not expect to be challenged.

Several lawyers on Francis’s side explained to the constable that he did not have the appropriate paperwork to evict Francis, a Central American immigrant, and eviction was avoided that day. Had he brought the proper documents, the policemen would have walked through the marching protesters to arrest various the members and allies of City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), an affordable housing and tenants’ rights organization, who had volunteered to stand peacefully in the way of eviction. The eviction and the arrests, had they occurred, would have been captured by news cameras and print reporters, and it would have been another devastating loss for a family in bank foreclosure. But all that was averted thanks to collective action and resistance that let the banks know that they could no longer easily upend peoples’ lives and avoid public relations debacles.

Tisa Taylor, whose home was saved by a similar action, but not before her father suffered a devastating stroke soon after the family home was foreclosed upon, explained why she took a day from work to attend the blockade: “I keep coming back to these actions to help because CLVU was there for us. I don’t want to see my neighborhood boarded up. I want to see my community flourish.”

CLVU has long employed a paired organizing-legal defense method known as The Sword and the Shield to save tenants from displacement due to harassment and attempts at gentrification. Recently, these tactics have been adapted and applied to prevent evictions of foreclosed owners and their tenants, creating public relations nightmares for large financial institutions.

Shifting Focus

So how did a local, traditional tenants’ rights organization end up in the national spotlight and in the thick of the foreclosure crisis? While CLVU organizers could see the problem and the pain of people caught in the middle of the foreclosure crisis, they did not immediately see a role for their organization. Organizing homeowners to prevent a foreclosure means getting entangled in casework, which was not their strong suit, while there were other organizations helping homeowners in trouble. Typical organizing campaigns balance smaller tactical victories with larger strategic objectives, and it was unclear to CLVU what they would be in this case. CLVU decided to stay out of it.

But Steve Meacham, a community organizer who has worked for CLVU for 11 years, noticed growing numbers of tenants and owners being evicted from their foreclosed homes in no-fault evictions in 2007 and 2008, and he saw an opportunity. Massachusetts is one of 30 states that does not require judicial review for foreclosure, meaning banks can foreclose on a property without going to court. In its long and successful history, CLVU had learned how to fight evictions. Here was a clear opportunity to “collectivize,” to use Meacham’s word, the individual struggles of homeowners. CLVU decided that it had a promising course of action: organize owners and tenants after foreclosure and before the inevitable no-fault eviction.

This was a tactical innovation. Many organizations work with homeowners to prevent foreclosures, but post-foreclosure organizing played to CLVU’s strengths. They could organize rallies, stage actions, and use public relations as a weapon against financial institutions, and they could do this using symbols and art, repurposing the sword and shield for bank tenants.

The post-foreclosure campaign gives CLVU a way to merge short-term gains, long-term demands, and political education. It has three goals: Prohibit no-fault evictions of tenants and foreclosed owners, with an interim goal being to block as many individual evictions as possible. Force banks to negotiate with foreclosed owners who want to buy back their properties. And secure mortgage principal reduction to current market value, rather than the bubble-inflated price created by the speculative boom, for owners both foreclosed and in danger of foreclosure. Financial institutions see threats to their way of doing business behind each of these three demands.

The Sword, the Shield, and the Offer

One of the first things City Life/Vida Urbana did was to organize the Bank Tenant Association, a multicultural, multiethnic group of foreclosed owners and tenants in foreclosed properties. The BTA wields the sword part of the equation, which is CLVU’s tiered confrontational approach to blocking foreclosure sales and preventing banks from evicting foreclosed owners and tenants. Using foreclosure lists, CLVU staff and cadres of volunteers canvass homeowners in trouble and assess their situation and willingness to take action.

“Many people experience a feeling of shame in losing their home to foreclosure. Some don’t even tell their own family members,” observes Curdina Hill, executive director of CLVU. For CLVU organizers, one of their most significant tasks is to address this feeling of shame and isolation so that foreclosed owners can acknowledge their situation in a public setting and make a conscious decision to engage in collective action. “The Bank Tenant Association is a place where people find their voice and sense of power after hearing from and connecting with other people going through the same experience,” says Hill.

Upon joining the BTA, members take part in a range of interventions including auction protests, vigils, “block rebellions,” and eviction blockades. Block rebellions include actions such as occupying vacant buildings with community residents. At least one person who occupied a vacant foreclosed property has won the opportunity to buy the property. Other forms of protest include bank pickets, and un-rent strikes, where a group presses a bank to accept rent payments from tenants or foreclosed owners of a property. One bank function, a demonstration at Deutsche Bank’s annual golf tournament, gained local media attention and scored huge public relations victories for CLVU and the nascent BTA. As a result of this action, Deutsche issued a letter to their servicers urging them to pursue alternatives to eviction post-foreclosure. It was a defining moment for CLVU that served to coalesce the campaign.

The shield part of the equation suggests protection. In one sense this comes from the power of being part of a group rather than a lone agent or victim. But the shield also refers to legal protection. Lawyers from partner organizations such as Greater Boston Legal Services and Harvard Legal Services Bureau attend BTA meetings to discuss individual situations and alternatives in private meetings with members.

The centerpiece of The Sword and the Shield is the weekly BTA meeting, which now attracts upward of 100 people. Participants are invited to talk about their situation, in a sense to give testimony. Many of the participants at the meetings are people who have resolved their situations and attend to express their solidarity. The meetings have a flavor of movement politics and are animated by the spirit of revival, complete with slogans and songs.

For many homeowners in foreclosure situations, loan modifications without principal reduction are not practical because their homes have lost a significant share of their bubble-inflated values and are worth tens of thousands of dollars less than the mortgage amount. However, given the opportunity, many would jump at the chance to buy back their homes at current market value. The third element in the CLVU campaign, the Offer, is the result of an innovative partnership that the community development financial institution Boston Community Capital has forged with CLVU and other nonprofits, called SUN, or Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods. BCC buys the often-occupied foreclosed properties from banks at current or discounted prices. It can then sell the property back to the former owner and provide a mortgage loan at an affordable monthly payment.

Banks typically cite “moral hazard” in refusing to sell back to former owners. According to them, eliminating the consequences of foreclosure may change the behavior of current or future mortgage-holders for the worse. CLVU organizer Steve Meacham takes issue with this invocation of moral hazard. As he told Bill Moyers in a 2009 interview:

These are the same guys who have run our entire economy into the ground and who have been rewarded with billions in taxpayer bailouts and have used billions of that money to give bonuses to the very executives that drove their companies and the whole economy into the ground. And they are citing moral hazard as the reason why they can’t resell that property to the existing homeowners at the real value? That is hypocritical in the extreme.

Of course, the BCC solution can’t help everyone. Some former owners are unemployed or underemployed and can’t take out a mortgage with BCC or afford their houses even at current market value. In those cases, CLVU also will work with other organizations to find options for foreclosed owners and tenants and their properties, including conveyance to organizations like CDCs to develop co-housing and limited equity co-ops.

CLVU works with about 1,000 families in Boston and has expanded its efforts to selected cities throughout the state. Through the BCC collaboration, 60 families have bought or are in the process of buying back their homes. The BTA has carried out 30 eviction blockades. Thanks to these blockades, foreclosed homeowners and tenants in foreclosed properties have gained months, in some cases more than a year in their homes. If they have to move, they have negotiated dignified arrangements allowing them to move on their own time in a stable fashion. Also, backed by organizing leverage, tenants have negotiated settlements of at least $10,000 to move out rather than the $500 “cash for keys” that previous tenants had been forced to accept.

What’s more, the tenants that formed the base of the organization for decades are now joined by an ever-growing number of current and former homeowners.

The Long-Term Strategy

While the blockades are energizing, of course CLVU and its allies would like to see systemic change so that each success does not come at the cost of a pitched battle. They would like to see permanent eviction protections for foreclosed homeowners, general acceptance and adoption of mortgage principal reduction, and banks giving foreclosed homeowners another chance to purchase at current market values.

There is some movement. In 2010, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law preventing banks from evicting tenants in foreclosed properties except for just cause. In practice, this eliminates no-fault evictions after foreclosure. CLVU and its legal partners, which include Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and Greater Boston Legal Services, and Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending (or MAAPL, which CLVU co-founded) worked hard for the enactment of this law. MAAPL’s legislative agenda also includes advocating for laws that would provide judicial review and that would grant owners the same protections from eviction as those won in 2010 by tenants.

The state legislature is currently deliberating on Boston’s petition to be allowed to deny a bank a permit (enforced by the state) to foreclose unless the bank first participates in mediation in good faith. In August, the Springfield, Mass., city council passed the strongest foreclosure ordinance so far in the state, which fines banks that don’t participate in mediation before a foreclosure (a move that doesn’t require state approval) and requires lenders to post a $10,000 bond on vacant properties. If the law is upheld, lenders will be required to provide upkeep to foreclosed properties or forfeit their bond. The Springfield No One Leaves Campaign, a grassroots organization modeled after CLVU, played a central role in getting these ordinances passed.

We celebrate BCC’s financial innovation because there are few, if any, parallels in which foreclosed owners are given the opportunity to buy back their homes in communities they love. But in the absence of people motivated to turn out for rallies and demonstrations or willing to engage in civil disobedience, it is doubtful that CLVU would have gained so much for its members. “Before we started this campaign there was no financing vehicle to give foreclosed owners another chance,” says Curdina Hill. “The power of organizing is motivating banks to change the way that they do business.”

The day after the eviction blockade for Drusilla Francis, U.S. bank announced that it would negotiate with BCC. BCC has now entered into an agreement to buy the property and Francis expects to enter into an agreement with BCC to buy back her property at current market value, which she can afford. Thanks to CLVU, she will not be moved.

1 COMMENT

  1. Melvyn Colon’s vivid description in “The Sword and the Shield” (12/14/11) of ordinary people trying to keep their small portion of the American dream is a powerful testament to perseverance.

    Colon’s article documents the adoption of a post foreclosure strategy that challenges the legal and financial forces who service financial institutions. The genius behind this approach is a three step strategy which engage the victims and ultimately the banks on moral and business terms. Why would local banks open themselves to further public scorn when they can simply sell the foreclosed property to a responsible financial intermediary who will then sell the property back to the former owner with an affordable mortgage?

    The several families mentioned by Colon developed a workout template by which eviction is prevented while incorporating common sense business practices.

    Sadly though, and despite State legislation that will further the work of City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), the effort still leaves thousands of families without the necessary support to prevent eviction. Both Federal and State regulatory agencies need to force financial intermediaries and servicing agents to implement a genuine plan that keeps homeowners in place.

    Colon concludes by celebrating the organizing and financial prowess of CLVU and Boston Community Capital as a model for impacted communities throughout the US.

    Indeed, this innovation should be replicated giving hope and a roadmap for protecting families and their communities

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