in Dig Boston on June 17, 2014 by Chris Faraone
Sometimes the best way to make a point is to commit a defensible crime. And so earlier this month, more than a hundred Boston residents and allies occupied a vacant, foreclosed home on Norwell Street in Dorchester. Once there, organizers settled in a family that had previously been booted from another house, and also built a pop-up pirate radio station with a rooftop antenna to broadcast their message: The housing crisis isn’t over!
For an entire Saturday, protesters from City Life/Vida Urbana, Right to the City, the Chinese Progressive Association, and other community groups spoke to passing neighbors. They barbecued. Thumping car stereos sporadically drowned out the speakers, but those who stopped to listen got schooled. TOUCH FM Founder Charles Clemons addressed Boston’s division among race lines. City Councilor Charles Yancey piled on, as did City Life organizer Antonio Ennis, better known as Twice Thou from his roughneck days with Boston rap crews Made Men and Almighty RSO. On hand to hype the crowd, the charismatic Ennis called on the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to negotiate with neighborhood nonprofits and community banks.
City Life, where I have consulted organizers on their press game in the past, is well-known for its eviction blockades, in which their legions physically surround homes during foreclosure auctions to shame banks. On Norwell Street, though, the action wasn’t just for that specific property, from which occupants were pushed out months ago. Rather, activists sought to send a bigger message to the home’s current owner, the FHFA-controlled behemoth Fannie Mae. Along with Freddie Mac, the federally propped lender backs more than half of new American mortgages, and enjoyed nearly $190 billion in taxpayer bailouts. Nevertheless, their policy up to this point has been against working with municipalities to keep families in place. (Since that policy ironically contradicts the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which encourages local governments and nonprofits to acquire foreclosed properties, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is currently suing Fannie and Freddie).
It’s no secret that big banks and lenders have less scruples than your average crack dealer. Credit Suisse was recently fined $2.8 billion dollars for helping clients evade taxes, while Bank of America’s record of swindling homeowners has been confirmed by turned employees. Still, it’s hard for people to believe lenders are so heartless as to let homes sit empty on principle. Fannie Mae, for example, has rejected several offers for the house in Dorchester that organizers occupied this month.
Solutions may be imminent. According to chief City Life organizer Steve Meacham, the Boston-based Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure (COHIF) is in talks with federal officials about bringing an ambitious pilot program to Boston. Earlier this year, North Carolina Democrat Mel Watt took over as director of the FHFA, where he replaced a George W. Bush leftover who had waged war on troubled homeowners. Offering some hope, last month Watt announced that his agency will introduce a reinvigorated stabilization initiative in which underwater borrowers will be evaluated for modifications, and delinquent loans can be transferred to nonprofits. The new director specifically mentioned Detroit as a testing ground, but it looks like expedited help is also on the way to Boston.
Back in Dorchester, Meacham said that while it won’t solve all housing problems, the partnership “has the potential to be big.” If talks proceed smoothly, he added, four Fannie and Freddie foreclosures “within batting practice” of Norwell Street could soon be purchased by a nonprofit lender and then legally occupied. Sheila Dillon, the director of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, said she’d happily work with City Life, the FHFA, and anyone else to fill homes. “We would welcome such a program,” she said.
Meanwhile … at the request of lawyers flanking local Fannie Mae property managers, Boston police booted the Norwell Street occupiers after just one night. Two days later, even with the gates locked and their pirate frequency silenced, more than 40 people remained on the sidewalk. They told harrowing tales about homelessness, and chanted, “Remain. Reclaim. Rebuild.” Darnell Johnson from Right to the City made demands: “We want long-term stability. We want quality. We want community control.”
Fair housing crusaders have made those firm requests for years. Considering the progress underway with Fannie Mae, they might actually see some of them fulfilled any day now.