Bill Moyers Journal: Steve Meacham Fighting Foreclosure

From Bill Moyers Journal: There is little question that the mortgage crisis remains dire. U.S. foreclosure rates for March were at record levels —

From Bill Moyers Journal:

There is little question that the mortgage crisis remains dire. U.S. foreclosure rates for March were at record levels — the number of households that received a foreclosure filing was more than 12 percent higher than the next highest month on record. One in every 159 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing during the quarter. According to many analysts, foreclosure rates are expected to nearly double this year.

Just as his first 100 days passes, President Obama unveiled plans to extend mortgage relief to Americans' second mortgages. At the same time the Senate rejected a measure supported by the President which would have allow bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages, and thus potentially save thousands of people from foreclosure and eviction. The measure was strongly opposed by the financial services industry.

Community organizer Steve Meacham of City Life/Vida Urbana is fighting on the frontlines of the foreclosure crisis. Meacham and his colleagues at City Life employ a community organizing strategy they call the The "shield" is a strategy of legal defense: teaching City Life members about their rights under the law, plus providing access to volunteer legal assistance. The "sword" is a public relations strategy, where City Life organizes protests in front of banks, and eviction blockades in front of people's homes. For these protests, City Life tries to attract as much media attention as possible, trying to draw public scrutiny towards what they argue are unfair banking and eviction practices in their community. "We find that the two [strategies] work extremely well in combination," says Meacham. He says that a strong legal defense often isn't enough to avoid eviction. "A legal defense is not enough because in Massachusetts the banks can evict you for no reason. And so for many people the strongest legal defense will simply slow the bank down. Slowing the bank down, however, can be very, very important because it gives us a chance to use the public protest to good benefit. If the bank is facing the prospect of a long, drawn-out legal procedure, even one that they might ultimately win.. and at the same time they're going through that, they're being regularly protested by City Life.. that is a public relations battle the bank loses every time. So faced with that combination of long, drawn-out legal defense and public protest, the banks are very often choosing to negotiate and settle with us." According to City Life, they've been able to prevent evictions for 95% of the people who've come to their door by employing the "sword and shield" strategy.

Transcript below the fold.

BILL MOYERS: As demand grows for the Obama administration and Congress to publish the real story behind the torture of detainees -- and to hold accountable the officials responsible -- so, too, has public pressure been building to hold the banks accountable for their role in the collapse of our financial system.

That's proving difficult, and here's one reason why. Just this week, the number two democratic leader in the Senate made an extraordinary confession. Senator Durbin of Illinois has been battling for bankruptcy reform, but many banks don't want reform, and they're pushing back against meaningful change -- especially change that might help homeowners in danger of foreclosure.

On Monday an exasperated Senator Durbin told an interviewer that although, quote, "We're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created, the banks are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, and they frankly own the place."Let me repeat that: one of the Senate's own leaders says the banks own the place. And just yesterday, as if to prove Durbin's point, bankers killed the Senate's latest effort to staunch that wave of foreclosures, squashing a measure Durbin says would help one million seven hundred thousand Americans save their homes.

So what are regular folks to do? Well, some are picking themselves up and fighting back in one of the few forums left to them: the streets.

PROTESTORS: Enough is enough!

BILL MOYERS: Just this week, labor organized demonstrations outside Bank of America offices in more than 75 cities across the country, calling for an end to predatory lending and credit practices and demanding the firing of the bank's chair and CEO, Ken Lewis.

PROTESTORS:Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Ken Lewis has to go!

BILL MOYERS: They got their wish, at least half of it. On Wednesday, Bank of America stockholders fired Ken Lewis as chairman of the board but, in a close vote, kept him on as the bank's CEO.

Meanwhile, many other people struggling to save their homes are fighting and learning the transformative power of taking a stand together. We spent a few days with a community organizer named Steve Meacham. He's with a housing rights organization called City Life/Vida Urbana, in the working class neighborhoods south of Boston, Massachusetts.

ROBERTO VELAZQUEZ: My name is Roberto Velazquez and I'm facing a foreclosure.

ABBEY COOK: My name is Abbey Cook, I'm near the foreclosure, not sure yet but we're in trouble.

UNNAMED MAN: I'm trying to see if I can save my house. [STEVE MEACHAM AT MEETING]: The first meeting of the 1st Bank Tenant Association of Lynn is happening this Sunday. And it's going to be modeled after what you're doing.

STEVE MEACHAM: I work for a community organization called City Life. And I'm a community organizer there. You know, that's become a bit famous of late as a profession, but I've been doing it all my life.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT MEETING]: We have intervened in a key arena, which is stopping evictions after foreclosure and by doing that we are getting leverage to negotiate good deals with the banks.

STEVE MEACHAM: Every 17 minutes somebody is being foreclosed in Massachusetts. Nationally, it's every 13 seconds. There were 1,200 foreclosures in Boston in 2008 and that probably is about 4,000 or 5,000 people. So that's pretty heavy statistics.

MELONIE GRIFFITHS: Foreclosure and eviction are two totally different processes.

STEVE MEACHAM: On our Tuesday night meetings we get our squad of people in here who are residents of foreclosed buildings. We spend about the first half of the meeting with everybody in the room, explaining basic legal rights.

JAMES BROOKS: Can I ask again, how many people need to see lawyers?

STEVE MEACHAM: We have a group of volunteer lawyers who are here each Tuesday night. And they go into the back cubicles of our office and people go out and speak to lawyers independently. So it's a great combination of creative lawyering and community organizing.

LAWYER: You shouldn't feel bad at all about any of this; you're completely legitimate in everything that you're saying. You're telling them exactly what they need, you're not telling them more than that, and if they don't give you that money, you can't leave.

JAMES BROOKS: Can you be evicted for not paying your mortgage? Yes or No?

CROWD: No!

JAMES BROOKS: Only a judge can evict you. So, if someone offers you cash for keys what do you say to them?

CROWD: No!

STEVE MEACHAM: A lot of what we do when people are coming in is create the moral space for people to feel like they have the right to resist, because they're told by almost everybody that they don't. You know, their first reaction is, "There's nothing I can do because the bank owns the building now." And that is part of a disempowerment that goes far beyond that situation.

And part of the reason that people love to come here I think is that not only are we giving them solidarity and support in fighting the bank, but in so doing, it's like a, kind of upsetting this whole apple cart of disempowerment that they've been fed for years and years and years.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT MEETING]: When you're done with the attorney, please come back. We have a lot more to do in the meeting, crucial protests coming up.

STEVE MEACHAM: How we got into this mess, this foreclosure mess, I think is a critical thing to talk about because it really affects how we respond. The right wing kind of puts out two scenarios, they say you know people were greedy and they bought more house than they could afford.

UNNAMED WOMAN: So Sovereign Bank sent me this letter and I'm just trying to figure out...

STEVE MEACHAM: And that's simply not true. People weren't greedy. The people who are in our room were buying any old house in a working-class neighborhood and they were being told by everybody that they should. Even if prices are high, you have to buy now because they will only go up. That's what everybody was saying.

And second, even though they could see they couldn't afford that monthly, they were being told by the bank that they would be refinanced. And they say, "Why the heck would the bank lend me money they don't think I can afford?" Nobody thought that the banks would lend money they didn't think you could afford. And yet that's exactly what they were doing.

I highly encourage everyone to watch the entire piece at Bill Moyers web site. Groups like these who are fighting to keep people in their homes if they can still afford to pay the rent rather than being evicted deserve all the support we can give them.

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