Recent victories by local housing justice and anti-foreclosure advocates are building to a big ticket item: Forcing a banking institution to return the title of a house to an elderly Portland homeowner.
At the same time, community activists have been in continuing – but so far unsuccessful -- meetings with state and county officials about ways to take the heat off homeowners unfairly hit by the foreclosure crisis.
Annette Steele, 80, borrowed money for a home maintenance project years ago and then found herself denied when she tried to refinance; her loan was bundled and resold repeatedly.
One of the last African American homeowners in the Sabin neighborhood, supporters say Steele kept up with her bills until a balloon payment sank her financially and her property ended up in foreclosure.
Last Friday saw housing rights activists – who had already canvassed the Sabin neighborhood and signed up more than 80 homeowners to a petition in support – take the grandmother's cause all the way to Seattle, where they delivered to Fidelity National Title Company main office the petition signatures and a letter demanding the return of Steele's home.
"This is my family's home and we have a right to our home. If the Sheriff comes and tries to take my home away my family and my neighbors will do everything we can to defend this house," Steele says in a statement. "We'll stand together. The system didn't help me, but my community will."
Working in combination with the Seattle group Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction – which is organizing in support of a Seattle woman in the same situation, Judy Lovelett – the Portland activists are gearing up for a long struggle directly with the companies that profit from bundling and reselling debt.
"We have a number of people we've been working with for the past year, and we're getting to the point where we think we should pressure these banks to release their hold on these peoples' houses," says Ahjamu Umi, a community organizer with the Service Employees International Union who was formerly a vice president at Point One Credit Union.
Communities around the nation are looking for new ideas in beating back foreclosure against unscrupulous lenders that activists – and homeowners say – have cheated them out of their property.
In Ohio, more than a half billion dollars the state received for anti-foreclosure efforts from the federal government in 2010 has been used to create the Save the Dream program by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency.
In Florida last year, a new line of business grew up around the idea of placing underwater properties facing foreclosure in a "land trust," but as Kimberly Miller reported for the Palm Beach Post, within months Florida's Attorney General closed the land trusts down as "unfair and deceptive."
In Portland, perhaps the biggest win for activists came after a 20-hour sit-in last January in the Multnomah County Sheriffs office agitating for a moratorium on foreclosures, when County Chair Jeff Cogen announced that he agreed "in principle" to the idea.
However, a series of meetings to push a moratorium on home foreclosures in Multnomah County appears to have reached a stalemate.
The housing and employment rights activists We Are Oregon; the Blazing Arrow Organization (an informational group that canvasses TriMet on Friday nights with foreclosure information among other things), plus other activists and clergy sat down with Cogan; Circuit Court Judge Nan Waller; a representative from the District Attorney's office and Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton.
The activists say another meeting a few weeks ago at the City government level brought together a delegation from We Are Oregon; homeowners in foreclosure Alicia Jackson and Darren Johnson and his wife Patricia Williams; and City Commissioner Steve Novick, to discuss getting water service restored to each of their homes.
City and county officials were unable to comment on the current foreclosure status at presstime.
Umi cites a handful of Portland cases where foreclosed homeowners – with the help of Occupy Portland organizers – have been able to remain in their homes in the face of foreclosure, including Johnson and Williams, who are back in their house after an aggressive eviction last year involving police with pepper spray.
No law enforcement has yet tried to forcibly evict Steele.
"For people who know the case, her loan was without question an illegal predatory loan," Umi says. "The foreclosure process that came as a result of that was unquestionably an illegal foreclosure process – this is clearly documented."
Umi says the group's goal is to build enough public pressure that county and state elected officials will be supported in fighting back against the banks and lending companies that are forcing homeowners out of their property while the foreclosures are challenged in court.
"I think it's so important that people get an understanding of how much work is involved in this," Umi says. "The only way we can fight back is through getting involved and engaging these banks and institutions on a protracted basis."
Find out more at www.weareoregon.org.