Occupy Wall Street: Housing Stories From the Front Lines

By Stefanos Chen and Teke Wiggin

A few blocks away from the youth-led drum circles and costumed theatrics of Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street protests, some 15,000 activists, labor supporters and all-around rabble-rousers were preparing to march on the canyons of Lower Manhattan.

"They just called it," said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, an exuberant, redheaded member of National People's Action, a grassroots protest network. She gestured toward the heaving mass of union workers and like-minded allies who seemingly planned the gathering overnight.

Members of at least 39 organizations converged on Lower Manhattan last week with a list of grievances as varied as their presenters. Ostensibly, the march was a showcase for the city's labor unions -- but if you asked around, you were just as likely to hear about resource-based economies, pesky bank fees and socialism.

Yet rather than distracting from the goals of its many constituents, the Occupy Wall Street protests -- and the "Occupy" offshoots spreading across the nation -- may be galvanizing its participants around the big-tent issues that matter most. And for the ranks of the unemployed and the underwater, a key issue at the forefront is housing.

Occupy Wall Street: Tales of Housing Woe

Jim ListerBobbing and weaving through the crowd, where panhandlers adorned in miniature American flags rubbed elbows with suit-wearing eviction lawyers, Devecka-Rinear led us on a Virgil-esque tour of New York housing gripes.

Ian Davie, a housing attorney for Bronx Legal Services, stopped to discuss the practice of "predatory equity," in which large housing development investors promise big returns on investment at the price of evicting lower- and middle-income tenants.

Jim Lister (pictured at right), an advocate for lower-income tenants living with HIV/AIDS, was marching to put a 30 percent income cap on rent for low-income renters living on disability. In Lister's case, he's living the reverse, he says -- 74 percent toward rent, and 26 percent for everything else.

Ingrid Soto, an out-of-work renter (who attended the rally but spoke to AOL Real Estate the day after by telephone) lives in an apartment complex where the landlord defaulted on his mortgage, leaving the tenants without hot water and many other essentials for months.

(Read Ingrid's story of renter's faced with landlord foreclosure here.)

Each of their stories touched on a different aspect of the housing crisis, but they all share one thing in common.

"There are a lot of causes here," said Davie, flanked by a mother and toddler and a smattering of middle-aged Teamsters. "But we're all united by a central theme – that the distribution of wealth in this country is abysmal."

Occupy California: A Growing Movement

By harnessing the raw energy (and media coverage) of the Occupy protests, housing advocacy groups are also making strides in Los Angeles.

ReFund California, a statewide campaign lobbying for principal reduction on mortgages in addition to other causes, is "focused on converting this anger and message into wins and policy changes that are going to make an impact to homeowners," according to a spokesman, Dave Lagstein.

And the group did just that when it successfully rallied some Occupy demonstrators behind the cause of a foreclosed homeowner fighting her eviction. Rose Gudiel, who has been resisting her eviction with the support of activists camped out in her front yard, visited the protesters early last week to share her story.

Gudiel had made steady mortgage payments on her three-bedroom house in La Puente, Calif., until her brother was shot in 2009 and the household income took a serious hit. After a year-long "rollercoaster of paperwork," which Gudiel said she was told would lead to a loan modification, her lender, OneWest Bank, foreclosed on her home. (See the video below to learn more about ReFund California and Gudiel's story.)

Touched by her story, some Occupy protestors decided to join her at a Wednesday sit-in at a Fannie Mae office in Pasadena staged by ReFund California. Gudiel and eight others were arrested at the event.

The next day (also the day after unions threw their weight behind Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York) about a thousand demonstrators marched through downtown L.A. to protest foreclosure abuses and corporate excess. Lagstein said that he estimated about a third of the protestors in the march, which was sponsored by ReFund California, had gravitated from the Occupy L.A. demonstrations. The other two thirds, Lagstein said, were mostly members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Service Employees International Union, the two main groups in the ReFund California campaign.

The day of the march, protesters halted outside a Bank of America in downtown L.A. According to a ReFund California news release, 25 of the protesters conducted a sit-in in the bank while Gudiel addressed the throng. Their support had paid off, she told them: She had received a call earlier that day from Fannie Mae to discuss a modification on her loan. Her eviction had been canceled.

Occupy Chicago: Homeowners Find Their Voice

"No, I'm not a college student that doesn't have anything better to do," says Shani Smith, a 36-year-old single mother in forbearance on her Chicago home, during a phone interview. "I'm just out here trying to make it, like everyone else."

Smith might not fit the mold of the typical Occupy protester. Just prior to losing her job at a local hospital in 2005, she had purchased her grandmother's home. She's been struggling to stay current on the mortgage ever since. Her financial woes were compounded, she says, by the complexity of the federal government's Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). She has tried unsuccessfully for the past two years to qualify for a permanent modification, even going so far as to hire an attorney, but to no avail. "There aren't enough trees" to support the amount of paperwork her lender keeps requesting, she says.

Smith has been agitating for mortgage reform for years (she can be seen getting arrested in the video below). "This isn't something that just happened because some college kids just decided to start a protest," she says. "This has been in the making for a very long time." But the Occupy protests have put a whirlwind of momentum at her back.

"I think what's going on in New York has really blossomed. It's like wildfire," she says. "We identify with the same message and are fighting for the same cause."

Putting Housing Front and Center

Outside of a broad indictment of Wall Street, the demands of the Occupy protesters have been less than clear. Even the New York protesters' self-published pamphlet, The Occupied Wall Street Journal, states in an editor's note that the movement has no list of explicit demands.

Even so, as the Occupy protests spread across the country, the most pressing issues seem to be taking on a life of their own. On Monday, Smith attended a protest that bears its very own Twitter hashtag: #OccupyMortgageBankers -- a sit-in at the Mortgage Bankers Association's annual conference in Chicago, where representatives from all the major mortgage lenders were present. Conceived as one of several simultaneous protests in a campaign called "Take Back Chicago," the MBA event drew several hundreds of protestors claiming that the mortgage industry was "one of the main tentacles of Wall Street greed," according to the Wall Street Journal.

And while the Occupy Wall Street organizers may be wary of putting their demands to paper, the Occupy Chicago contingent has already published a 12-item list of proposed grievances on its website.

And smack-dab in the middle of the page, in all caps, the list reads: "PROVIDE ASSISTANCE FOR OWNERS OF FORECLOSED MORTGAGES WHO WERE VICTIMS OF PREDATORY LENDING."

Also see:
Viewpoint: Kamala Harris for President
Watchdog: Fannie, Freddie Knew of Robo-Signing in 2003

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