Chasing JPMorgan: Picture the Homeless Takes Aim at Chase Bank

Alex Kane Dec 3, 2009

PHOTO:  Michael Premo

JPMorgan Chase head Jamie Dimon better watch out this Christmas—the homeless are coming to town.

At least 30 homeless and housing activists rallied outside the headquarters of banking giant Chase December 2 to demand that the bank utilize their ownership of vacant property in New York City to create housing for poor people and the homeless.

Activists at the rally, organized by the grassroots organization Picture the Homeless, scoffed at the $25 billion bailout received by Chase after Wall Street crumbled while the numbers of homeless people in the city are at its highest level since the Great Depression.  Chase paid back the bailout money last June.

Picture the Homeless, an organization founded and led by homeless people, is pushing for the creation of a Homeless People’s Trust Fund and a Community Land Trust to create and maintain affordable housing for low-income people from the vacant property the bank owns.

“The whole point of this action is to get Chase to give up the vacant lots that they got, to us, and we’re going to turn it into housing for people who can’t afford” it, said Herberth Rodriguez, a Picture the Homeless member who is currently homeless and in the shelter system.

Demonstrators picketed outside JPMorgan Chase’s headquarters at 270 Park Ave. in midtown Manhattan as they chanted, “Chase Bank needs to share the dough” and “JPMorgan Chase, you’re too big for the human race.”

During last year’s financial meltdown, Chase acquired the investment bank Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual.  The bank’s investment arm has earned $7.6 billion so far this year, and is scheduled to dole out over $20 billion in bonuses, according to a New York State Comptroller report.  JPMorgan Chase’s high earnings are part of a larger trend of big profits on Wall Street while unemployment across the country continues to rise.

“The money they have for these vacant lots, they could be using that to build homes.  Homes for families, homes for single men and women,” said Picture the Homeless member Maria Walles, who currently lives in a shelter in Brooklyn.

Outside their headquarters, the entrance was barricaded while private security and the New York Police Department stood guard.  At one point, the head of security met with members of Picture the Homeless and received a letter addressed to JPMorgan Chase investment officer Lauren M. Taylor from Picture the Homeless.  Rob Robinson, a formerly homeless board member and housing campaign leader with Picture the Homeless, warned the security head that as long as they hold vacant property and refuse to meet with homeless people, the bank will be hounded by activists’ presence.

The letter reads, “we are here today seeking a meeting with you or whomever you suggest to discuss the disposition of vacant lots and buildings currently held by your bank to be placed in a Community Land Trust, which when coupled with sufficient bank resources placed within a Homeless Peoples Trust Fund, could enable the construction of housing that is truly affordable for our people.”

“They have over a hundred million dollars in property [in the city], let ‘em go,” said Robinson.  “There’s 39,000 people sleeping in the shelters every night, and untold numbers on the streets.  They have a moral obligation, since taxpayers bailed out these banks, to house people.”

The action follows Picture the Homeless’ takeover of a vacant lot that JPMorgan Chase is a party to in East Harlem last July.  Ten people were arrested at that action, but the charges were dropped this fall.  In an October interview, Robinson speculated that JPMorgan Chase didn’t press ahead with the charges because they wanted the whole episode to go away.

There is no precise accounting of the amount of warehoused property Chase owns, but a City Council bill introduced by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-East Harlem, Manhattan Valley, Mott Haven) would require the city to conduct a census count of vacant property every year, and to publish information online and in print concerning who owns the vacant property and when the property became vacant.

“Given the fact that it’s our tax money and that it’s human beings who are going on the street, I think it’s important that we protest them and make clear our opposition to what’s happening,” said Max Rameau, a founding member of the Miami-based organization Take Back the Land.

Next Tuesday, Picture the Homeless plans to continue targeting and protesting Chase while CEO Jamie Dimon gives a speech at the Goldman Sachs Conference Center.

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