Occupy Homes, One Year On and Growing Daily

Laura Gottesdiener Dec 26, 2012

“We are about to take this house over, okay?” shouted Reneka Wheeler, speaking slowly and emphasizing each word as she stood in front of a vacant house in southwest Atlanta two weeks ago. It wasn’t really a question; the home had already been cleaned up and secured, and the only thing left to do was turn the key. It was a small, pastel-pink bungalow in the middle of the Pittsburgh neighborhood in Atlanta, the type of community where more plywood boards than children’s faces peek out from first-floor windows.

The small crowd gathered in front of Wheeler cheered in affirmation. The woman — flanked by her partner, Michelene Meusa — bounded up the front steps and entered her new home with a quick jangling of her wrist. Their children, Johla and Dillon, soon followed. Dillon exposed a buck-teeth smile and Johla’s pink hair beads tossed from side to side. The last six months hadn’t been easy for the two children; since July, the family had been shuffling from shelter to shelter, where Dillon and Johla often found that other adults didn’t approve of their mothers’ relationship.

M&T Bank — a commercial bank headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y. — claimed to own the house, an allegation it would soon enforce. But, for the moment, Meusa and Wheeler had enacted a new vision and definition of housing rights — not by petition or proposal but by altering the reality on the ground.

“We’re going to change the way we do business,” declared Doug Dean, a former state representative from Pittsburgh, Ga., on the women’s new front lawn. “Whether you agree with how we’re doing it, the fact of the matter is that freedom is not free. We must take back our community.”

On December 6, the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Homes movement, Meusa and Wheeler were only two among thousands of people who gathered for coordinated direct actions focused on the human right to housing. Building on a year filled with eviction blockades, house takeovers, bank protest and singing auction blockades, the anniversary of Occupy Homes demonstrated that the groups were still committed to risking arrest to keep people sheltered. Yet, even more significantly, the day’s events demonstrated a crystallization of the movement’s central message: that decent and dignified housing should be a human right in the United States.

In Woodland, Calif., Alma Ponce and supportive community members from various Occupy groups rallied inside and outside Ponce’s home, which was scheduled for eviction on December 6. In Minneapolis, John Vinje, a veteran who had been evicted from his family’s home by U.S. Bank and Freddie Mac earlier this year, worked with Occupy Homes MN to take over a bank-owned home on the south side of the city. In St. Louis, a handful of housing advocates temporarily occupied a Wells Fargo branch and began auctioning off the contents of the bank — including the Christmas tree, paintings and computers, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho! Corporate greed has got to go!” Other actions occurred in Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Mendham, N.J., and cities across California.

The actions appear to be snowballing. In Atlanta, Occupy our Homes took over a second house on December 8. In Minneapolis, the group opened up another house on December 23 in an action led by Carrie Martinez, who refused to celebrate Christmas with her partner and 12-year-old son in the car where they’d been living since their eviction in October.

Like the first Occupy Homes day of action on December 6, 2011, the events demonstrated a high level of coordination and communication among housing groups in various cities — this time drawing on the language and tactics that had been successful throughout the past year.

As the small crowd marched to Meusa and Wheeler’s new home, for instance, people chanted, “Empty houses and houseless people — match them up!” This was a refrain that echoes the rallying cry commonly used by J.R. Fleming, chairman of Chicago’s Anti-Eviction Campaign. (His wording is to match “homeless people with peopleless houses.”) Later, after much of the fanfare had died down, Johla and Dillon began planting flowers and vegetables in the front yard, an action that is reminiscent of when Monique White, a mother in Minneapolis, planted a massive garden in the weeks before her scheduled eviction to demonstrate that she was not leaving. (U.S. Bank caved and canceled the foreclosure.)

Similarly, in Woodland, activists covered Alma Ponce’s lawn with tents — an allusion to the fall 2011 occupations that has also been used in eviction blockades in Alabama and Georgia over the last year. Ponce’s home had been the site of successful eviction blockades in May and, given the heavy activist presence on December 6, the sheriff refused to show up.

One important shift evident on the anniversary is that Occupy Homes groups have started rallying more and more behind a rights-based framework to explain why they are pursuing direct action.

“Housing is a human right, not for the banks to hold hostage,” Michelene Meusa said a few days after the action, when, at M&T Bank’s request, the Atlanta Police Department arrested her and three others for criminal trespassing. When she refused to leave, she made an explicit comparison between her civil disobedience and the actions of the civil rights movement.

The shift towards a human-rights framing of the housing movement and away from following the Occupy movement’s focus on economic unfairness — i.e., “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out” — is significant. The human rights framework is often more powerful in movements led by people of color, drawing strength, as Meusa did, from the civil rights era and cutting through the class divisions that plague housing in a way that movements focused only on mortgage loan modifications cannot.

“People get explosively excited about organizing to protect their rights,” said Anthony Newby, one of the organizers with Occupy Homes MN. A year ago, Newby and the Minneapolis campaign were more focused on organizing for principal reductions and holding banks accountable while setting aside more confrontational actions like outright home liberations for a later date. Yet, as John Vinje’s home liberation in south Minneapolis on December 6 showed, the group had transformed over the course of the year into one that is willing to challenge the logic of class-based housing discrimination: a logic that denies that access to decent housing is, in fact, a right to be protected rather than a privilege to be bought — on credit, of course.

As she waited for the sheriff inside her home in Woodland, Alma Ponce expressed a similar commitment to the rights-based framework. Explaining that the rest of her family doesn’t speak English, she said, “They’re very scared and I know I’ve been — what is that word? — taken advantage because I am Latina, and they think I’m not going to be able to defend myself.” Switching to Spanish, she later added, “We Latinos have to come out and defend our rights. Because we do have rights here in California, and if we unite, we can keep moving forward.”

With the continued onslaught of foreclosures across the United States, the question remains: How much will these movements have to scale up to make structural changes, rather than just individual changes?

Housing organizing during the Great Depression provides some instructive parallels. The economic devastation since 2008 has been quite similar to what the nation experienced throughout that period. In 1933, for example, banks foreclosed on an average of 1,000 homes every day. In 2010, the rate of displacement was comparable: The average number of foreclosures was more than 2,500 homes a day, and the population has increased two-and-a-half fold.

The scale of housing organizing during the early 1930s, however, dwarfs what we have seen so far today. Crowds of hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of people, mobilized to stop evictions in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Gary, Youngstown, Toledo and other urban centers, mostly under the direction of the Communist Party. As in much of current housing organizing, women were often on the front lines. Masses of these women filled the streets as others climbed to the roofs and poured buckets of water on the police below. Women beat back the police officers’ horses by sticking them with long hat pins or pouring marbles into the streets. If the police were successful in moving the family’s furniture out to the curb, the crowd simply broke down the door and moved the family’s belongings back inside after the police had left.

“There were times that landlords were saying, ‘You can’t evict anymore in the Bronx. These people control the streets,’” says Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University and one of the nation’s leading researchers about housing organizing during the Depression.

Rural communities also formed anti-foreclosure organizations, combining the fight for housing with the fight for fair wages, especially in the sharecropping South. Hundreds of thousands of farmers came together to form anti-eviction and tenants-rights groups like the Farm Holiday Association in the Midwest, the Alabama Sharecroppers Union in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which stretched from Tennessee to Texas. The groups descended on farm auctions en masse to intimidate investors and speculators and then bet on the property with absurdly low prices — a penny, a dollar — until the property was returned to the owner. They also banded together to do eviction defense, which, in rural areas, was simple and classically Southern.

“It was people with rifles standing there and defending the house,” said Naison.

Meanwhile, encampment protests called Hoovervilles spread across the country, entirely built, governed and populated by the displaced. Accounts of the mutual aid and self-governance in these encampments testify to the similarities between Hoovervilles and the Occupy encampments in 2011. The only difference, perhaps, is the former’s longevity; one of the largest Hoovervilles, located in Seattle, stood for 10 years, housed more than 1,000 residents at its peak and held its own elections for the community’s mayor.

This movement achieved substantial legislative gains. Housing policy became a major part of the New Deal, culminating in the National Housing Act of 1934, which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to provide affordable loans to spur homeownership, and the Housing Act of 1937, which established public housing authorities across the country.

Although the era’s housing activists like Catherine Bauer were involved in the drafting of this new legislation, the laws were far from full victories. The FHA, in particular, was a highly conservative and often racist lending agency whose main objective was reigniting housing construction rather than helping individual homeowners — a mission that led to massive and ongoing federal handouts to industry. Still, the establishment of public housing systemically changed the landscape and ideology around housing in the United States and was “one of the most successful federal programs in the 20th century,” according to Damaris Reyes, the executive director of the public housing advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side.

By this measure, the Occupy Homes network and aligned housing movements still have light-years to go — a reality that many organizers acknowledge. Yet the conditions have changed since 1930s, suggesting that what we need are not massive federal construction and lending programs, but rather a shift in the way housing rights are perceived and enacted in the U.S. Rather than coping with the scarcity of the 1930s, the United States now confronts vast, unprecedented wealth and gaping economic inequality — a condition that is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that there are upwards of a dozen empty and unused houses for every homeless person in the nation.

With more than enough wealth and roofs to provide safe and dignified homes for the country’s population, the challenge today is to demonstrate that this situation of desperate need coexisting with wasted excess is not one we need to accept. Doing so requires the protests of people like Reneka Wheeler, Michelene Meusa, John Vinje, Alma Ponce and  Carrie Martinez who are willing to defy the law — on camera and unafraid. And it will take these actions happening again and again. As John Vinje in Minneapolis explained, “If the police come and decide that they’re going to kick us out, we’ll make our stand up to the point where if we have no option but to retreat, we’ll just go and find another one. And take it over. And hopefully we’ll wear them down to the point that they’ll quit trying to come and kick us out.”

This resilience is just what the Occupy Homes network showed on December 23, with the city’s second home takeover led by Carrie Martinez. And, while questions of  strategy and ability to scale remain, Martinez reminds us that the purpose is always to enact the human right to housing — one family at a time.

“Whatever happens, we’re just grateful not to be living out of our car and to have somewhere warm to spend our holidays,” Martinez said.

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