Screwed by the mortgage companies, blasted by the real estate bubble, and hung out to dry by the government, angry Boston homeowners are banding together to fight back. They’ve got foreclosure-happy banks trembling—and their movement is spreading.
The moving truck, empty and waiting, is parked around the corner from the house, because between the protestors and the police cars, there is no longer any room for it in front of 197 Normandy Street. Inside the stately brick duplex, which sits in a foreclosure-ravaged section of Dorchester, Drusilla Francis has packed only a few bags, hoping against reason that, somehow, at day’s end she will still be living in the home she’s owned for 22 years. Today, U.S. Bank is evicting her after foreclosing on her loan.
The only thing standing between Francis, a 66-year-old foster mother, and her place among the swelling ranks of displaced homeowners is the public relations nightmare that’s currently unfolding for U.S. Bank in front of her home: Some 80 placard-waving, slogan-chanting protestors from City Life/Vida Urbana, a local nonprofit, are jamming the sidewalk and spilling into the street, demanding that, rather than kick Francis out, the bank sell the house back to her at a reasonable price. Several volunteers, willing to risk arrest, are ready and waiting to form a human barricade across Francis’s front walk. Over and over, the protesters chant, “The banks get bailed out, the people get moved out.”
Across the street, Burton Malkofsky, a constable hired by U.S. Bank’s attorneys to oversee the eviction process, is waiting with a rolled-up white paper in his hand. It’s Malkofsky who called the police to this eviction. He’s been anticipating trouble for some time now, especially since seeing the yellow “We Shall Not Be Moved” signs — written in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole — that were hanging in windows during prior trips to the house to serve Francis notices. Actually, Malkofsky knows City Life’s tactics quite well. A few years ago, a disabled protestor chained his wheelchair to the front gate of a house where Malkofsky was trying to serve an eviction. The police had to come with bolt cutters to snip the chain. “I don’t have anything against City Life,” Malkofsky says. “They have a job to do protecting homeowners and tenants. I am hired by the attorneys to do evictions. That’s my job.”
Malkofsky may not have a problem with City Life, but the group has been making his job pretty difficult lately, having pioneered something it calls the “sword and the shield” — a unique approach to battling foreclosure that combines intense lawyering, bold activism, and strategic financing from a local nonprofit. The goal is simple: to keep people in their homes and provide stability to foreclosure-ridden neighborhoods in the city.
That’s more difficult than it sounds. During the past five years, 4,132 homeowners in Boston have gone into foreclosure, with the vast majority living in poor and working-class areas such as Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and East Boston. So far, though, the sword and the shield have helped nearly 90 property owners in the city and nearby communities buy back their homes after foreclosure. The group has also been exporting its tactics — which have been dubbed the “Boston Model” — to other community organizations in cities across Massachusetts, and outside the state in places like Oakland, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Boston, in fact, has been deemed by some as ground zero in the anti-eviction movement, with one attorney calling it the “last place a lawyer wants to try to evict someone.”
Last year, the Open Society Foundation, a nonprofit group started by George Soros, awarded City Life a $400,000 grant to spread its work beyond Boston. “I have met with practically every single housing-counseling agency in the country,” says Solomon Greene, one of the group’s senior program officers, “and I have never seen anything like it.”
It’s a tuesday night in August, and about 70 people are seated in rows of folding chairs in a large room at City Life headquarters, part of Jamaica Plain’s converted Sam Adams brewery complex. Protest placards painted with slogans such as “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Reduce Principal Now” hang on the walls around the room. A newcomer named Juan stands up and tells his story, which involves a missed mortgage payment, an unforeseen illness, “begging letters” sent to the bank, loan-modification negotiations cut short by the lender’s surprise decision to foreclose and sell the property to an investor, and unreturned calls and letters. He speaks of meeting with other groups and organizations, to no avail. Now, he says, he’s ready to fight for his home.
At the front of the room stands Melonie Griffiths, an energetic, powerfully built woman with close-cropped bleach-blond hair. She’s one of the group’s lead organizers. In 2004 Griffiths bought a two-family home in Dorchester for $470,000. At the time, she says, she insisted to her mortgage broker at Zeus Funding that the monthly payments for the house were going to be a stretch on her salary as a teacher in the Boston public schools. She says the broker assured her that she’d be able to refinance at a lower rate two months down the road. She never got the refinancing, and after struggling to make her mortgage payments, she fell behind, eventually going into foreclosure.
While Griffiths was in foreclosure, Attorney General Martha Coakley was in the process of suing Zeus Funding for deceptively giving mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. In 2009 the company was barred from doing business in the state, but that didn’t help Griffiths. After exhausting her options in housing court and visiting as many local politicians as she could, she, her three children, and her downstairs tenants were facing imminent eviction.
City Life had launched a program around that time to help tenants and homeowners being forced out of their homes. Founded in 1973 as the Jamaica Plain Tenants Action Group, the nonprofit’s early work focused on renters, addressing divestment, neglect, and even arson-for-profit by landlords. In the decades that followed, it fought to establish rent control, to develop affordable housing, and to organize tenants in Boston apartment buildings so they could negotiate stable rents. When the foreclosure crisis hit a few years ago, City Life realized that if it was going to successfully promote housing stability in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, it was going to have to embrace people in foreclosure as well.
That’s because research has shown that foreclosures create a ripple effect of problems, resulting in even more people losing their homes. Crime goes up in neighborhoods where lots of bank-owned houses sit empty — one study found that every one percent increase in the foreclosure rate resulted in a 2.33 percent jump in violent crime — and property values go down. As Ingrid Gould Ellen, a New York University professor of public policy and urban planning, notes, “These reductions in prices can create something of a downward spiral as reduced prices put other owners at greater risk of foreclosure, because as prices fall, owners are more likely to find themselves with underwater mortgages. Similarly, as crime increases, property values may fall, yet again putting more owners at risk.”
Steve Meacham, City Life’s wiry, silver-haired organizing coordinator, had witnessed all of this up close. He asked Griffiths if, rather than simply accept her eviction, she’d be willing to let his group blockade her home in an attempt to shame her bank, Ocwen Financial Corporation, into either reducing her principal or collecting rent from her, which would prove that she was willing to pay to stay in the home and wasn’t just looking for a free residence. She agreed, and when Constable Burton Malkofsky showed up in early 2008, he was greeted by City Life, Griffiths, her friends and neighbors, some local politicians, and the news media. After a few hours of protesting, Ocwen agreed to temporarily call off the eviction. “I couldn’t believe that a group of people were able to do what my legislators couldn’t do for me or what the courts couldn’t do for me,” Griffiths recalls.
The victory marked a turning point in City Life’s fledgling work on the foreclosure crisis, and led to a rash of eviction blockades in the months that followed. Griffiths even began volunteering at City Life and attending rallies at other homes. All the while, though, Ocwen kept up its efforts to evict Griffiths. Despite another successful blockade at her house, she and City Life were unable to convince the bank to modify her loan. Griffiths eventually decided that the fight was putting too much strain on her children. There was no end in sight. So she ceased fighting the eviction, left her home behind, and took a full-time job at City Life.