"This is a crowd that won't scatter," James Steele wrote in the pages of The Nation some seventy-five years ago. Early one morning in July 1933, the police had evicted John Sparanga and his family from a home on Cleveland's east side. Sparanga had lost his job and fallen behind on mortgage payments. The bank had foreclosed. A grassroots "home defense" organization, which had managed to forestall the eviction on three occasions, put out the call, and 10,000 people--mainly working-class immigrants from Southern and Central Europe--soon gathered, withstanding wave after wave of police tear gas, clubbings and bullets, "vowing not to leave until John Sparanga [was] back in his home."
"The small home-owners of the United States are organizing," Steele concluded, "tardily perhaps, but none the less surely." It wasn't just homeowners--three months earlier the governor of Iowa had called out the National Guard after farmers stormed a courthouse and threatened to hang the judge if he didn't stop issuing foreclosures. They left him in a ditch, bruised but alive. By the end of the 1930s, farmers' and home-owners' struggles had pushed the legislatures of no fewer than twenty-seven states to pass moratoriums on foreclosures.
The crowds appear to be gathering again--far more quietly this time but hardly tentatively. Community-based movements to halt the flood of foreclosures have been building across the country. They turned out in Cleveland once again in October, when a coalition of grassroots housing groups rallied outside the Cuyahoga County courthouse, calling for a foreclosure freeze and constructing a mock graveyard of Styrofoam headstones bearing the names of local communities decimated by the housing crisis. (They did not, unfortunately, stop the more than 1,000 foreclosure filings in the county the following month.) In Boston the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America began protesting in front of Countrywide Financial offices in October 2007. Within weeks, Countrywide had agreed to work with the group to renegotiate loans. In Philadelphia ACORN and other community organizations helped to pressure the city council to order the county sheriff to halt foreclosure auctions this past March. Philadelphia has since implemented a program mandating "conciliation conferences" between defaulting homeowners and lenders. ACORN organizers say the program has a 78 percent success rate at keeping people in their homes. One activist group in Miami has taken a more direct approach to the crisis, housing homeless families in abandoned bank-owned homes without waiting for government permission.
It's unlikely, though, that any of these activists will be able to relax soon. Other than calling for a ninety-day freeze on foreclosures--which, given that loan negotiations can take many months to work out, would almost certainly be inadequate--President Obama has been consistently vague about his plans to address the foreclosure crisis. He has indicated his support for a $24 billion program proposed in November by FDIC chair Sheila Bair, which would offer banks incentives to renegotiate loans, aiming to reduce mortgage payments to 31 percent of homeowners' monthly income. Obama's economic team has since worked with House Financial Services Committee chair Barney Frank on a bill that would require that between $40 billion and $100 billion of what's left in the bailout package be spent on an unspecified foreclosure mitigation program. It would be left to Obama's Treasury Department to design that program. But Frank's and Bair's proposed plans are voluntary. Banks that choose not to accept federal assistance won't have to renegotiate a single loan.
Community organizers, however, aren't sitting around waiting for banks to come to the table. Nowhere have they had more cause to keep busy than in California, home to a quarter of the 3.2 million foreclosures filed in the country last year. The collapse of the state's hyperinflated real estate market has left as many as 27 percent of mortgage holders owing more on their homes than the properties are worth; California's foreclosure rate is more than twice the national average. From San Diego to Stockton, in churches, union halls and community centers, angry homeowners have been organizing to freeze foreclosures and impose a systematic modification of home loans.
The crisis has produced some unlikely activists. Faith Bautista didn't start out as a rabble-rouser. A small, energetic and stubbornly cheerful woman, she has run a tiny nonprofit called the Mabuhay Alliance since 2004. Until recently, it functioned as an all-purpose minority small-business association. With a staff of six working out of a mini-mall office behind an auto parts store in an industrial section of San Diego, the Mabuhay Alliance served a largely Filipino community (mabuhay translates roughly from Tagalog as viva!) offering, among other services, free income-tax preparation, microloans and counseling for first-time homeowners.
It was through the latter program that Bautista heard the first rumblings of the mortgage meltdown, which would ultimately bring down Wall Street's most powerful financial firms. Southern California's development boom hadn't yet begun to ebb in late 2006, but, Bautista says, "people were already calling us and asking what was going to happen. They were clearly going to default."
The community Mabuhay serves--about 40 percent Filipino, the remainder Latino, African-American and other Asians--was hit particularly hard. Throughout the housing boom, immigrant and minority borrowers were disproportionately issued high-priced subprime loans, even when they qualified for less expensive, fixed-rate mortgages. One study by the California Reinvestment Coalition found that African-American and Latino borrowers were nearly four times as likely as whites to receive high-cost mortgages. Bautista had an adjustable-rate mortgage on the home she bought in 2004. Her monthly payments soon leapt to $6,000. It took her nine months, she says, and a personal meeting with the CEO of the bank that held her mortgage, to renegotiate the loan. It quickly became obvious to her that fighting the banks on an individual basis would be inadequate to the scale of the crisis--only an organized battle for systematic changes would help keep people in their homes.
In the early months of 2007, as the first of the subprime lenders began to declare bankruptcy, Bautista started contacting major lenders, asking them to stop foreclosures and take part in a "massive loan-modification program"--dropping interest rates, writing down principals and donating executive bonuses to a fund for borrowers at risk of default. If lenders shared responsibility for the crisis, she calculated, homeowners shouldn't bear the full brunt of the suffering. Not surprisingly, she laughs, "they didn't want to talk to us."
That summer, with the help of the Greenlining Institute, a Berkeley-based research and advocacy group that works on racial equality issues, she was able to arrange a meeting with Countrywide co-founder and CEO Angelo Mozilo. At the time, almost one-fourth of Countrywide's subprime loans were delinquent. The meeting, Bautista says, was fruitless: "Eyes are closed, ears are closed." Over the next few months, she met three more times with Countrywide management, getting nowhere. "They didn't want to admit they were doing anything wrong."