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COLUMN: Occupiers take on housing

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By KEVIN KOELLING, Managing Editor

Some of the news emerging from the Occupy movement makes me want to go to one of their protest sites, walk around and just get some of that stuff all over me.

No, not the pepper spray. The good stuff.

The feeling hit me one morning last month as I watched news program Democracy Now. Host Amy Goodman was reporting a story from Occupy Minneapolis, where two dozen protestors were aiding city resident Monique White as part of an “Occupy Homes” movement. Activists in that effort work to stave off pending evictions when tenants enlist their support.

The protestors had experienced success in occupying other buildings, including a Harlem, N.Y., “derelict building” until landlords agreed to provide adequate heat and hot water to tenants. In Los Angeles, a lender agreed to renegotiate a mortgage after protestors conducted a vigil at a home slated for foreclosure, then orchestrated a sit-in at a Pasadena Fannie Mae office.

Homeowner Ruth Murman needed only two weeks to move out of a property being foreclosed by U.S. Bank, she said on camera.

“They would not give it to me until I started working with Occupy Minnesota, who has helped me get the two extra weeks I need to get my father and I out of my house,” said Murman. “If this is happening to you, or anything similar, then come down and stand with Occupy Minnesota and allow them to help you.”

She also urged people who aren’t facing such circumstances to support the movement “because this is how things are finally being accomplished.”

Nick Espinosa, an Occupy Minneapolis organizer, said the north side of that city has experienced about 40 percent of the city’s foreclosures despite having only about 13 percent of the homes.

White’s troubles arose when the nonprofit agency where she’d worked for 11 years went out of business, she said. “I worked with U.S. Bank to try to modify or redo my loan in order for it to be affordable for me to keep my home,” but learned two weeks ago from her gas company that her home had been foreclosed in January.

She heard about and contacted Occupy Minnesota.

“I went down and basically told my story, and they were willing to reach out and help me in any way possible to keep my home,” she said. “They’re basically occupying my yard and my home, and they’ve been very supportive.”

“We got a call yesterday,” she continued. “We put on the table what we’re requesting” and a bank representative took it back to the company, White said. “We’re hoping to hear something … no later than next week.”

“There’s no doubt that this tendency that seems to be emerging with some of the Occupy sites, moving toward helping out with foreclosed homes and vacant homes, is an incredible development and is going to help a lot of people and save a lot of homes,” said Max Rameau, with Take Back the Land. That organization has been working since 2006 to identify vacant government-owned homes and foreclosed homes, he explained, “and (has been) breaking into them and moving homeless people into peopleless homes.”

Part of that effort occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he said, and included helping people defend against eviction. “We call that liberating homes. Right now, the Occupy movement is going to the place, is taking the fight to the people who are making this economy so bad and making it tough on so many people, and they’re occupying those spaces. The banks are occupying many of our homes. We are removing the banks from their occupation. We’re liberating those homes for families.”

A report this month from financial-services company The Motley Fool note the phenomenon has grown into Occupy Our Homes, which “has been using some creative tactics to raise awareness about the banking practices that led to the housing bubble.” The Occupy offshoot wants to hold large banks responsible for dishonest practices such as encouraging risky loans, allowing highly speculative investing, taking taxpayer money for bailouts and carrying out illegal evictions.

What is “that stuff” these particular protestors are peddling? One of the favorite chants among the Occupy crowd is “this is what democracy looks like!” It doesn’t fit as well into the chant’s rhythm, but another of their mantras could be “this is what housing justice looks like.”