Occupy Protests Target Foreclosure Crisis
Tanya Dennis got her house back from foreclosure using a tactic that’s increasingly popular among Occupy Wall Street activists: she broke in.
At their most effective, Occupiers are helping people who’ve been the victims of massive paperwork snafus, said Evan Rosen, a Florida attorney who said one of his clients regained her home thanks to the protest movement. But Rosen cautions activists to follow the law themselves, even if they think that big banks are breaking it.
While Dennis appears to have won her battle with her bank, dozens of others have been arrested for using the same tactic.
In Dennis’ case, her growing role in the Occupy moment – including her appointment as chairwoman of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Oakland Home Defenders League – may have helped, as may have a swarm of Bay Area media attention. After months of negotiations, Wells Fargo agreed to let her keep the house with a modified mortgage. The bank cut her principal by $100,000 and lowered her interest rate to 1 percent for the next three years.
In other cases, banks and law enforcement have been less willing to compromise. North Carolina police arrested nine people for trespassing earlier this month for attempting to reclaim a foreclosed house. In California, police arrested one person and cited 14 others for trespassing on private property in a single day late last year after a group of Occupy protesters entered a foreclosed-on house.
Rosen, who believes that at least one of his clients benefited from the pressure that Occupiers can apply, said he would advise protesters against refusing to leave during an eviction or trying to reclaim a foreclosed house by moving in, however.
“You’re talking about trespassing, and you’re talking about committing a crime,” Rosen said. “If the bank has secured title, the old saying is that two wrongs don’t make a right.”
That does not mean that activists should just silently accept a mortgage system that’s been repeatedly shown to be riddled with fraud and errors that put struggling borrowers at a disadvantage.
Rosen cites the example of a client who was able to get her house back legally, thanks in part to pressure from Occupy protesters. That client, who Rosen declined to name, came to him for bankruptcy assistance months after she had lost her home.
Upon reviewing foreclosure documents, Rosen said he found “massive” errors by the bank. But his client’s previous attorney missed errors in the foreclosure process, and a judge declined to overturn a decision that had been made months earlier.
“I reached out to people I know who are active in the Occupy community,” and several of them began to call and email executives at Rosen’s clients’ bank, he said. (He declined to name the bank, saying that his client has asked for details of her case to be kept private.) Much to his surprise, that lobbying paid off. “One day my phone rang and it was somebody from the office of the president of the bank. They said, ‘We found out what went wrong. You’re dead right. We’re going to fix it.’”
“What’s the most effective way of putting pressure on a bank or effecting change? There is no one set most-effective way that I can think of,” Rosen said.
Individuals worried about losing their homes should start by seeking out an attorney who specializes in foreclosure laws.
Too often, people who are in dire financial straits think they cannot afford an attorney, even though the cost of a lawyer is far less than the cost of a foreclosure. Many lawyers will charge a flat monthly rate to take on a case, which can average $500, Rosen said. For that rate, clients may get 50 hours or more of legal assistance in a single month, depending on details of the case.
Even smart, well-prepared people will be taken less seriously by the court if they try to represent themselves rather than hire an attorney. Experienced lawyers are alert to common document errors that can be used to challenge foreclosure proceedings. And aggressive attorneys may have more success than individual homeowners at getting banks to negotiate outside of court.
Lawyers may be key to challenging individual foreclosures, but Rosen said the Occupy movement and other protesters also play a valuable role – and not just in cases like his client’s, where activists’ direct pressure helped bring about specific change.
By acting as witnesses to foreclosure proceedings, speaking and marching at protests, and advocating vocally online, activists are shining a spotlight on a national foreclosure crisis that continues to unfold, Rosen said.
“I would not discount the Occupy protests and what those guys have done,” he said. “I witnessed it first-hand. I’m not a religious person, but that felt as much like divine intervention as anything I’ve seen.