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The Nation

Resisting Foreclosures

Katrina vanden Heuvel & Greg Kaufman

In Georgia, the ease with which someone can lose a home is staggering.

A foreclosure-eviction can occur without judicial review in just 35 days, and at 10 a.m. on the first Tuesday of every month, the state's 159 counties hold a sheriff's auction of foreclosed homes.

That translated to 1,500 homes for sale in Atlanta on September 1. Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition--including 125 ministers from throughout the south--were in town to try to stop the auction.

They appealed to both Citibank and Wells Fargo to withdraw homes from the sale. Citi pulled thirty of its forty properties and will restructure those mortgages. Wells Fargo is still considering its response. Jackson commended Citi for taking "courageous action" but also noted that there is a need for a "massive restructuring" to truly stem the tide of foreclosures.

"The systematic hemorrhaging of foreclosures is outdistancing by far the loan modifications," Jackson said in a recent interview. "We've given a massive blood transfusion to the banks, but it's not linked to stopping the hemorrhaging at the bottom. We're taking care of a head wound...but the aorta is gushing."

Indeed, as of June 30, 1.5 million homes had gone into foreclosure and 2.4 million are expected to foreclose by the end of the year. Thirteen million foreclosures are projected over the next five years. The crisis has also spread to prime loans-- they now represent 27 percent of foreclosed loans, "up from 17 percent during the comparable 2008 period," according to McClatchy Newspapers. Nationwide, 23 percent of homeowners are now "under water" --owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Meanwhile, only about 10 percent of homeowners eligible for relief under the Obama administration's anti-foreclosure plan have received help.

"That leaves 90 percent to the bankers without an incentive to restructure loans rather than repossess homes," Jackson said. "Right now, the government is going house by house by house by house--like dipping a spoon in the ocean. There's a structural abnormality...that will not work. It's like if you're going for the right to vote--going city by city by city by city...or do you have a federal restructuring of the right to vote? Period." Jackson is outraged that the banks--even subprime lenders, some of whom engaged in "redlining and targeting, steering and clustering"--received a bailout, and are now profiting, with "no linkage to use the bailout to modify loans."

"Banks are sending out press releases saying they are recovering, but they are being stimulated to recover," he said. "Meantime, we're still losing jobs, and houses, and student loans...and the same banks that are getting 0 percent interest on loans are unwilling to reduce the homeowner rate. They're getting 0 percent money and charging students 16 percent....They're taking a stimulus and getting a fee for free money."

Rainbow PUSH has embarked on an ambitious and focused campaign--to restructure people's loans en masse--to stem the tide of foreclosures. It involves calling on the Federal Reserve Bank to institute an across-the-board interest rate reduction on all residential mortgages (Jackson proposes a 6 percent cap); Congress to give bankruptcy judges the power to modify mortgages (the House passed such legislation but it failed in the Senate); the Department of Justice to enforce fair lending and civil rights laws and prosecute those involved in predatory and discriminatory lending practices; and banks and the private sector to participate in the Obama administration's anti-foreclosure programs in order to modify 75 percent of troubled home mortgages.

The campaign plans foreclosure actions this month in Los Angeles, Antioch, CA, the Federal Reserve in San Francisco, and again in Atlanta. Meetings will be held between key staff of Rainbow PUSH and the Federal Reserve, FDIC, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank.

"We're taking our case to the streets, directly to the people," Jackson said. "An aroused people can make things begin to happen."

The need for these actions at both the local and national level is clear. The foreclosures impact not only the people being thrown out of their homes, but also their neighbors. The Center for Responsible Lending projects that in 2009 alone nearby houses will suffer a $502 billion decline in property values. That means an even greater hit to state and city budgets already devastated by the recession.

"When you lose the homes to foreclosure your neighbors homes lose value," Jackson said. "You shrink the tax base, then money for education, police, teachers, firemen, libraries and right down the river...."

Jackson believes taking on the foreclosure crisis is only part of the equation.

"I really can't separate jobs--the need for stimulation, incentives to reinvest in the infrastructure, reinvest in America--and housing and healthcare and education," he said. "People with jobs can better afford health premiums, and house premiums, and school premiums. We need a targeted stimulus at job creation and we cannot [ignore] the need for revisiting our trade policy....Trade must be fair to be free. And organized labor can't compete with slave labor....When you are dismissive of human rights--workers', women's and children's rights-- you're dismissive of [our] capacity to compete and to grow. I know the trade thing is a harder and higher mountain to climb, but it's a mountain that has to be climbed."

Jackson is right. There is indeed a clear connection between these basic struggles for jobs, homes, health, and education--and a need to address it as a whole. But it's also true that taking on the foreclosure crisis alone will require a herculean effort--he kind of inside-outside strategy we've seen (win or lose) in the health care debate. Jackson and other progressives who understand the power of organizing, mobilizing, and agitating have a vision for how to take on the status quo.

"Begin to resist these auctions en masse and publicly. Make resistance an issue, not just the auction an issue," Jackson said. "Demand bankruptcy reform laws. Fight for a structural change in the mortgage rates. Target a given bank in your area--which may involve civil disobedience, or litigation, or a demonstration--but it does require action. That's what we have to do. Activists cannot be silent in their protest. Our silence betrays our quest for justice."

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and Greg Kaufman is reporter and researched for The Nation.

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