Conference on housing seeks to assist the foreclosed
Typically a conference on homelessness and poverty would only focus on gentrification, police abuse, public housing or tenants’ rights, but there is a recession and a new issue must also be addressed: foreclosures.
This weekend, the Los Angeles Housing and Hunger Crisis Conference was held to provide a venue for groups to share information and discuss strategies concerning the poor and marginalized. Part and parcel to that discussion were homeowners losing their homes to banks.
According to the Associated Press, banks foreclosed on one million homes last year. The foreclosure tracker RealtyTrac, Inc. “predicts 1.2 million homes will be repossessed this year by lenders.”
California is among the top ten states with the highest foreclosure rates and, along with Florida, Arizona, Illinois and Michigan, account for more than half of all repossessions, according to the Associated Press.
Saturday’s portion of the conference was held at the Angelus Plaza Auditorium in downtown. It featured many workshops where people could discuss issues related to Skid Row, making housing a human right, combating gentrification and the right to share food with homeless citizens. One such workshop, conducted by the Coffee Party, discussed fighting foreclosures.
The Coffee Party was created in response to the “tea party” movement, which desires a limited form of government. The Coffee Party, explained member Van DeShields, seeks to work with the government to create solutions.
“We promote civil dialogue, debate and discussion,” he said. “Even though the word ‘party’ is there, we are non-partisan.”
DeShields said the Coffee Party began assisting homeowners when it was discovered that many were being taken advantage of because they didn’t understand the loan modification process that would lower their mortgage. In response, the Coffee Party began an education campaign to help people stay in their homes.
“We set up a process where we would go out into the neighborhoods with flyers of contact information,” said DeShields. “We did not counsel people. We sent them to people – the Housing Authority, HUD, NACA, LA Housing Services – people who are paid to do it, and it is free [for the homeowner].”
The group also told people to organize, to meet with neighbors and contact politicians. In many cases, homeowners need to be protected from what Coffee Party member Kwazi Nkrumah called “vultures,” such as expensive lawyers or predatory organizations that seek to scam people out of their homes.
“The average person is fighting this by themselves,” he said. “We are trying to hook these people up with as many free services as possible.”
But where the Coffee Party seeks to work within the system to keep people in their homes, others have much more daring approaches after a home has been repossessed. A keynote speaker at the conference, Rob Robinson from Take Back the Land, New York chapter, talked about moving “homeless people into people-less homes.”
Robinson said it was a moral contradiction for the banks to be bailed out by the federal government because they were “too important to fail,” while it was okay for average Americans to fail and lose their homes.
“You took our tax money, and then you are going to turn around and throw us out of our houses?” he said. “We said no. We started to say those are public houses.”
It was revealed recently by the Los Angeles Times that “major Wall Street banks and other financial institutions spent nearly $70 million in California to try to defeat or water down California legislation aimed at slowing real estate foreclosures” while “getting billions of dollars in federal taxpayer bailouts to keep them from collapsing.”
“Everyone has a right to have a voice in important policy discussions – both consumers and businesses,” said California Mortgage Bankers Assn. spokesman Dustin Hobbs to the Times.
Take Back the Land believes that housing is a human right and engages in direct action and civil disobedience to help achieve its goals. They find vacant or abandoned properties, change the locks and move homeless people into them.
Robinson talked about actions Take Back the Land and a group in Rochester, New York took where they were finding foreclosed houses and moving homeless people into them. After the locks were changed, people would move in and set up utilities – a stipulation of Take Back the Land is that the homeless person or family must be able to pay for water and electricity before moving into a property.
Behind such actions lies a view of property rights that would cause a Wall Street investor to cringe. A “people over profit” ethos was central to the conference, which runs in direct conflict of capitalist values.
“We believe that land and housing should be in control of the community and should not be a commodity, which means land and housing has to come off the market,” said Robinson speaking for Take Back the Land.
The conference began with keynote speaker Marcus Lopez, co-host of “American Indian Airwaves” on KPFK and member of the Chumash tribe. He gave the conference attendees a native perspective.
“You are on Tongva land,” he said to the audience, referring to the Native Americans, along with the Chumash, who once inhabited the Los Angeles area.
“Before America was America, we were here,” he said.
Lopez was also critical of capitalism, saying that the notion of it being tied to freedom was an illusion. He said the “bottom of the ladder” of homelessness is made up of indigenous people. He called the idea that native people own casinos and are rich a stereotype.
“Indigenous people in the street are real,” he said. “Most of the indigenous population is poor and on the bottom of the social structure.”
Lopez told the group they had a big task ahead of them, similar to previous social movements endured by workers, natives, women, blacks and others.
“So do you have the responsibility of stepping up, and you will, because you are here,” he said. “You are living, breathing that history. I honor you and I beg you, spread the word.”
The Los Angeles Housing and Hunger Crisis Conference began Friday, April 8 and ended today at the Southern California Library in South Los Angeles.