Fort Hernandez still stands as foreclosure battle continues
It’s Saturday afternoon, Labor Day weekend, in Van Nuys and the mood is subdued. Homeowners tend to chores. One works on his pick-up truck. Above, a warm breeze stirs the tree leaves, making a gentle sound that causes one to desire a hammock for an afternoon nap. Nearby, atop a flag pole, an American flag above a POW-MIA flag bask in the sun, lilting to the wind.
But there is a twist to the ordinary social machinery of this quiet neighborhood. Leadwell Street, in particular, is a little unusual these days.
Here, one home has become a literal fortress, barricaded by flotsam and jetsam and protest placards. In the gutter are chairs and couches where people sit, talk and share food. Their faces are friendly and cheerful as strangers are greeted. All are welcome.
“Hey, would you like some doughnuts? … We got watermelon too.”
It is the home of Javier Hernandez, but better known these days as “Fort Hernandez,” a sort of working-class Alamo. But Hernandez is not trying to seize land from Mexico. Instead, he, along with several occupiers, are attempting to save his house from foreclosure.
After battling with Bank of America for four years to keep his home, Hernandez was served a five-day eviction notice on Aug. 21. But he, and the home’s eight other occupants, four of which are children, stayed. The battle, as far as they were concerned, was not over yet.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Hernandez about the action and his future. “We are just here, hanging out, trying to survive.”
The Hernandez residence has been called the home of Occupy San Fernando Valley. He has participated in other occupy actions to fight foreclosures. For him the occupy movement has been a sort of social support group, he said, an attempt at true community where people band to together and give each other aid.
Across the street from his home, a house sits vacant as its owner had long since been kicked out by her bank. It stands as an omen of what might lie ahead for Hernandez, as well as many others. There are over 170 homes in foreclosure in his zip code alone, he said.
On a national level, things don’t look much better. According to a recent report by CNN Money, “more than one million homes had foreclosure filings — notices of default, auction notices and bank repossessions — during the first six months of 2012, up 2% from the previous six months.”
Heather Meyer steps out of Fort Hernandez. There is no coonskin hat on her head or musket in her hand, but she is, in a sense, a soldier of a long, protracted battle. Before the occupy movement began and became an umbrella for a myriad of social justice causes, Meyer had spent over a year protesting nearly each Saturday in front of a Bank of America in Silverlake.
“Bank of America, bad for America!”
Meyer draws on the depression-era as a source of inspiration when people often would band together to fight foreclosures and a financial system seemingly bent on destroying the American Dream.
“When people were being evicted in the Great Depression, the community would come back together and move all their shit back in and basically occupy the house,” she said.
Meyer said that when she began protesting the banks and their foreclosures she didn’t think the situation would “ever end with bureaucracy.” The people themselves would have to fight back, she said, with “direct action.”
“I feel very strongly about this. This is what needs to happen with all the foreclosures, because the banks are fucking stealing homes,” she said. “They get insurance on the foreclosure, and then they sell the house so they get double what they claim its worth anyways. Meanwhile, the family loses everything that they have invested in that house.”
From within Occupy Los Angeles, Occupy Fights Foreclosures was spawned. They have led several campaigns to raise awareness of the foreclosure crisis and assist under-threat homeowners. Occupiers have managed, said Meyer, to save at least one person’s home from foreclosure. It’s not the most impressive rate of success, but here at ground level, on Leadwell Street, that feels like one more home than the Obama administration has managed to save.
Meanwhile, occupiers have also held candlelight vigils in front of Hernandez’s home and canvassed the neighborhood about their cause.
“This isn’t just about this family’s house,” said Meyer. “This is obviously a widespread problem, and hopefully it will inspire others to take more of an affront to people stealing their homes.”
There is talk that Hernandez may try what is called a “produce the note” strategy, which is when a homeowner demands the bank produce the mortgage’s promissory note, which is the binding contract between lender and borrower. Because mortgages have been sold, re-sold and re-packaged by so many financial institutions, sometimes banks cannot literally “produce the note,” causing their attempt at foreclosure to fail.
The strategy may be a long shot for Hernandez, but hey, after four years of fighting, why stop now?
Ulises Hernandez lives in the home with his brother Javier. He sits on a sofa outside next to an occupier from Skid Row. His gentle face hides his steeled resolve within.
“We hope the bank pays attention and that they work with us,” he said. “This is our house. Where else are we going to go? We would rather put up a fight for it than watch it sit here for years without anybody being in it.
“We’ve been through the complete foreclosure process. We tried to avoid it, which is why it has taken so long, but unfortunately they didn’t want to deal with us.”
Ulises hopes a community will be built from their action and that homes might end up being saved. The methods that he and his family are choosing may or may not be the best way to fight back, but in a “battle of right and wrong” one must take a stand, he said.
Walking down the street, away from the Hernandez residence, the peaceful aura of an idyllic working class neighborhood sets in. Any notions of radical action against the banking industry seems miles away by now. Here is a place where children grow up, where families build futures, where the American Dream still seems possible. But underneath the sound of chirping birds and within the shadows of tall trees hides an awful truth that gnaws at the foundation of those aspirations.
“You go down the block, you’ll find another three, four empty homes,” said Ulises. “It’s really disturbing. You see it locally, but it goes nation wide.”
[FOR THE RECORD: This post was revised on Sep. 3, 2012 at 5:15 p.m. PST to correct a statement made by Heather Meyer. She had said the people themselves would have to fight back against foreclosures with “direct action,” not "part occupation, part negotiation" as was originally reported.]