Posted May 18, 2009
The fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble resulted in a wave of foreclosures around the country. Millions of Americans either have been foreclosed on or are threatened with foreclosure and/or eviction resulting from foreclosure. The crisis is particularly severe in poor communities of color, though it is not confined to these communities.
Because of the broad, systemic nature of the crisis, its victims have garnered wide public sympathy. Hearting-breaking stories of foreclosed-upon families abound in the media. Though conservatives have tried to place blame on supposedly irresponsible mortgage borrowers, they have largely failed to stem sympathy for most impacted homeowners. Many people view the rapacious financial/mortgage industry as the main culprit that preyed upon so-called “middle class” Americans who “played by the rules.”
Many Leftists carry high hopes that the housing crisis might spur a mass bottom-up movement against evictions and foreclosures. The left-led, community-based anti-evictions struggles of the 1930s loom large in our imaginations when we aspire about the present situation. While a semblance of a movement has arisen, and while it has scored some successes, we are no where near the kind of movement we desire.
A decentralized national campaign has indeed arisen – “a budding resistance movement,” as the New York Times called it in February 2009. Local movements challenging foreclosures and evictions have sprouted in Miami, Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Twin Cities, and a host of other cities. One of the largest and most successful local campaigns has been conducted by City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston. Their confrontational, direct action tactics have succeeded in delaying several foreclosures.
There is little national coherence to this “movement.” It is fragmentary and decentralized, shaped primarily by local circumstances and actors. ACORN announced a national “broad civil disobedience campaign,” but we have yet to see any serious, consistent action to back up this claim. Local movements are usually composed of some combination of non-profits, local activists, community members, city government allies, leftists, and tenants and homeowners facing eviction. The main rhetoric and demands of the movements revolve around two ideas. The first is “bail out the people, not the banks;” the second is some variant of a call for a foreclosure moratorium.
The movement has two constituencies: homeowners facing eviction and tenants facing eviction because their landlord was foreclosed. Local campaigns use tactics including protests at statehouses, direct actions attempting to blockade threatened homes, legislation-oriented advocacy, squatting in vacant homes, and pickets in front of homes facing foreclosure or in front of bailed-out banks that are kicking people out of their homes. Most local movements have aimed for legislation that will stop or slow down foreclosures and evictions. One popular legislative demand has been for “Just Cause” law, which allow tenants in good standing to remain in their foreclosed homes until they are sold.
The movement has made some gains. In cities around the nation, activists have successfully pressured local government and the mortgage industry to make concessions—some real, some rhetorical—on foreclosure policy and deal with homeowners/tenants for sensitively. Protests have kept the plight of the victims in the local media. Moreover, a small strata of tenants and homeowners have been empowered by the actions. Local movements have provided tenants and homeowners with lawyers and educated them about their legal rights.
That said, the limits and shortcomings of the anti-foreclosure/eviction movement are substantial. In almost all places where resistance exists, it is small-scale and composed mostly of activists, not the people affected (they do participate, but in small numbers). The base for the movement is transient; once people are evicted or foreclosed, they move. Furthermore, the default strategy for people facing foreclosure or eviction is not collective protest. They try to cope with their dilemma on their own, with the help of friends and family. Individualist solutions prevail over collective ones, though the extent of this varies depending on specific cities and neighborhoods. This reflects a broader trend within American society and culture which has accompanied the post-1960s neoliberal offensive.
* * *
In Providence, Rhode Island, we have organized a local movement that reflects the more general strengths and limitations I have discussed. Rhode Island has been hit hard by the housing crisis. One study predicts that foreclosures will affect one of every thirty-one homes in the state. Communities of color, ranging from South Providence to Woonsocket, have been heavily impacted.
In 2008, concerned activists initiated the Rhode Island Bank Tenants and Homeowners Association (RIBTHA). The spark for the group came from a local housing non-profit that was part of larger non-profit milieu working on poverty, homelessness, immigrant and labor issues. The initial meetings had representatives from non-profits, local activists, students and tenants and homeowners. We initiated a parallel coalition specifically for and run by tenants and homeowners. Among other things, the latter drew up a “Tenants Bill of Rights” to bring to the Statehouse.
We sponsored several actions between late 2008 and May 2009, including a picket in front of a home facing foreclosure, protests at the statehouse in support of pro-tenant/homeowner legislation, and a protest in front of a Bank of American branch located in an affected community. Anywhere between 50 and 125 people showed up to these actions. They garnered impressive media attention.
A handful of homeowners and tenants have become active in the movement and assumed leadership roles. They have spoke at rallies and told their stories. Some people who have never attended protests in their lives are now invested in and supportive of our efforts. RIBTHA has also provided tenants and homeowners with much-needed legal aid. We have carried out extensive research on the foreclosure crisis’ impact on Rhode Island. We have been successful in conveying the existence of a “movement” around foreclosures and evictions in the media and the minds of policymakers and mortgage bankers.
At the same time, the movement is not large and it is not growing. Our meetings have dwindled, as have participants at actions. At our last event, nearly 40-50 people attended, but hardly anyone from the community was present (this was partially because of poor time for the event – 3:30pm on a Friday – but it still reflected a larger trend). In the nearly seven months that RIBTHA has been active, we cannot claim any major victories. Lately, organizers have been contemplating how to revive and expand the local movement in the face of waning enthusiasm and participation, legislative half-measures and a lack of resources.
* * *
In short, while a decentralized movement has arisen to combat foreclosures and evictions, it is nothing near the mass bottom-up movement we hope to see. It has served more as a publicity effort that provides the impression of a movement for the media while not really being one (though some local efforts – like Boston’s – have made more substantive progress). Though it can ratchet up pressure to score minimal gains, it is not powerful enough to substantially shape housing policy. For now, half-measures by the federal, state and local government will prevail.
Overall, the movement faces three tasks. First, it needs more national coherence. Local activists need to be in touch with each other, sharing lessons and possibly coordinating actions. It needs to more fully take on the character of a national movement. This will increase the morale and legitimacy of local efforts.
Second, we need to develop better local strategies for activating people in communities affected by the crisis. The Left is good at organizing protests, but it is bad at organizing the working-class in its own communities. We must re-learn how to do this essential work, paying close attention to and respecting local dynamics, cultures and traditions. We need to think outside of the box on how we can build a new base.
Third, we need to build a movement that is not dependent on the non-profits. Some non-profits fully throw themselves into anti-foreclosure/eviction efforts. Others are more intent on giving the appearance of base-building and protest as a means to earning clout and negotiating half-measures with mortgage industry and local government bigwigs. Furthermore, there is sometimes a gap between many non-profit organizers, who are invested in real struggle, and their bosses, who are not. While non-profits provide valuable resources to sustain the movement (such as full-time organizers and meeting space), the movement should be based on a coalition of activists and community members who sustain it. Ideally, the local and national movement should hire full-time organizers who are accountable to the grassroots efforts and aspirations.