December 18, 2009

ANNOUNCER: For the first ten months of 2009, lobbying money from the Finance Sector: $334 million. Lobbying money from the Health Sector: $396 million. Real Reform? Priceless.

BILL MOYERS: If the discussion you've just heard has not already raised your ire to the boiling point, consider this. According to the non profit Americans for Financial Reform, Wall Street is paying itself $150 billion in compensation and bonuses. They say that would be enough to solve the budget crises of every one of the 50 states, or prevent all foreclosures for four years, or create millions of jobs.

So what to do about this gross inequality? Well, for one thing, how about taking to heart the story of Steve Meacham and his merry band, City Life/Vida Urbana. In neighborhoods just south of Boston, City Life rallies people to fight foreclosures on their homes. As we end the year, we thought Steve Meacham and his friends at City Life deserve another hearing.

ROBERTO VELAZQUEZ: My name is Roberto Velazquez and I'm facing a foreclosure.

ABBEY COOK: My name is Abbey Cook, I'm near the foreclosure, not sure yet but we're in trouble.

UNNAMED MAN: I'm trying to see if I can save my house.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT MEETING]: The first meeting of the 1st Bank Tenant Association of Lynn is happening this Sunday. And it's going to be modeled after what you're doing.

STEVE MEACHAM: I work for a community organization called City Life. And I'm a community organizer there. You know, that's become a bit famous of late as a profession, but I've been doing it all my life.

MELONIE GRIFFITHS: Foreclosure and eviction are two totally different processes.

STEVE MEACHAM: On our Tuesday night meetings we get our squad of people in here who are residents of foreclosed buildings. We spend about the first half of the meeting with everybody in the room, explaining basic legal rights.

JAMES BROOKS: Can I ask again, how many people need to see lawyers?

STEVE MEACHAM: We have a group of volunteer lawyers who are here each Tuesday night. And they go into the back cubicles of our office and people go out and speak to lawyers independently. So it's a great combination of creative lawyering and community organizing.

JAMES BROOKS: Can you be evicted for not paying your mortgage? Yes or No?


JAMES BROOKS: Only a judge can evict you. So, if someone offers you cash for keys what do you say to them?


STEVE MEACHAM: A lot of what we do when people are coming in, is create the moral space for people to feel like they have the right to resist, because they're told by almost everybody that they don't. You know, their first reaction is, "There's nothing I can do because the bank owns the building now." And that is part of a disempowerment that goes far beyond that situation.

And part of the reason that people love to come here I think is that not only are we giving them solidarity and support in fighting the bank, but in so doing, it's like a, kind of upsetting this whole apple cart of disempowerment that they've been fed for years and years and years.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT MEETING]: When you're done with the attorney, please come back. We have a lot more to do in the meeting, crucial protests coming up.

[STEVE MEACHAM IN CAR]: Well Dorchester is kind of the epicenter of foreclosure crisis in Boston. You know, there's maybe as many as half of all the foreclosure deeds in Boston are filed in Dorchester.

I think at one point a single family house in Dorchester was probably going for $350 to $400,000 like, in 2005 and -6 at the height of the real estate bubble. And now those same properties are worth probably less than $200,000-- half that mortgage value or less. And that is the crisis in a nutshell right there.

STEVE MEACHAM: One of the unheralded things about this crisis right now is that there's an awful lot of owners who come to us who cannot afford their home at the inflated value, at the adjustable rate mortgage price. But they have plenty of income to afford their home at the real value at a 30-year fixed. And so why not just give them the property back at that amount? If they're foreclosed on, the best the bank that can do is sell the property at the real value. By definition, that is the absolute best.

If Deutsche Bank forecloses on Joe Schmoe the best they can do is to sell that property at real value. So if Joe Schmoe can afford the property at real value, why not sell it back to him? But the only reason the banks aren't doing that is because of what they call moral hazard. They say basically that homeowners should be punished because they signed these loan documents.

These are the same guys who have run our entire economy into the ground and who have been rewarded with billions in taxpayer bailouts and have used billions of that money to give bonuses to the very executives that drove their companies and the whole economy into the ground. And they are citing moral hazard as the reason why they can't resell that property to the existing homeowners at the real value. That is disgusting and hypocritical and in the extreme.

[MELONIE GRIFFITHS ON PHONE]: I kind of feel like you might want to have somebody look at your debt to income ratio too just to make sure you're in a comfortable loan, because something doesn't sound right. Especially if just losing a small part-time portion of your income causes you to not even be able to make those payments.

MELONIE GRIFFITHS: I heard about City Life when I knew I was kind of falling behind on my mortgage and I was coming close to foreclosure. And my, you know, there was no help.

[MELONIE GRIFFITHS ON PHONE]: Okay? Alright, thanks, Ada.

MELONIE GRIFFITHS: When you come here, you automatically get connected. It was the only place I came. I was kind of looked down upon everywhere else I went. So I automatically felt a connection.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT MEETING]: You know, this is all Dorchester basically here and Jamaica Plain, and Roxbury.

MELONIE GRIFFITHS: One of the things I loved about when I came to City Life and what kept me here. Was that they didn't really do for me, they helped me. They would direct me, but they never once did it for me and I liked that.

STEVE MEACHAM: You can fight it, you know. Somebody might want to give them a call from here whose not you.

[MELONIE GRIFFITHS AT MEETING]: Yeah. I know. I just want to be fighting all the time…

MELONIE GRIFFITHS: It's empowering. And I think that's what we do for our members. And it's kind of-- it empowers them to then take on a leadership role. Although I work for City Life, I have people in the group that are just as involved, just as committed and dedicated to this work and I think it's because of the approach that City Life takes.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT MEETING]: I'll look it over. I'll make some suggestions probably; we'll get to a final one. You sign it, I'll send it and fax it over to the lawyer.

STEVE MEACHAM: People who come to us generally don't get evicted. People who get into the room, who are a part of our organization, who get the legal help that's in the room, don't get evicted at a rate of maybe 95 percent they don't get evicted.

Exactly the opposite is true for people who don't get to us. They get evicted almost 100 percent. So, therefore, that dramatic difference means we got to get people here. And we do that through regular mass canvasses.

[MELONIE GRIFFITHS AT MEETING]: So is there anybody who wants to take part of Dorchester?

STEVE MEACHAM: We have a bunch of volunteers who come to the office here. And they visit foreclosed buildings and leave fliers and talk to people, and tell them don't move.

[MELONIE GRIFFITHS AT MEETING]: The last canvass we did one lady, she yelled at me, went crazy on me, and she called me two weeks later. So you know, these are really- and all I said to her was, "Okay, I'm sorry I'm just going to leave this…" and she was like "Get off my door!" and I was like "I'm just going to leave this bag." And she called me two weeks later to apologize and ask for help, and we've been able to help her, so…

LAUREN WOLINSKY: And they have meetings on Tuesdays that you can attend and they have a translator that comes and translates into Spanish the entire meeting.

STEVE MEACHAM: The basic message is: "Just because you're living in a foreclosed building doesn't mean you have to leave. Know your rights."

DEBORAH MASON: I'm thankful somebody left one of these on my door because I was panicking and trying to get ready to look for a place. And just didn't know what to do.

STEVE MEACHAM: And so through this mass canvassing that's going on constantly, that's how people find us and they come to the meeting. And once they get here, they don't get evicted.

I've been a community organizer or an organizer, in one way or another for… since 1972. So that's a long time now. That's 37 years. After some initial period when I was doing community organizing in Cambridge actually, I went to work in Quincy Shipyard as a welder. And the shipyard was both a grand place to work and a hellhole of a place to work.

I have a million stories, but there was one time that they started painting all the barges before we welded them, and they painted them with an epoxy paint and when you welded on them it turned into cyanide gas. And we actually had to wage a struggle so that we wouldn't be breathing cyanide.

So there was all these struggles going on there that made class in this country crystal clear. To the degree that class had been a kind of an understanding I had from thinking about it or reading about it or things I had experienced as a young person, as a child, now was something extremely visceral, you know. That moved it from my head to my gut. And it greatly influenced my subsequent organizing around housing.

[STEVE MEACHAM IN OFFICE]: These are all protest signs. We have a million of them, so I've got to pick out the ones that are useful for the Bank of America protest.

STEVE MEACHAM: We have a strategy at City Life that we describe at each bank tenant meeting that we call The Sword and The Shield, La Espada and El Escudo. The Shield is the legal defense and The Sword is a public relations, public protest offense. And we find that the two work extremely well in combination.

[STEVE MEACHAM IN OFFICE]: This is our Bank of America puppet, who doubles as our Deustche Bank puppet, and several other greedy people. But we have this sign that hangs on his teeth, that says 'Bank of America' and on the other side that says 'I want your bailout and your homes.'

STEVE MEACHAM: A legal defense is not enough because in Massachusetts the banks can evict you for no reason. And so for many people the strongest legal defense will simply slow the bank down. Slowing the bank down, however, can be very, very important because it gives us a chance to use the public protest to good benefit.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT PROTEST]: Hey, hey, ho, ho, greedy banks have got to go.

We're here in front of Bank of America because we are demanding that the bank take the rent of people who live in foreclosed buildings instead of evicting them.

STEVE MEACHAM: So if the bank is facing the prospect of a long, drawn-out legal procedure, even one that they might ultimately win, that is both time consuming and expensive.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT PROTEST]: Banks get bailed out!

CROWD: People get thrown out!

[STEVE MEACHAM AT PROTEST]: Banks get bailed out!

CROWD: People get thrown out!

STEVE MEACHAM: And if, at the same time they're going through that, they're being regularly protested by City Life or they have public officials calling them, asking them, why a bank that just got taxpayers' bailout money should be evicting people who are willing to pay rent, that is a public relations battle the bank loses every time. So faced with that combination of long, drawn-out legal defense and public protest, the banks are very often choosing to negotiate and settle with us.

CROWD: No foreclosures! No eviction! No foreclosures! No eviction!

STEVE MEACHAM: City Life, if it's known for anything, it's known for demonstrations. And we do a lot of them. The most famous of recent times are eviction blockades that are right in front of somebody's house being evicted.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT DEMONSTRATION]: Today we are witnessing a courageous woman taking a stand based on principle!

STEVE MEACHAM: And the point of that is pretty clear. We're trying to stop the bank from coming through our lines to evict the family. One reason we do the blockades is because they get a lot of publicity. If 50 or 75 people come and sit in front of a building and they're folks willing to be arrested, that is dramatic and it gets a lot of publicity.

CROWD: Shame, shame, shame.

STEVE MEACHAM: I think organizing is a lot about morality. A lot of ways in which people are oppressed is presented to them as normal. They may really get the fuzzy end of the lollipop, but it's presented to them as just normal. It's just, you know, I've had a big real estate corporation representative say to me, as they're evicting everybody, "Nothing personal, it's just the market."

And so a lot of our job is to say, is to apply a moral lens to this thing that you're not supposed to apply a moral lens to, which is the market. So that if you're evicting people in order to make profit and it's just extra profit, you don't need that money to run your building, then it is appropriate to say that's immoral. Or if you're a bank evicting people for no reason and you're going to cause untold suffering all over the city and the state and the country just because you don't think you want to be a landlord, that's immoral. And people have to bear the moral responsibility of their actions even if they're doing it through the market. And so bringing the moral lens to that stuff really helps our people and helps us organize the resistance.

As part of The Shield and The Sword method there is also a legislative part to our program.

[STEVE MEACHAM ON BUS]: Well, we're on this tour bus today with legislative aides and with press people to give people an understanding of what the foreclosure crisis is like in a hard hit neighborhood in Boston, the Four Corners neighborhood of Dorchester.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT DEMONSTRATION]: This is really criminal what's going on so it seems appropriate to put up on the building that this is a 'White Collar Crime Scene'. You know, this is a crime scene, a white collar crime scene. We're going to put it right here on the porch.

PRIEST: Right now in my rectory, I have two people staying in my living room because they're homeless. They've lost their house and they have no place to go. This is the problem we have.

UNNAMED WOMAN: We need to have our neighbors to be able to stay in their homes and to be able to live here and to keep it the thriving community that we've worked so hard to bring it to be.

STEVE MEACHAM: When a person comes to their first rally it is a very scary thing to kind of raise your voice in a public setting like that. And when you do it and you kind of overcome that and join in the chants or lead the chants or speak at a rally.

UNNAMED MAN: And it was to fight foreclosure and we were able to stop five times, I told them I'm not giving up.

STEVE MEACHAM: It's very transformative. People find their voice that way. And I've seen it happen a lot of times that people in moments of struggle become different people and they become better people.

[MELONIE GRIFFITHS AT DEMONSTRATION]: It seems like just yesterday that we stood in front of my property, almost in the same way, a lot of the same people, defending the same cause.

MELONIE GRIFFITHS: I don't know where that strength came from to do what I did. When I think back, like, the me that I know would've just moved out. I always say to people, I'm like, "Foreclosure was kind of like one of the best things that happened to me." And they're like, "Huh?" Like, but so much good came from it. I was able to help so many other people. I learned so much good information that if I'd had before, you know, but I can just turn it onto other people and help them not make the same mistake. And I kind of feel like it gave me my calling. It kind of put me where I needed to be.

STEVE MEACHAM: I think that the process by which people, number one, go from feeling like victims to being activists on their own behalf. And then they take a step beyond that and they become activists on other people's behalf, other people that were in the same situation they were in.

LOCAL TV REPORTER: Just a last question, what's it doing to the neighborhood? Just real briefly, what kind of an effect?

STEVE MEACHAM: And then they become activists on other issues besides housing. And pretty soon they're trying to change the system. And the process by which people go through all those stages is a vital part of community organizing. It's not only a 'community organizing' way of being, and not only builds organization, that it does. But if empathy is somehow the quintessential human emotion, the quintessential thing that makes us human, then solidarity is its expression.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT MEETING]: We close each meeting with a solidarity clap so if you wouldn't mind standing up.

STEVE MEACHAM: And I think that that experience of solidarity is something that feels so good that people come back just for that.

[STEVE MEACHAM AT MEETING]: We're going to beat back bank attack! We're going to beat beat back bank attack! We're going to beat back bank attack! We're going to beat beat back that bank attack…"