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Steve Meacham: Fighting Foreclosure
Boston housing protest
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May 1, 2009

There is little question that the mortgage crisis remains dire. U.S. foreclosure rates for March were at record levels the number of households that received a foreclosure filing was more than 12 percent higher than the next highest month on record. One in every 159 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing during the quarter. According to many analysts, foreclosure rates are expected to nearly double this year.

Just as his first 100 days passes, President Obama unveiled plans to extend mortgage relief to Americans' second mortgages. At the same time the Senate rejected a measure supported by the President which would have allow bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages, and thus potentially save thousands of people from foreclosure and eviction. The measure was strongly opposed by the financial services industry.

Community organizer Steve Meacham of City Life/Vida Urbana is fighting on the frontlines of the foreclosure crisis. Meacham and his colleagues at City Life employ a community organizing strategy they call the The "shield" is a strategy of legal defense: teaching City Life members about their rights under the law, plus providing access to volunteer legal assistance. The "sword" is a public relations strategy, where City Life organizes protests in front of banks, and eviction blockades in front of people's homes. For these protests, City Life tries to attract as much media attention as possible, trying to draw public scrutiny towards what they argue are unfair banking and eviction practices in their community. "We find that the two [strategies] work extremely well in combination," says Meacham. He says that a strong legal defense often isn't enough to avoid eviction. "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. If the bank is facing the prospect of a long, drawn-out legal procedure, even one that they might ultimately win.. and at the same time they're going through that, they're being regularly protested by City Life.. 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." According to City Life, they've been able to prevent evictions for 95% of the people who've come to their door by employing the "sword and shield" strategy.

Meacham argues, as did John D. Geanakoplos and Susan P. Koniak in the NEW YORK TIMES, that a key solution to the foreclosure crisis -- one that's missing from President Obama's plans -- is the process of writing down the principal on many troubled homeowners mortgages to a more reasonable level. Meacham argues that the real estate bubble artificially drove up the value of many people's homes, and that their inflated mortgages should now accurately reflect the current, adjusted value of their homes. "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."

Meacham first came to community organizing via his work as a union welder at the Quincy shipyards in Boston, where he was a part of many labor struggles against the corporate owners of the shipyards.

Meacham described City Life's organizing strategy during a talk at Northeastern University. Hear more from Steve Meacham on the art of organizing.

Published May 1, 2009.

Related Media:
FBI Domestic Spy PosterMortgage Meltdown
THE JOURNAL travels to ground zero of the mortgage meltdown Cleveland, Ohio. Correspondent Rick Karr takes viewers to Slavic Village, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the nation when it comes to the spate of foreclosures caused by the subprime mortgage crisis. (July 18, 2008)

FBI Domestic Spy PosterGretchen Morgenson
Financial columnist Gretchen Morgenson on the SEC, the mortgage crisis and other matters fiscal. (June 29, 2007)

Katherine Newman, photo by Robin HollandThe Downturn on the Homefront
Sociologist Katherine Newman on the global markets' effect on kitchen table issues. (January 25, 2008)

ElephantNOW: "Subprime Solution?"
NOW on PBS takes a look at the non-profit organization Just Price Solutions and the man behind it, Brian Cosgrove. Cosgrove identified a problem: many low or moderate income borrowers were getting steered into subprime scams because they had low credit scores and created an online software application to measure creditworthiness differently. (June 27, 2008)

ElephantNOW: "Mortgage Mess"
NOW travels to North Minneapolis to investigate the mortgage meltdown that has left the city scarred with boarded-up and abandoned houses. (November 16, 2007)

References and Reading:
President Obama's mortgage plan is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
HUD provides advice for homeowners facing foreclosure and other financial issues including important information on foreclosure scams. The site also has a good list of local resources for each state and lists HUD-approved housing counseling agencies all over the nation.

City Life/Vida Urbana
Boston-based group that aids troubled homeowners.

HOPE NOW is an alliance between HUD approved counseling agents, mortgage companies, investors and other mortgage market participants that provides free foreclosure prevention assistance.

The Center for Responsible Lending
The Center for Responsible Lending is a "nonprofit, nonpartisan research and policy organization dedicated to protecting homeownership and family wealth by working to eliminate abusive financial practices." The site includes and assessment of current legislation: HR 3915 Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act.

National Foundation for Credit Counseling: Housing Counseling
The NFCC is the nation's largest and longest serving national nonprofit credit counseling network, with more than 100 member agencies and nearly 850 offices in communities throughout the country.

The Mortgage Bankers Association
The Mortgage Bankers Association is an association representing the real estate finance industry. The Web site includes a Q&A on mortgage banking and the crisis and assistance for owners.

Facing the Mortgage Crisis
Public TV station KETC has created an interactive site full or resources for people in the St. Louis area encountering mortgage problems.

Foreclosure Prevention Program
Explore THE WASHINGTON POST's ongoing coverage of the President's program to aid homeowners.

Read the TIMES's extensive ongoing coverage of the foreclosure crisis. In addition, the TIMES maintains profiles and up-to-date news collections on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

"Meltdown Risk, Revisited," COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS, July 16 2008.

"Matters of Principal," JOHN D. GEANAKOPLOS and SUSAN P. KONIAK, Op-Ed, THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 4, 2009.

Also This Week:

A new debate followed the release of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel memos approving extreme measures of interrogation under the Bush administration. Bill Moyers sits down with Bruce Fein, former deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and chairman of the American Freedom Agenda, and Mark Danner, who has been reporting on the US treatment and interrogation of detainees for the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS.

>More on Civil Liberties During Wartime

>More on The Church Committee and FISA

The JOURNAL profiles Steve Meacham, a Massachusetts community organizer fighting to keep working people in their homes.

Find resources in your community to help with foreclosure and housing issues.

Explore the JOURNAL's coverage of the American collapse.

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