Homeowners take a radical stance on foreclosures.
Ray Sanchez is three months behind on his mortgage payments. The North Philadelphia native is confident that Bank of America, which took over his mortgage after subprime connoisseurs Countrywide Financial went south, will soon move to foreclose. But Sanchez isn’t looking for an apartment or thinking about crashing with friends—he’s not going anywhere.
“I couldn’t just give up all my hard work. The house is basically my dream come true,” says 30-year-old Sanchez, who was laid off last year after working four years at Home Depot. “I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do.“
Standing up to save his home, Sanchez has joined a movement of homeowners that are preparing to resist foreclosure—and face arrest if need be. The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign is currently reaching out to property owners across the city and linking them up with neighbors who are in a similar predicament so that they can resist en masse. If the police come to evict them, homeowners and community supporters will employ non-violent civil disobedience and refuse to leave the property.
The Campaign is a national organization that grew out of Philly’s Kensington Welfare Rights Union, whose housing takeovers and protests during the economic boom of the ’90s drew national attention to the plight of the working poor and homeless. With the foreclosure epidemic now dragging even middle-class families into crisis, Philadelphia is once again poised to become the epicenter for the radical housing rights movement.
“It’s like a finger in the dam,” says the Campaign’s executive director Cheri Honkala, discussing an expected surge of home foreclosures. “And it’s going to burst.”
The foreclosure crisis has already forced millions from their homes and brought the global economy to its knees. In January alone, 88,000 people had their homes repossessed, a 31 percent increase from last year. By this June, an estimated 5.1 million Americans are expected to be “underwater,” according to The New York Times, meaning they will owe more on their home than the property is worth.
Activists say Obama has gone soft on banks that refuse to modify loans, occasional tough talk notwithstanding. Now, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign says grassroots action is the only option left.
“People always say ‘Cheri doesn’t work within the system,’” says Honkala. “Well, the system doesn’t work.”
Honkala, 47, has been an irritant to Philadelphia officials over the past decades. The brash and energetic founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign has led building takeovers and established tent cities full of the homeless and poor. After leaving the city for two years, the formerly homeless mother of two and longtime welfare recipient is back in town and busy organizing homeowners facing foreclosure—and she knows what she’s doing.
The Kensington Welfare Rights Union was founded in 1991 to protest for the rights of welfare recipients, demonized in the media as lazy welfare queens. Honkala and the organization were immortalized in Inquirer reporter David Zucchino’s 1997 book The Myth of the Welfare Queen .
The Union’s first action was to take over an abandoned welfare office at the corner of Front and York, which they turned into a community center—until police arrested them. Many arrests would follow: in houses, apartments, churches and at the Liberty Bell. Honkala says the Union has secured housing for hundreds of Philadelphia families, many of whom have also been arrested in protest actions. Honkala has been arrested over 80 times.
During the late ’70s Honkala became pregnant at age 16 after years bouncing around the Minnesota child welfare system. She and her 8-year-old ended up homeless and sleeping in her car until a drunk driver totaled it. Hearing that the government kept the heat on in publicly owned properties so the pipes wouldn’t freeze, she moved into an empty house owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She was arrested so she moved in to another. And then another.
Honkala has spent the last two years organizing back in her native Twin Cities, helping five local women resist foreclosure and organizing raucous protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention. Having established a new Campaign chapter, she returned to Philadelphia in August and is working out of offices in a Fishtown Lutheran church.
Housing activism in Philly slowed down in her absence, and Honkala says the powers that be are not happy she’s back.
“When I came back to the city, I went down to the foreclosure court,” says a bemused Honkala. “They ID’d me and escorted me out.”
In an ironic twist, Honkala says the city offered her work as a housing counselor after hearing of her return, a job she unsurprisingly refused.
“She just got back into town. Let’s offer her money so she doesn’t do the crazy shit she does,” says Honkala, laughing as she imagines what people in City Hall must have been thinking.
Philadelphia has received accolades for its foreclosure prevention program, which has helped keep a number of homeowners off the street. But while she concedes the situation in Philly is slightly better than in most cities, Honkala is not impressed. “What Philly has done is put you on life support even though they’re eventually going to pull the plug.”
Activists take a vacant, government-owned home for the homeless. The city takes it back.