By Kari Koch, Contributing Columnist
The headlines would have us believe that the housing crisis is over, and that foreclosures are no longer a serious threat to our community. But in Portland, we have an affordable housing crisis, with an estimated 5,000 houseless people and thousands of empty homes. Thousands of families are one missed paycheck or one illness away from stumbling on their mortgage, while big banks are again making record profits. These are the contradictions of an economy built for markets and profits. This is an economy that undermines our communities.
When a family loses its home, all the wealth it has invested in that home evaporates. For many families, especially in communities of color, the house is a primary vehicle for long-term savings and financial stability. The irony is that after families lose their homes, many of them remain empty. The whole community suffers while the banks sit on property waiting for another market boom.
In late-January the Austin family, who has been publicly fighting eviction since 2011, were forcibly removed from their home by Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies and Portland police at the behest of national mortgage giant, Fannie Mae. After the family was kicked to the street, armed security guards were posted in their home to make sure it remained empty while Debbie, Ron, and their two children were left houseless. This problem goes far beyond one family and speaks to the deep fraud and failures in our housing system.
The housing justice community, alongside families like the Austins, has been publicly fighting back against the banks, developers, and their legal protectors. Families across Portland have come forward to put a face on foreclosure and to say that they will not move out, they will fight to keep their homes. Homeowners partner with community members, renters, and the houseless in this struggle to name foreclosure as nothing more than bank fraud for profit as they fight for a core social value–housing is a right.
In Portland, Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton is the person who carries out evictions. The housing justice community has approached the sheriff about the fraud and irregularities in the housing system and asked him to stop enforcing foreclosure evictions until those injustices are addressed, asking that he follow the example of other sheriffs across the country who have responded to the housing crisis by calling temporary moratoriums (or stoppages) on evictions. Families have presented evidence, told their stories, written letters, and applied all means of traditional civic pressure to encourage the sheriff to reconsider his role in kicking families out of their homes.
In the past few months, the sheriff and the Portland police have dispatched more than 15 officers with assault rifles to early morning evictions. Fed up with this injustice and brutality, the housing justice community decided it was time to act. On January 24, housing justice activists hosted a rally at the sheriff’s Southeast Hawthorne office. In an impromptu meeting, the sheriff again said that he could not change his enforcement of court orders. The delegation then let the Sheriff know that they would refuse to leave until he called a moratorium on evictions in Multnomah County. Hoping folks would just give up and go home, the sheriff’s department told housing justice activists they could stay in the office overnight.
It was a standoff with the sheriff. During the night social media flurried, supporters dropped off blankets, solidarity pizzas were delivered, and most importantly, activists were still out in the neighborhoods defending homes and supporting families in the struggle. Commissioner Cogen, whose office is suing banks over their faulty mortgage registration system (MERS), reached out with an offer to bring himself, the sheriff, and the housing justice activists to a meeting the following morning. That night housing justice activists finalized their demands for a real path toward eviction moratorium.
The next afternoon, the community gathered to support those sitting in at the sheriff’s office and hear the announcement about what demands had been met. Because the housing justice activists refused to take no for an answer and escalated direct action against those enforcing evictions, they were able to finally get the sheriff and the county to publicly support the idea of a moratorium and commit to four agreements by which the community can assess their progress towards a moratorium.
1. Publicly support a moratorium and work for a change in state statute to provide more time for families fighting evictions.
2. Hold a meeting with the primary judge that issues eviction orders, Judge Waller, and a community delegation to talk about the judges’ role in stopping foreclosure evictions.
3. The sheriff to personally attend all foreclosure evictions to be accountable for the use of force.
4. Work with the county district attorney’s office to pursue bank fraud and irregularities in foreclosures. When San Francisco did a foreclosure audit they found that 84 percent of foreclosures had fraud or irregularities, providing grounds to stop issuing eviction orders.
In the short term, a moratorium would directly buffer homeowners and renters from houselessness. More broadly, a moratorium and the work of the housing justice community would force the state to stop blindly enforcing the will of the financial industry; instead the state would be charged with keeping the banks on a leash and punishing them for manipulating families out of their homes.
The achievement at the sheriff’s office demonstrated that when those in positions of power refuse to work for the people, the people will not stay silent. Collective action is our strongest tool, and we will continue to use it.
The role of the housing justice community does not change. While the sheriff and Commissioner Cogen navigate the legal system on the path toward a moratorium, the housing justice community must be vigilant in holding them accountable, organizing in neighborhoods to defend families, building broad-based support, and taking action for a systemic approach to housing justice.
Alejandro Juarez, Adam Coble, and Angela MacWinnie contributed to this article.
Kari Koch writes for We are Oregon. We are Oregon was originally launched by Oregon’s SEIU Locals 49 and 503, with the intention of broadening the fight on issues that affect working class Oregonians beyond the workplace, and into the communities hit hardest by the current economic crisis.