Protect this house | Real Change News

Real Change News | Feature | May 29th 2013 by: Aaron Burkhalter, Staff Reporter

By keeping Jeremy Griffin from being evicted, activists won one battle in the war against foreclosures

Miles Partman took a shift outside Jeremy Griffin’s South Park home on May 22. Volunteers watched the house while Griffin went to his job as an ironworker at the South Park Bridge.

Photo by: Alex Garland , Contributing Photographer

Every day when Jeremy Griffin goes to work, he weaves through a maze of tents, chairs and signs.

They’ve been there since May 15, when protestors set up camp on the front lawn of Griffin’s powder blue, 1950s house in South Park.

They erected a giant banner that said “eviction free zone” and posted the phone number for James Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley, which now owns the home.

It’s the first time in Seattle that activists have launched an eviction blockade. About 10 days in, the protestors weren’t sure if it would work.

“It’s uncharted territory,” said Joshua Farris, one of SAFE’s founders.

Foreclosures happen on paper and often result in the eviction of the homeowner. By stopping the eviction, activists hoped to put the brakes on the foreclosure process.

Across the street, students at Concord Elementary School cheered in support. Television and radio news crews showed up. So did city council hopeful Kshama Sawant and long-time activist Dorli Rainey.

The group camped out for 10 days, waiting for a judge to grant a stay on the eviction. Griffin had appealed the eviction and has a hearing June 25.

A judge granted the stay May 24, just as Griffin and the other volunteers started growing weary of the rain.

For the next month, Griffin can stay in his home. He hopes to convince Morgan Stanley, the financial services firm, to let him rent it. Eventually, he hopes to start making payments again, and to keep it.

Griffin, an ironworker who lost work when construction waned, bought the home eight years ago. He fell behind on his payments after the 2008 economic crash. One day he got a flier for Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction (SAFE), the group now working to save his home.

With the help of SAFE, Griffin offered to pay rent for the home and eventually buy it again now that he had steady work.

Griffin could never figure out who to pay or how, he said. He thought he could pay Wells Fargo, and he tried to deliver checks by hand, but employees there turned him down. Earlier this month, he received a notice of eviction, proof his efforts had failed.

While Griffin continued his job on the South Park bridge, volunteers from SAFE waited in front of his home, prepared to be arrested if a King County Sheriff’s officer comes to enforce the eviction.

City Life, a nonprofit in Boston that works to keep families in foreclosure in their homes, developed the blockade strategy in the 1980s, and has helped hundreds of Boston families stay in their homes through up-and-down economies.

Using the same strategies, activists in Portland say they are close to getting an official moratorium on evictions in Multnomah County. Once a moratorium is in place, We Are Oregon, a union-backed nonprofit, will pressure the state’s attorney general to prosecute banks for fraud and irregularities in their foreclosures.

“A moratorium on evictions is a short-term solution to give the community the time that we need to organize,” said Kari Koch, spokesperson for We Are Oregon.

The effort is working. There have not been any evictions since We Are Oregon started working with the county for the moratorium.

Like City Life, SAFE helps families work with banks to renegotiate their mortgages or offer to rent the home until they are able to make payments again. If banks are unwilling to negotiate and file for eviction, SAFE sets up round-the-clock volunteers to block the eviction.

SAFE is also trying to bring about broader change. The federal government spent $700 billion to bail out banks considered “too big to fail” after the 2008 recession, but 13 million homes are still underwater and risk foreclosure, according to a study by the Alliance for a Just Society. Neighborhoods with a majority of people of color are more likely to experience foreclosure, according to the study.

Lawmakers have provided some relief. The Washington State Legislature set up a hotline for consultants to help people deal with foreclosures, and the Seattle City Council has committed to finding local solutions to help people.

Groups like SAFE and the Alliance for a Just Society want more. The groups want banks to negotiate with homeowners and let them stay in their homes. They’re also seeking to have King County enact a moratorium on evictions.

Morality isn’t activists’ sole motivation. Preventing foreclosures is good for the economy, says Alliance for a Just Society.

In a study called “Wasted Wealth,” the organization found that foreclosures in 2012 resulted in $192.6 billion in lost wealth. Foreclosures cost each household an average of $1,700. These households are disproportionately people of color.

If banks agreed to write down the 13.2 million underwater mortgages nationwide, they would boost the U.S. economy by $101.7 billion, saving those mortgage holders $1.5 billion, some of which, the Alliance for a Just Society reasons, would go back into the economy through consumer spending, which could create 1.5 million jobs, according to the study.

In Seattle, such broad changes still seem a long way off. The King County Sheriff’s Office told protestors that the officers were not eager to enforce the eviction, and gave them time to get a stay on the eviction order until an appeal hearing in June.