The Occupy Wall Street campaign is moving from downtown to the suburbs.
Chased from their encampments on Wall Street, Los Angeles City Hall and elsewhere, protesters are now taking their push for financial democracy to neighborhoods around the country. On Tuesday, they staged demonstrations at foreclosed homes in nearly two dozen states to draw attention to the effect of the housing collapse on American families.
In California, a coalition of labor, housing and minority-rights activists gathered in South Gate, Riverside, Oakland and San Francisco, helping families move back into their foreclosed homes — and vowing to stay there to defend them against eviction.
“This is the best thing we could do, and it’s going to be huge for us,” said Max Berger, an early member of Occupy Wall Street who helped organize Tuesday’s protests. “Occupying homes is the perfect next step for the Occupy movement because it makes so clear the issues this movement is all about.”
The foreclosure rallies hinted at what may be a fundamental shift in the composition of the Occupy movement. Rather than the grass-roots gatherings of the initial protests, Tuesday’s demonstrations were carefully choreographed by activist groups hoping to lay claim to the Occupy name to draw attention to their causes.
The amorphous nature of the Occupy movement, with its lack of specific objectives, has left the image up for grabs, experts said.
“There’s a brand, but nobody really has the patent on the brand,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Occupy Our Homes events were spearheaded by the giant Service Employees International Union and a California activist organization led by former members of ACORN, a controversial advocacy group for low-income and minority neighborhoods.
The campaign aims to pressure lenders to offer loan modifications with substantial reductions in principle to scores of U.S. homeowners, and in some cases even reinstate mortgages that had previously been canceled.
In South Gate, about 75 people gathered at the home of Ana Casas Wilson, who is facing eviction from the home she has lived in since 1975.
Wilson, who underwent a double mastectomy two years ago, suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. Her husband, James Lee Wilson, quit his night job as a security guard to tend to her.
Wilson wants Wells Fargo, which owns her mortgage, to give her a modification to remain in the 949-square-foot home.
Property records show the family repeatedly refinanced their loan until they finally owed $365,500. By December 2008, the Wilsons were in default on the loan by $17,998, and foreclosure proceedings began. US Bank took back the home at a foreclosure sale in July 2009. The property was valued at $175,000 at the time.
The family has not made a payment in more than two years but blames Wells Fargo, saying the bank won’t accept payments after foreclosure.
Critics say some homeowners dug their own financial graves during the boom years, taking on loans they couldn’t afford in a debt-driven era that triggered the U.S. mortgage meltdown, and now insisting they should not be held accountable for their decisions.
“Many of these people never should have had their houses in the first place,” said Bruce Cain, political science professor at UC Berkeley. “In the eyes of a lot of people they are not blameless.”
Wells Fargo said in a statement that it offered the family two loan modifications before the foreclosure and reviewed it again afterward, but could not find an option the Wilsons could afford.
“We tried to do everything possible to keep the family in the home,” a bank spokeswoman said in a statement.
After the protest in South Gate, many of the demonstrators boarded a bus for Riverside, where they assembled at the home of Arturo de los Santos, a factory manager. Protesters helped De los Santos move back into his home, which was foreclosed on by JPMorgan Chase in November.
De Los Santos said he refinanced the home to pay for tile and other renovations, and struggled to make payments when his hours were cut at the metal machine shop in Santa Ana where he works.
He missed three payments before Chase agreed to a temporary loan modification, he said. The bank opted to foreclose rather than modify the payments permanently — even after his hours at work and income were restored, he said.
The Riverside man declined to say how he regained access to the house, but said he plans to stay there until he’s kicked out or arrested.
“I want to get Chase’s attention,” he said. “I want to know why they didn’t give me a loan modification.”
A Riverside Police Department spokesman said a former owner who breaks into a bank-owned home could be arrested for trespassing, a misdemeanor.
“This hasn’t been an issue,” Lt. Guy Toussaint said. Most people who lose their home to the bank usually just go away and live somewhere else.”
Toussaint said that the department has arrested squatters taking up residence in empty homes, but that he doesn’t recall a case in the city in which the former owner broke in and took up residence. He said officers, most likely, would not take action against the homeowner unless a complaint was filed.
A Chase spokesman, Gary Kishner, said he had no details about De Los Santos’ foreclosure. However, he said Chase makes every effort possible to keep families in their homes and that foreclosure is “the last option.”
“For every house we’ve had to foreclose on, we’ve been able to save two” since 2009, he said.
As night set, two tents sprouted up in De los Santos’ backyard. A small band of Occupy Los Angeles protesters and other supporters planned to stay as long as De los Santos welcomed them.
De los Santos hopes for a resolution with Chase soon, but said he wasn’t sure how long it may take or how long the protesters may stay.
“How long? Who really knows,” De los Santos said.