Housing: A Right, Or A Commodity? SAFE Moves Against the Banks, and the Sheriff

Photo Credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com.Licensed CC-BY.
Photo Credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com.
Licensed CC-BY.

Summer’s the time of year when many residents of the Pacific Northwest head to the great outdoors. Unfortunately, in recent years, that hasn’t always been by choice. While some are fortunate enough to head for the mountains or go on camping trips, many Seattle residents are evicted from their homes every day.

The Greater Seattle area saw 70 houses auctioned off in June and another 163 houses in July. The final stats for August aren’t in yet, but those totals are still less than two years ago. According to members of SAFE (Standing Against Foreclosure & Eviction) a local grassroots organization that assists residents who are facing foreclosure, there are two to three foreclosures a day in the city.

There was a time when evictions were hardly commonplace. The rule of thumb was that banks didn’t want houses (or automobiles); they wanted money. And if someone was willing to make an honest effort to catch up on their mortgage payments, banks were willing to work with them. But as one realtor told me, “The banks have rigged the system, so they make out a lot better in a foreclosure than they do letting someone keep their home.”

Take the case of Jeremy Griffin. In 2005, Griffin and his then partner bought a home in South Park, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Seattle. While the north end of South Park is comprised of factories, Griffin lived on the residential side, amidst houses built in the last twenty to thirty years, across from the spanking new Concord Avenue grade school.

When the economic crisis of 2008 hit, Griffin’s construction company took a major hit, losing almost a year of future business, and eventually closing shop. When money borrowed from relatives dried up, Griffin fell behind on his mortgage payments. After a period of unemployment, Griffin secured a job working on the construction of the new South Park Bridge.

He attempted to save his house from foreclosure but discovered that investment bank Morgan Stanley had bundled his loan into a trust with a 1,000 other mortgages and sold them all over the world, in a maneuver that is called “securitizing” a mortgage. Many people feel that foreclosing a property where the mortgage has been sold off (sometimes in pieces to more than one company) shouldn’t be legal. Griffin believed Wells Fargo foreclosed because they had no incentive to allow him to keep his home. When he attempted to make a payment to the Wells Fargo in downtown Seattle, employees locked the doors so he couldn’t get into the building.

Despite a SAFE blockade of the premises, Griffin was eventually evicted. And earlier this year his house was torn down – a small cottage back from the main road but still an empty lot that’s a blight on the neighborhood. It was really a double whammy that hit Griffin, many feel that reckless practices like the bundling of mortgages helped cause the 2008 recession.

Former President George W. Bush played a role in the mortgage fiasco. Bush promoted legislation to expand home-ownership particularly in regards to low-income and minority buyers as part of the Republicans seemingly endless quest to capture that voting bloc. However, Bush’s push for more home ownership coupled with his administration’s hands-off policy in regulating banks leading to lax loan practices, proved to be a recipe for disaster.

When the economy went south former Bush Treasury Secretary John Snow told the New York Times, “The Bush administration took a lot of pride that home ownership had reached historic highs, but what we forgot in the process was that it had to be done in the context of people being able to afford their house.”

SAFE, an organization dedicated to building a mass movement to stop bank evictions, has worked with Griffin and other Seattle residents. SAFE, established in 2012, patterns itself after City Life/Vida Urbana, a Boston-based organization that tries to “build working class power through direct action and coalition building.” SAFE uses a defensive and offensive strategy: defense – knowing your legal rights; and offense – public protest and public pressure on banks. They also believe that housing is a human right.

Two SAFE organizers, Joshua Farris and Bryce Phillips recently appeared before the Seattle City Council, asking that group to take action against foreclosures. The city council said they would look into the concept of principal reduction, where those behind on their payments would only pay the amount of money owed a mortgage, not accumulated interest and fees. SAFE also asked the King County Council to put a moratorium on what they consider unlawful foreclosures. The County Council hasn’t responded.

SAFE has recently been involved in another highly-publicized case. Byron and Jean Barton live in West Seattle, in a home that’s been in the Barton family for 61 years. A decorated Vietnam war vet, Byron owned a remodeling business before suffering a heart attack and a stroke. He’s now wheelchair-bound and can barely speak. Jean works, fittingly, in a homeless shelter in downtown Seattle. When they fell behind on payments their house was sold at auction (they say illegally) by Triangle Properties.

When a King County sheriff showed up at their home in June, he refused to evict them when he saw Byron Barton in a wheelchair. At Triangle’s insistence, the King County Sheriff’s office returned on July 18 with another eviction notice and an ambulance to take Barton to the VA hospital. When protesters laid down in front of the ambulance, the sheriffs eventually left. The Bartons went back into the house (Jean had been physically dragged out by the sheriffs) and are still there.

The Seattle police were called next but Mayor Ed Murray thought it was too “volatile” a situation for the city to get involved. After meeting with members of SAFE on July 21, Murray said the case needed to be decided in the courts. The city has also offered help to the Barton’s find a new home. Triangle Properties issued a writ of Mandamus in King County Superior Court to force the Mayor and the Seattle police to remove the Bartons from their West Seattle home.

A hearing was held last Friday, August 8. Triangle and the city were both represented by legal counsel. Triangle’s lawyer claimed that the eviction of the Bartons is “inevitable” and that they are trespassing. The city claims it’s not obligated to remove the Bartons and could open itself to law suits. A spokesman for King County said county sheriffs would “no longer be involved (with the Bartons). We’re not going to go after trespassers if the city is going to step in.”

Unfortunately, the Bartons weren’t legally represented in the case. When Judge Marianne Spearman asked the city’s attorney Stephen Downs specific questions about the Bartons he replied to every question that he didn’t know (Barnes didn’t even know the date that the county attempted to evict the Bartons). The judge said she would issue a ruling, but didn’t give any timeline.

Jean Barton sat in the back row and quietly watched the precedings. She said she has a lawyer and hopes to have her day in court. Barton smiled and said, “I need lawyers. But sometimes I feel like I need a bulldog.”

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