Amid the urban sprawl and industrial decay that have come to mark Chicago, a growing epidemic of foreclosures and evictions is now threatening the lives of tens of thousands of the city’s residents.
More than 174,000 homes throughout the city currently sit vacant. While these properties remain unoccupied, creating safety hazards for communities and bringing down the market values of neighboring homes, over 93,000 Chicagoans live homeless. This bitter reality, that there are nearly two empty homes for every homeless Chicagoan, illustrates the deep injustice of a housing system rooted in profit drive and built on a house of cards.
Yet this status quo has not gone unchallenged. A people’s movement to stem the tide of foreclosures and evictions and enforce the United Nations mandate of housing as a human right is escalating in Chicago. Activist groups across the city are employing an array of strategies to help residents remain in their homes and to move homeless city dwellers into unoccupied properties.
A guide to Chicago’s anti-eviction campaigns
Graphics by Akemi Hong
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Organizations including the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, Liberate the Southside and Centro Autonomo are all combating the housing crisis and working to provide shelter and support for affected communities, often through staging mass direct actions. On a national scale, these groups operate under the banner of a broader coalition known as Occupy Our Homes.
“The Occupy movement has certainly reinvigorated anti-foreclosure work,” says J.R. Fleming, founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign (CAEC). “The fact is that housing should be occupied. We are changing the language of how to organize around housing rights.”
In 2011, Chicago faced the second highest eviction rate in the country. Neighborhoods across the city, from Englewood to West Pullman, have seen residents driven into foreclosure at a staggering rate: By March 2009, more than 100 Chicago area homeowners were receiving a foreclosure notice every day.
Crisis and opportunity
The city’s dual crises of foreclosure and eviction disproportionately affect communities of color, the primary victims of predatory lending practices by big banks. And while a settlement designed to help victims of the crises was reached in February between the Obama administration and five of the nation’s biggest banks, the majority of the most affected homebuyers will continue to be denied any reimbursement.
This is because under the deal only one to two million Americans will qualify for compensation out of an estimated four million who have been foreclosed upon since 2007. Those who do qualify are only set to receive up to $2,000, a paltry sum compared to the massive losses—up to $700 billion—homebuyers have faced over the past five years. Moreover, the settlement does nothing to prevent the system of plundering behavior by banks which continues to threaten the lives of so many in Chicago and around the country.
This worsening of the situation has created an opportunity for housing rights groups to expand their efforts—and to adapt their tactics. Activists are currently interrupting the systematic process of economically motivated evictions through a number of coordinated actions. These include eviction blockades; move-ins of individuals and families into unoccupied properties; occupations of courtrooms during eviction proceedings; demonstrations in front of homes, banks, courtrooms and the Cook County Sheriff ’s office; petitioning for an eviction moratorium; as well as canvassing and educational outreach in impacted areas (see graphic for descriptions).
Some activists are now organizing to create “eviction-free zones”—networks of solidarity in which residents of a city block pledge to defend their neighbors should any of them face foreclosure or eviction. Neighbors are natural allies to families under threat, says Loren Taylor of Occupy Our Homes, because they recognize abandoned homes as diminishing the quality of their neighborhood—and because many are themselves at risk.
“It’s both an evolution of where the [anti-eviction] movement is and the realization that Occupy has created a moment,” says Taylor. Such campaigns have the potential to grow quickly as successful actions encourage others to participate, he says.
‘Banks got bailed out, people got thrown out’
Toussaint Losier, a longtime organizer with CAEC, says it’s important to let those facing foreclosure and eviction know that they are not alone and that support is available. “Eviction is a civil matter while the police act like it’s a criminal matter. We remind people that in Chicago the Cook County Sheriff [Tom Dart] and Chief Judge [Timothy Evans] are the only ones who can enforce an eviction, not the police or the banks. These actions are part of a process of educating people about their rights as well as what’s happening in this country. The ways financial institutions act have far-reaching effects.”
Indeed, big banks’ predatory mortgage lending was a principal cause of the housing bubble that led to the current financial crisis, and continues to displace families from their residences. While bailed-out bankers and many government officials are quick to place blame on the victims of the crisis, termed “irresponsible borrowers”, in fact the undeniable penchant for risk and greed of irresponsible bankers, exhibited by reckless practices such as credit-default swaps, mortgage-backed securities and the robo-signing scandal, remains the driving force behind America’s housing disaster.
The toxic sub-prime loans peddled to millions around the U.S. have proven to be decimating to home-buyers, and low-income communities are facing the brunt of these devastating effects. “This is a larger crisis of human rights resulting from an economic model that puts the market first in deciding who has access to housing,” says Losier.
It also allows activists to connect the struggle against evictions with other campaigns. “If you establish that there is a human right to housing, you can connect [foreclosures] to damn near anything,” says Taylor. Issues such as homelessness, land use, and community-based control of development all dovetail with the effort. “Housing is a platform to bring people in and talk about all of these problems,” he says.
While many Chicago residents not currently facing foreclosure may feel unaffected by the issue, the housing crisis impacts all homeowners and taxpayers in the city. This is in part because, as Communities United organizer Rory Fanning notes, “a home is only worth what the last two comparably sized homes within a two-mile radius sold for—and every home in Chicago is within two miles of a comparably sized foreclosure. That means all the homes in Chicago have lost equity.” All taxpayers in the city are also being affected by covering the bill for the demolition and boarding up of vacant buildings, as well as losing out on millions in revenue from fees on bank-owned repossessed homes skirted by lenders.
Discussions of housing rights ultimately have to question the dominant ideology, Taylor says, as more are compelled to ask why the places we live are subject to the whims of the free enterprise system. “People are understanding that there has to be an answer outside of market-based solutions—which failed.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, recognizes the right to housing in its 25th article. Though the United States supported the declaration, its
application has been suspect.
“The government doesn’t have the will or commitment to fight the banks, and the banks don’t have the will or commitment to help people,” says Fleming, whose organization has helped to organize numerous successful home occupations. “Housing is a human right, and if the government won’t enforce it, then people must.”
By Miles Kampf-Lassin and Nick Burt