When Virginia Henry bought her boarded-up and abandoned Rochester, N.Y., home in December 2007, she saw potential where others were blind to it. The house, a short sale, became her home to live in and care for, she said. She plopped down her $20,000 and filed her paperwork for a loan program that would pay the balance -- $43,000 -- to rehabilitate the property.
But what followed was a series of unanswered calls and letters to Bank of America, Henry says, eventually culminating in her arrest Friday for a charge of trespassing on her own front lawn. The arrest, like much of this story, is the source of a dispute. Henry asserts police officers shoved her to the ground during the arrest, police claim she fainted from the intense heat. She has a court date for the trespassing charge July 28.
The facts of the short sale are also at issue. The bank has told Henry that the short sale never closed and that the house at 5 Appleton St. -- with all her worldly possessions trapped inside -- is no longer hers. A Bank of America spokeswoman, Jumana Bauwens, said she would investigate the claims.
"This is my home," Henry told AOL Real Estate in a phone interview after the arrest. "How can I be trespassing in my own home?"
Protesters Step In
While the facts of the case may be murky, one thing isn't: Henry's plight is a perfect opportunity for Take Back the Land to step in. The group, founded by Miami activist Max Rameau (who's pictured above being arrested there in June 2010) is a small but growing movement that aims to change the way the public views housing. TBTL accomplishes this by taking over government- and bank-owned properties and putting otherwise homeless people in them. And they also fight homeowner evictions, like that of Mrs. Henry (pictured at left in front of the house in question) and her family of four.
Rochester TBTL leader Ryan Acuff, interviewed in the video below, was on the scene Friday. He confirmed the 57-year-old Henry's account of being pushed to the ground and handcuffed by police.
"We heard about this going on and came out to support her," Acuff said. Rochester police did not return AOL Real Estate's calls.
The group has some notable experience on this front. Last spring it helped Catherine Lennon, also of Rochester, N.Y., stay in her house of seven years. Bank of America began foreclosure proceedings shortly after Lennon's husband died of cancer. Fannie Mae took over the home and proceeded to evict the extended family of 11 last March. Take Back the Land blockaded the home for two weeks, preventing the family from being forced out. It ended with a police team physically evicting them and arresting seven people, including a 70-year-old neighbor still in her pajamas.
Still, the point was made. And Lennon by the way, is back in the house, which is just a few blocks away from Henry's.
Rameau says, "We are challenging corporations' right to own thousands of homes that they keep vacant while human beings are left homeless. The fundamental purpose of housing should be to house humans. Right now, housing is a corporate profit center."
Call it civil disobedience with a roof. The thrice-arrested Rameau spearheaded taking over an empty lot in the Liberty City section of Miami in 2006, where he erected a tent city known as Umoja Village, an urban shantytown for dozens of Miami's homeless. ("Umoja" means unity in Swahili.) After celebrating six months of existence, Umoja Village burned to the ground in a suspicious fire on the very day work was to have started replacing the wood shanties with more durable structures. What came of the experience was a book by Rameau and a renewed commitment to turn up the flame on his mission to reform how we view housing in the United States.
Now Rameau has his sights set on the foreclosure crisis. Take Back the Land has installed homeless families in about 20 government- and bank-owned homes, and he's helped homeowners fight evictions during the foreclosure process.
A Civil Rights Movement?
Rameau likens what he does to the civil rights movement. His home squatters, he said, are the equivalent of those who defied Jim Crow laws and rode in the front of the bus, used whatever public water fountain they wanted and demanded to be let in race-segregated schools.
By physically liberating land and forming physical barricades to prevent evictions in major cities including Miami, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Toledo, Chicago and Sacramento -- about 20 times -- his movement has garnered national attention.
The hope when he "liberates" a house is to have the family stay in it for as long as possible, he says, but the underlying goal is raise public awareness. And to spark that broader social discussion, a confrontation is necessary.
The government- and bank-owned homes that Take Back the Land targets are all in good condition and up to code. "No 'holes in the floorboards' kind of places," he says. The group insists that the family that moves in turn on the electricity and water and have the means to pay those bills. The squatting family is also expected to maintain the home and be a good neighbor -- no loud parties or anything to disturb the neighbors.
Most neighbors, Rameau said, are supportive. "They are glad the house isn't empty anymore and someone is there to take care of it." While most of the homes are in low-income neighborhoods, the group has gotten calls from residents of "better" neighborhoods, Rameau said, asking if they can take over a house in their midst.
While Texan Kenneth Robinson -- the guy who recently took possession of a foreclosed $300,000 house for a mere $16 by filing a claim of "adverse possession" of the property -- is not part of the Take Back the Land movement, the reaction of some of Robinson's neighbors is something that Rameau sees regularly. "Some people feel angry because they see it as somehow unfair that they have to pay rent or a mortgage and 'Why not the squatter?'" he said.
What are your thoughts about it? Squatters or liberators? Post your comment below.