ACORN prepares civil disobedience strategy in case of Aurora foreclosure

An ACORN member rallies against foreclosure in Baltimore. (Photo/ACORN)

An ACORN member rallies against foreclosure in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy ACORN)

Community organizers are recruiting volunteers to pressure lenders and law enforcement officials not to foreclose on homes in Colorado — and, if the pressure doesn’t work, volunteers plan to lock arms and resist sheriff’s deputies when they arrive to evict homeowners.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) plans to bring its Home Defenders campaign — unveiled in a handful of cities across the country last month — to the Denver area this Saturday with a rally at the Aurora home of Leonard McWilliams, a disabled Air Force veteran and single parent of three teenagers who has fallen five months behind on his mortgage.

“What Leonard’s going to be doing is announcing his intent to not leave his home,” said Ben Hanna, ACORN’s chief organizer in Colorado. “If it doesn’t get resolved through any other means, he’s going to resist his eviction.”

That could happen next month — anywhere from a week to 10 days after the April 8 sale date lenders have set for McWilliams’ home.

Hanna said 60 volunteers have so far signed up to stand with McWilliams this weekend, putting on a display with “caution tape, foreclosure-free signs, people linking arms, to show this is what a home defense will look like.” The veteran community organizer said the group hopes roughly 40 volunteers will actually show up in Aurora after training later this week in civil disobedience tactics.

ACORN members kicked off the Home Defenders campaign with rallies in eight cities two weeks ago and plan to expand it across the country to another 23 cities by the end of this week.

“Once they have your home, there’s nothing you can do except to resort to civil disobedience,” said Louis Beverly, an ACORN member and part of the Baltimore Home Staying campaign. “We’re trying to get loans modified so that people can stay in their homes.”

In Baltimore, Hanna said, ACORN seized a home that had been foreclosed — “reclaiming of loans,” as he described it. “We had a woman who is trying to work something out with her bank, but they basically refused to do anything. So volunteers cut the lock off the door and put our own lock on it.” When the group entered the home, they found it had fallen into severe disrepair and been vandalized after the bank had seized it.

“The true crime there (in Baltimore) was, the bank foreclosed on the house and let it sit there vacant for six months,” Hanna said.

The campaign has had at least one clear success, Hanna said. “In Oakland (Calif.), we actually blocked an eviction. The family there was renting, paying their rent on time, and the landlord wasn’t paying the mortgage, so they got foreclosed on. About 16 ACORN members showed up, and it turned out the sheriff refused to do the eviction,” Hanna said. “It was the first family able to keep in their home as a result of one of these actions.”

McWilliams, 53, said he has been working with ACORN’s Homesavers program, which recently announced an agreement with his lender, Countrywide Financial, to “[implement] best practices for negotiating loan modifications and workouts with troubled homeowners rather than turning to foreclosure.”

“I’m staying in my home and hope we will force the mortgage company to meet us at the table and give me a realistic mortgage payment,” McWilliams said. But if that doesn’t work out, he said, “I am prepared to have them physically move me off my property. A relative will take my sons so they have a place to live.”

McWilliams and his three sons — he’s adopted one, serves as guardian for another and is fostering the third — didn’t wind up facing foreclosure overnight. A series of setbacks and medical disasters brought the family from a comfortable life with a bright future to the brink of losing their home.

While pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology in 2005, McWilliams was forced to move from his two-story home in Denver’s City Park West neighborhood after suffering a debilitating fall down a flight of stairs. Confined to a wheelchair for a time, and with three teenage boys to tend on his own, McWilliams said he needed to find a house with a single level.

“I could no longer walk up the stairs, so I met with a real estate agent who knew I was in dire straits — when I began to walk, I had leg braces and had limited movement,” McWilliams said. “He managed to qualify me for this home with an ARM (adjustable rate mortgage).”

The family moved into the Aurora home on East Utah Place and settled in. “The schools are nearby and we like the curriculum,” he said. His oldest son plays trombone in the local middle school’s award-winning jazz band and his middle son plays drums. It’s a nice neighborhood and McWilliams planned to raise his family there, even though times were tight.

The original mortgage was $247,000, McWilliams said, and a renegotiated loan amounted to $279,000, leaving him upside-down against the house’s current market value of $224,000. McWilliams, who relies on a Veterans Administration disability payment for income, said he was able to scrape by for several years making mortgage payments of $2,300 until tragedy — and further major expenses — struck.

First, his brother was killed in a hit-and-run accident, still unsolved, which brought funeral expenses. Then McWilliams faced cataract surgery and increasing medical bills from osteoporosis and complications from a variety of medications, some meant to fix problems caused by other medications. Then his mother died in January and left her own home saddled with a reverse mortgage and heavy maintenance for McWilliams to sort out, in addition to more funeral expenses.

“I attempted to make payments of $1,800” — $500 short of his monthly mortgage payment — “and my mortgage company refused to accept this,” McWilliams said, leading to the foreclosure with a final sale date set for next month.

Still, he continues working with ACORN’s help to forestall a foreclosure. “I see the goal is to keep my home,” McWilliams said. “For me this isn’t for show. If the lender negotiated before (ACORN’s planned resistance) to save the home, we’d have to come up with something else. The goal is for me to maintain my home.”

Hanna agreed, and said he’d be happy if ACORN had to cancel the rally if McWilliams found a solution short of civil disobedience. “He’s working with a counselor, we’re doing everything we can — negotiating with his lender through our housing counseling office. If we can avoid Leonard’s foreclosure, that’s a good thing.”

He said ACORN is talking with other community organizing groups up and down the Front Range and hopes to roll out the program wherever foreclosures threaten. “The goal is to figure out how to put this campaign in — essentially — a Home Defenders campaign in a box.”

But fixing foreclosure problems one by one isn’t the best answer either, Hanna said. “All these approaches are piecemeal, case-by-case — we need a sweeping change.”

Until then, he said the group plans to do what it has to to keep people in their homes. “We think that part of what it’s going to take is a lot of public pressure,” he said, “from community organizations, labor, elected officials — the pressure makes it easy for sheriffs to say: ‘The community’s against it, this is the worst part of my job, I’m not going to force this eviction.’ But if they’re not going to be supportive, there’s going to be a big spotlight on them if they’re arresting the ACORN members who are doing the action.”

“I’m feeling more positive,” McWilliams said. “I’m looking and feeling like there will be a miracle, some sort of direction before the sales date. For me, it’s not just knowing that there will be an action of civil disobedience, but reaching the desired outcome — to keep my home.”

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Ernest Luning

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