Newark, NJ - A People’s Hearing against Foreclosure and Homelessness took place here, Oct. 26. Many people, many issues and many ideas were heard. Sponsors included the People’s Organization for Progress (POP), the National Organization for Women-NJ and the Newark Teachers’ Association (NTA). A People’s Bailout Program emerged as a concrete and realistic vehicle of people’s struggle.
The premise of the event was “Hold the Bankers Accountable.” The CEO’s of the five largest banks were invited by mail to attend, listen to the people’s concerns and proposals and respond. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke were also invited. Chairs for the invitees with large signs bearing their names were prominently placed at the front of the room. Unsurprisingly, the chairs were empty.
Several responses had been received by POP Chairman Lawrence Hamm. It was clear from the responses that the invitations had been seen at high levels and the message had gotten through: The people see those in charge of the banks and the economy as neither remote nor mysterious and we hold them accountable.
The warm-up band for the event was New Jersey’s Solidarity Singers, a veteran support group for labor and other people’s struggles. Moderator Lisa Davis gave a picture of the way predatory subprime mortgage loans had particularly been concentrated on African-American communities. As a result, Essex County, Newark’s location, suffers one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. The number of homeless children has risen by 84% since the crisis began.
The next presentation was about the causes of the housing bubble, financial collapse and depression. They were attributed to excess capital in the U.S. economy. So much money floods U.S. capital markets that profitable investment for all of it cannot be found. The excess cannot be used to meet the crying human needs of U.S. society because it is capital and must be used to find profits. It is forced into speculation and swindling.
Over the period of the housing bubble, 1999-2008, mortgagees in the total U.S. economy were bamboozled into taking mortgages in almost $2 trillion in excess of true market value of the properties purchased. The mortgage principals must be written down to fully reflect true market value.
The POP People’s Bailout Program was presented:
- Write-down of overvalued housing bubble mortgage principals to true market value;
- Moratorium on foreclosures;
- Rollback of bank rates, fees and charges to 2007 levels;
- Divestment of public accounts from banks that refuse to write mortgages down, and other penalties;
- No foreclosure without proof of ownership of title to the property;
- Abolish the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) that allows banks to conceal ownership of title and defraud owners.
Phyllis Salowe-Kaye of New Jersey Citizen Action referred to “robogate,” the scandal in which thousands of homeowners are losing their homes without proper documentation of lender ownership of title. Her agency is pressing to require attorneys to swear in court that lender documentation is real.
James Harris, Chairman of the New Jersey Conference of the NAACP, pointed out that as a group African-Americans have the lowest home ownership rate and are the least employed. The NAACP has sued major banks for the racism of their focus of predatory lending practices on black people. The city of Camden removed a tent city of the homeless instead of helping them. There is a move on to do away with measures in New Jersey to provide affordable housing. He said, “The right combination is in this room, we can get progressive forces together to move in an electoral thrust.”
“Times in Newark have always been rough,” said Newark Teachers’ Association President Annette Alston. According to her, children eat every bit of school breakfast and lunch they can get and now things are even worse. Teachers go into their own pockets to cover school expenses. But we live in a mean-spirited time when New Jersey Governor Christie doesn’t even care and is more interested in breaking the New Jersey Education Association than he is in helping children. Newark lost hundreds of teachers due to Christie’s budget cuts and classroom sizes are going above 30. Newark teachers would shine in any setting, but when a child is worried about being homeless in a few weeks or moves two or three times a year education is impossible. Nobody wants to look at poverty and homelessness but schools need resources.
Barbara Foley on NOW-NJ cited statistics showing that single mothers suffer disproportionately from unemployment and subprime mortgages. Black women are five times as likely as white men to be forced into subprime mortgages and women generally are 32% more likely to have subprime mortgages. The Tea Party puts out notions like blaming “irresponsible borrowers” for the economic collapse. We must take up the ideological contest against racism and sexism.
“Ten times a week someone calls my office to say they are in foreclosure and asks ‘what can I do?’” said Newark Councilwoman Mildred Crump. She offered helpful information, such as not to use the same lawyer in foreclosure as was used to close the sale. She said there is often complicity with the lenders. She asked how many people don’t open the letters from the banks and a number of people raised their hands. “Don’t hide your head in the sand, read the notice,” she said. She was asked to support people’s initiatives like divestment from banks that won’t write mortgages down, and agreed. People generally took the line that elected officials must support their initiatives, rather than looking to the Democratic Party for answers.
Lawrence Hamm of POP said we are living in one of the most reactionary periods of the last 50 years. Most black people have their wealth tied up in their homes, and more black people have lost their homes in the last two years than ever in the history of the U.S. The Obama administration has opposed a moratorium on foreclosure. We must press for the elected officials to say the same things as the people.
We need to build a broad coalition that will include labor, churches, the homeless and tenant organizations. We need to have a ten-million person march for economic justice, like the people’s struggle in France. POP will look at the possibility of bringing a class action suit against the banks, divestiture and other measures to mobilize the masses along lines of daily concerns.
Problems like sharp increases in local property taxes were raised in the question-and-answer section of the hearing. A teacher who has been unemployed for three years said that she cannot even get consideration for hiring in suburban school districts. She is African-American and administrators take one look at her and don’t want to hire. She said unemployment is deliberately being concentrated on African-American people.
An atmosphere of struggle and optimism emerged among the audience as it became clear that everyone is in the same boat and can struggle together. Most of the audience of 80 stuck out the two and a half hour program to the end, showing their willingness to struggle when presented with a program of concrete and workable demands for economic justice in the face of Great Depression II.