Banks Don’t Need Homes, People Do: The Case of Deborah Harris

Occupy Our Homes activist Mike Isaacson in Chase's lobby

(A shorter version of this piece was published in Union City, the AFL-CIO Washington DC Metro Council’s newsletter.)

A sign in the lobby of JP Morgan Chase’s homeownership office in downtown D.C. read, “Banks don’t need homes, People do!” Sitting on the marble floor beside the sign was a member of Occupy Our Homes, an offshoot of Occupy DC which focuses on eviction protection.

Monday, as approximately 50 activists occupied the lobby and front of the building, Deborah Harris, a native Washingtonian and retired EMT with the D.C. Fire Department, was on the fifth floor trying to meet with Chase, something she’s been unable to do for the past year. Harris was joined by ten activists, including Occupy Our Homes’ Rooj Alwazir.

“They’re the reason for the unjust foreclosure,” Alwazir said of Chase, which foreclosed on Harris’ home before selling it in December 2009 to Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage lending giant.

Harris, who’s lived in her southeast D.C. home since 1995, fell behind on her mortgage payments as a result of an injury she suffered in 2007 while on the job. 

“They took the opportunity to profit off of Deborah after she missed only two payments,” Alwazir said shortly after leaving Chase’s office.

An hour later and with tears in her eyes, Harris was the last of the group to exit the building. “If I didn’t have any support from Occupy Our Homes I think they would have just brushed me off,” she said.

Chase – which helped create the foreclosure crisis and was bailed out to the tune of billions of taxpayer dollars – was willing to meet with Harris. “Chase is interested to find out what’s going on,” Harris told a gathering of supporters and press. “They said they will call Freddie Mac.”

In an email response to TheFightBack, however, a Chase spokesperson offered no indication that the bank was interested in assisting Harris. Amy Bonitatibus said Chase was just “the servicer” of the loan, and she referred questions to Freddie Mac, the “owner of the loan.”

Meanwhile Freddie Mac spokesman Brad German said his company is moving forward with the eviction process, while at the same time it’s reviewing Harris’ recent court filings. (Through Occupy Our Homes, Harris was put in touch with Ann Wilcox, a pro bono attorney affiliated with the National Lawyers Guild).

It’s unclear why Chase sent a June 2011 letter asking Harris if she’d like to participate in a loan modification program when the bank had apparently sold her home to Freddie Mac in December 2009. Asked why Chase would do this, German said, “I don’t know, you’d have to ask them.” Chase didn’t respond in time for publication.

“They should modify her loan and give her the title back in her name,” said Bertina Jones, who knows something about fighting back against the banks and Freddie Mac. Jones was slated to be evicted from her home in Prince George’s County, Maryland until she teamed up with Occupy Our Homes and held a February press conference in front of Freddie Mac’s offices in downtown D.C.; which is where Monday’s action initiated.

Deborah Harris outside Chase

“We demand that they cease and desist their heinous efforts to evict Debby Harris,” said fellow EMT Gary Nelson, an emergency vehicle driver with the Baltimore City Fire Department, and a member of the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters.

Several activists with Take Back the Land drove eight hours from Rochester, New York in order to deliver their demands to Freddie Mac and show solidarity with Harris. “She’s going through the same thing I’m going through,” said Leonard Spears, whose Rochester home was foreclosed on by Freddie Mac.

Spears, who spent forty years in corporate America and now receives social security disability benefits, is scheduled to be evicted in ten days. “I have nowhere to go,” he said outside Freddie Mac. Spears is hopeful his mortgage can be renegotiated, with one option being to place his property in “a land trust for others in a similar predicament.” But regardless of how negotiations turn out, he has no intention of leaving his home.

“Given the state of the U.S. economy, everyone should be coming out to these demonstrations,” said author and activist Dave Zirin, as he marched from Freddie Mac to Chase holding a sign that read, “Stop foreclosures and evictions.”

“It’s Deborah Harris today. It could be you tomorrow. It could be me tomorrow,” said Zirin. “It’s not just homeowners [who are hurting], it’s renters, it’s all of us.”

* This piece was edited slightly since its original posting.

Related Links:

Related Stories:
Freddie Mac, “Can You Hear Me Now?” Feb. 29, 2012
Checking In With Occupy DC, May 10, 2012

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