UNSETTLE PORTLAND—an Occupy Portland "affinity group" with the lofty mission of fundamentally transforming society's relationship with its living space—went public earlier this month after much whispering and quiet planning. In a stirring display of defiance, its members joined other activists outside an East Portland woman's foreclosed home and promised to support her as she vowed to be arrested before she'd ever be evicted.
But that's just the start of what Unsettle Portland expects will be a busy year of fighting off the foreclosure machine. Some days that'll mean helping harried homeowners decode legal forms. Other times? It'll be a bit heavier—like mobilizing neighbors on the day of an eviction to scare away the cops.
Four organizers—including a woman personally battling a foreclosure of her own—recently sat down with the Mercury to talk more about the group's strategy and mission. (For even more information, check out unsettleportland.org.)
MERCURY: What is Unsettle Portland?
ALICE PAUL: Unsettle Portland is a local affiliate of the Take Back the Land movement. That group is about bringing awareness that housing is a human right. TARAN CONNELLY: We are committed to taking positive action—we're not simply an advocacy group.
Talk about some of your goals—foreclosure resistance and helping families.
AP: You named two of our three tiers. Foreclosure resistance, supporting families into moving back into foreclosed homes, and then a broader sense of reclaiming vacant space—the desire to help those spaces become community network hubs (childcare co-ops, organic gardens, health care services). All three of those create a greater context when talking about what is space. What is home?
Why is it important to push for these things even if the law pushes back?
JOANIE BROWN: It's quite simply that local law enforcement has consistently defended the rights to hold property over the human rights of the people who are affected by the spaces being bought and sold. The only option that we have is to take that power back and say, "No, we are the ones who have the final say on who can live where and how land is used."
TC: Speaking frankly, there's a long tradition of civil disobedience in the US as far as when there is unconscionable business going on. We know, as a culture, that sometimes it's time to step up and say no.
Tell me a bit about what you're going through, Maura.
MAURA ST. MARTIN: Well my story has been that my home was foreclosed on October 4. And based upon an audit of my mortgage docs, and the collection activity, it's been determined my mortgage was illegally assigned to a new trustee. And so not only was my mortgage assigned once, it was also signed again to another trustee. So there's this whole problem of fraudulent documents, robo signers, improper documents that are basically put together and presented to the court system to say, "We have the right, we own the note on this property, we've sold this person's property, and now she needs to vacate the premises." I have challenged that premise. Right now we have a temporary restraining order, next week we will have a hearing to make that order permanent. I am willing to stay in my home until I am forced out of my home, because my home was illegally foreclosed upon. I am sure that this company that acquired the assets of my original lender is doing the same thing to other homes across the US.
What was the reason they gave for foreclosure?
MS: In 2006 I was in a major car accident. So in 2007 and 2008 I struggled to keep up with my loan. I did things like liquidate my 401(k), things like that. But I was able to successfully negotiate a loan modification. So after going through all this I thought everything was good. But then I received the notice that my loan had been sold to another lender, and my original lender was bankrupt. So basically you have a servicing company and a new trustee assuming rights on the property [and not recognizing the loan modification].
TC: We don't have time, Maura doesn't have time, our community doesn't have time, for her or anyone else to be kicked out of their house—and I think that's where we come in.
How can you help homeowners?
JOANIE BROWN: We help educate people on what the foreclosure process is, what documents are what. People don't know what an eviction notice looks like.
AP: We're developing a rapid-response network. In the event that an eviction becomes imminent, people can get in touch with us and we can mobilize that network and have people actually be onsite to create physical resistance and demonstrate the visibility of this invisible epidemic.
How are you building that network?
TC: One of the resources we draw on is the Occupy Wall Street movement. We are actively working within these networks.
JB: We're also starting to build connections with liberal faith communities to represent more of a mainstream demographic.
Will it be challenging to reach mainstream people?
JB: It's going to be a process. I think we really want to build a broad movement and not a subculture or a clique.
AP: The idea of housing as a human right is really accessible for a lot of people, because the alternative is the commodification of your existence. That's really the entry-level point.
This issue usually hits people who don't have time to deal with it. Is it difficult to get them to understand their rights and the process?
MS: For myself, a big priority has been to take the fear and shame out of being a homeowner who's in the foreclosure process. Social media has helped to reach out to people about the foreclosure process. I've also gotten involved with We Are Oregon, another grassroots group fighting foreclosures and making the issue transparent. [Unsettle Portland is working with homelessness advocacy group Right 2 Survive also.] It's all these different avenues, and people are taking the Occupy movement and becoming energized at a local level and making these issues very, very visible.
Mayor Sam Adams is proposing rules for how banks ought to treat foreclosed properties. Is there anything Unsettle Portland would like to say to him about this topic?
JB: He has more power than he's willing to acknowledge. As far as his proposal, I don't feel like we would go to a lot of effort to give Sam Adams a pat on the head for that. That really doesn't speak to the concerns and troubles of working with poor people and people of color.
TC: I would encourage him to join the rapid-response list.
Talk about the group's ties to Native American culture and the Back to the Land movement.
MS: I think as First Nations people, what is happening with Unsettle Portland is representative of how we viewed our relationship to the land. And that is: We are not owners of the land, we are stewards of the land. So it's basically changing the whole paradigm as far as how we, as communities, manage our resources. And right now you have a patriarchy where a system is being abused to perpetuate income inequality, abuse of the resources, and we want to change the relationship with the land. We want to be good stewards of the land for the benefit of everyone, not just the select few. And I think that people are really starting to get that and feel that.
Explain your name.
JB: We're unsettling to the status quo. And we are predominantly European people. None of us are native to this land base and we want to bring that into the conversation. Because this once was land with successful communities living on it and what we see now is the result of the destruction we settlers brought.
AP: Right, this land was already occupied. And the Occupy movement is kind of the second wave. The other thing that really stood out for me is this piece around narrative of an intact social fabric and the ability to leverage your equity. It's really about mending a strong social fabric that's going to pick up the slack where centralized government institutions are simply just failing. And they're failing because they have no integrity. These banking institutions made decisions to prey on the most vulnerable people in our society and our response is "not on our watch."