Fighting Sharks in Cleveland

Activists Bare Teeth Over Foreclosures
By Adam Geller / March 1, 2008

Folks on Humphrey Hill Drive were still waking up on the icy Saturday morning the shark hunters came to town. They rounded the suburban traffic circle in a pair of rented school buses after a half-hour ride from far more modest neighborhoods, rumbling to a stop at the Garmone family’s driveway. Forty-two caffeinated Clevelanders piled out, their leaders carrying bullhorns.

Their quarry, Mike Garmone — a regional vice president at Countrywide Financial Corp., the nation’s largest mortgage lender — didn’t answer his door. So they deployed, ringing bells at the big homes with three-car garages, handing out accusatory fliers and lambasting Garmone and his company’s loans. Before departing, they left their calling card — thousands of 2 1/2-inch plastic sharks — flung across Garmone’s frozen flower beds, up into the gutters, littering the doorstep.

The commotion was the work of an in-your-face activist group called the East Side Organizing Project, with a paid staff then of just two, mobilized to battle Cleveland’s mortgage “loan sharks.” Years before the rest of the country was rocked by the fallout from aggressive lending, their neighborhoods were already home to the nation’s highest concentration of foreclosures — and they were fed up.

ESOP’s people are proudly loud and abrasive, and they’ve long reveled in needling people with pull. But could they get a distant behemoth like Countrywide to the table?

On that morning in February 2006, ESOP executive director Mark Seifert had his doubts. For starters, he wasn’t sure his group’s research on Garmone even had the family’s correct address.

Until two evenings later, when Seifert checked his e-mail and found a message from a top public relations executive at Countrywide’s California headquarters.

We need to talk, it said.

Seifert broke into a wide grin.

Now that David had Goliath’s ear, he wasn’t about to let go.
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The foreclosure epidemic that has infected Cleveland’s neighborhoods started earlier and has been even more punishing than the crisis much of the rest of the country is enduring. It’s a symptom of the lax lending that became widely common, without the run-up in home prices that long camouflaged it.

“The problems that exist everywhere now … showed themselves earlier here because there was no getting out of them,” says Zach Schiller of Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland nonprofit focused on the state’s economy.

The problem is well documented — Cleveland and the surrounding county saw more than 15,000 foreclosures last year. But to grasp its impact, walk with Nita Gardner down the block of East 113th Street where she raised two boys.

When Gardner, a retired machinist, bought the gray wood-frame house 33 years ago, this part of the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood was filled with families. Their homes on small lots were modest, but maintained with pride.

Have a look at what’s left.

The white house on the opposite corner — its front porch ripped away by scavengers — fell to foreclosure last year. The home behind it — blue with plank-covered windows — went soon after.

A few doors down from Gardner, three homes in a row are abandoned. Three of the four across from them are vacant, too. It’s not like some manicured suburban neighborhood, where it’s a guess if a house is empty. Here, shredded curtains flap from holes where windows used to be. The silver fringes of insulation hang from walls where aluminum siding has been stripped for resale.

In early 2006, Gardner’s adult sons — who had bought the house from her — fell behind on their mortgage and the lender, Countrywide, began foreclosure.

Gardner stepped in to fight, although looking at the home’s drab exterior and the surrounding neighborhood, it’s not immediately clear why.

Until, that is, Gardner opens the front door and light spills over the floor to a mural of an Egyptian pharaoh she painted in gold and azure across the living room wall. Upstairs, a closet door still bears the markings in pen where her sons charted their heights, year after year.

“I just feel like I’m a whole person with this house,” says Gardner, explaining her battle to save it. “Because this is not just a house. It’s me.”
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When ESOP held its annual meeting in 1999, organizers were surprised to see empty chairs. They called the missing and found many phones had been disconnected. They knocked on doors and found empty homes.

It was the first sign, Seifert recalls, that people in some of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods were losing their homes to foreclosure.

ESOP’s organizers, until then working with parents on safety around public schools, knew nothing about mortgage lending. But they did know how to raise hell.

That was clear in the mid-1990s, when ESOP demanded that Cleveland officials give money seized in drug busts to struggling city schools.

When Mayor Michael White put them off, ESOP members picketed White’s church and ask the pastor to excommunicate him. They set up outside the house of the mayor’s father, demanding he talk with his son. To drive the message home, ESOP activists figured out the married mayor had a girlfriend and went to her door with a letter demanding the cash.

The tactics came back to bite them.

“We lost about 90 percent of our funding overnight,” Seifert recalls.

The nonprofit staggered. If it was going to be confrontational, it needed to keep the foundations that fed its budget in the loop.

Fighting foreclosures became their new cause. But they brought along old tactics — a brand of confrontation honed by Saul Alinsky, the legendarily radical Chicago organizer.

“Power is not only what you have,” Alinsky schooled his followers, “but what the enemy thinks you have.”

ESOP was banking on anger. Clevelanders were losing their homes, organizers concluded, because aggressive lenders had put people in mortgages they couldn’t possibly afford.

Read all of it here.

From Jesse James Retherford / The Rag Blog
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