Can Occupy Our Homes Move Congress?

With Occupy Our Homes—the growing movement to fight foreclosures and evictions—community organizations and Occupy activists have teamed up in cities throughout the country to defend at-risk homeowners, pressure banks to renegotiate mortgages, and keep families in their homes. This effort has resulted in some impressive local victories. At the same time, the scope of the foreclosure crisis calls out for federal remedies.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) has proposed one such remedy. In late February, Ellison released a statement with fellow Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) calling on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to write down mortgage principal amounts for homeowners at risk of foreclosure. The Prospect spoke with Ellison about debt forgiveness for struggling families and about how grassroots housing activism is affecting discussion in Congress.

Could you elaborate on your proposal for principal reduction?

Underwater mortgages are holding people in homes that they can’t leave. And if you can’t sell your house then you can’t go to the job across the nation that might pay more. This is cutting into families' discretionary income. And it's a drain on the economy. At the end of the day, we need people to be able to stay in their homes if they want to, and people must be able to sell their homes if they need to. Without writing down these mortgages, we’re going to be stuck. I encourage people who are in the housing movement to make a robust and directed demand at the administrator of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) [to reduce mortgage principals].

How do you respond to those who say that principal reduction is unrealistic?

Banks have already been [writing down mortgages] in certain instances. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that plenty of writing down can be done. But here’s the other thing: Fannie and Freddie own or guarantee about 60 percent of the residential mortgages in the country. If they own them, they can write them down. That’s it. In the 1930s there was a precedent for this kind of action. At the end of the day, it is possible and it's the right thing to do. It’s just a political question as to whether we can muster the will to do it.

What impact do you think social movement groups organizing against foreclosures are making with respect to the Washington debate?

I think that they’re having an enormous effect. In fact, I don’t think we’d be anywhere close to doing anything without them. Clearly, the people are leading the politicians in this situation. And I’m so grateful to them. Without raising the public ire, we would not be able to make the forceful demands that we’re making now.

To be perfectly fair to members of Congress, they’ve been arguing with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and with FHFA for a long time. But the administrators listen to us and say, 'Yeah, yeah … right, Congressman.' Then they go on doing what they want to do.

Now, if these agencies have to start dealing with some street heat, they will see things differently. I think that heat is indispensable.

Sympathetic members of Congress have the power to draft, introduce, and vote on legislation. But leaders in the progressive community and in the housing movement have the ability to mobilize, educate, and organize all across America. We need each other to be successful.

What actions do you recommend that concerned citizens take if they want to support legislation to stop foreclosures?

I recommend that they join with other folks in their communities. I recommend that they engage in visible protest. I recommend that they write, they blog, they tweet—but then they put their feet in the street and stand out at homes that are being foreclosed on. I recommend that they go to banks that need to write down loans and stand out there and raise their voices, and also that they put pressure on members of Congress. I think that we need both new protest methods and old-time stuff that’s been tried and true--like standing outside with a sign. If we do this and we’re persistent, I think we’ll be successful.

Nobody can do everything, but everybody has to do something.

This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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