OccupyTheHood protests try to save Cincinnati homes

BY: FABIEN TEPPER, Contributing Writer

A couple of weeks ago, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Cincinnati’s OccupyTheHood movement led its first public action, a focused, powerful march through Avondale that announced the movement’s strength in the very areas where Occupy Cincinnati has been faulted.

The protestors’ purpose was clear: share stories showing the human impacts of the foreclosure crisis, and give city leaders three policy demands aimed at ending it.

Their messages were on point, like the sign reading “FAMILIES SHOULD BE LIVIN’ HERE,” held by Daveena Johnson, 12, as she stood outside her grandmother’s boarded-up home.

And the march was organized and led by African Americans.

OccupyTheHood (OTH) Cincinnati is part of a national movement formed “to connect the Occupy Wall Street movement to people of color who have been organizing around issues of economic justice and draw attention to the ways in which wealth disparity operate along lines of race.”

Monday’s march, which drew around 90 to Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on Reading Rd., was OTH’s first public action.  At four points along the march, speakers told their stories and galvanized the crowd.

An OTH organizer, Robert Pace, told his story first.  When he was ten years old, he said, his family was evicted from their Avondale home due to his father’s activism.

Robert Pace holds the megaphone while Amy Smith speaks to the crowd, from in front of her Avon-dale home that is in foreclosure. Her granddaughter, Daveena Johnson, holds up a sign. Photo: Fabien Tepper

As he grew older, he said, “I realized that my family was wronged.  And as I came to be more conscious of what was really going on, I made a vow that if I ever had a chance to prevent someone from being homeless, I would do it. My time is now.”

Chanting “A people united will never be defeated!” and “Fight fight fight fight! Housing is a human right!” the swelling crowd marched down Reading Rd. and waded into the unruly front lawn of a boarded-up brick home.

Rigel Behrens, who studies and crunches local foreclosure numbers for the non-profit Working in Neighborhoods, gave some numbers to explain the crisis.  Since 2006, she said, Avondale has lost 363 properties to sheriff sales.

“I want to tell you a little story about these two buildings,” she said of the home and its next door neighbor.  “Coincidentally, they were both foreclosed by DeutscheBank.”

“BOOO!” roared the crowd.

The German bank, which has no local branches, had foreclosed upon the home in 2007 and sold it to North Carolina investors, she said.  And those investors have let it languish with 21 code violations.

“They don’t live here, they don’t have to live next door to it. They don’t have to worry about their kids getting in there, they don’t have to worry about the copper getting pulled out, they don’t have to worry about the crime.”

Behrens offered a solution to the cycle of neighborhood destruction and disappearance that follows foreclosures.

If banks were willing to write down the principal on underwater mortgages, Ohio homeowners on average would save $284 a month, she said.  “It would represent a stimulus of 1.6 billion dollars for the Ohio economy, and if that money was put back into the state and local economy, it could create $24,000 new jobs.”

After Behrens spoke, OTH organizer Vanessa Sparks listed their three demands: Impose a six-month moratorium on foreclosures.  Grant common pleas judges the ability to modify mortgages to the home’s current appraised value.  And increase foreclosure filing fees, using the money raised for housing counseling and foreclosure prevention.

Standing in tall grass next to a massive uprooted tree stump, with a river of water rushing in front of the next home on the march, Over-the-Rhine Pastor Jackie Jackson roused support for a local ordinance that would enact the third demand.

Pushed by Fight for a Fair Economy, Jackson said the ordinance would charge banks between $500 and $3500 per day in bonds, to cover the costs of neglected homes.

“So what we need is people to send letters to your City Council members saying that you want this foreclosure ordinance passed, holding accountable all the different banks.”

Near the end of the march, organizer Mildred Bush, a UC student, raised his Jackson’s call to action a notch, with a powerful, rising, demand: “You must choose, if you do not, then by default your vote in your silence and lack of action goes to the oppressor.”