After a year and a half of on-the-ground anti-foreclosure organizing with homeowners publicly standing up and fighting the banks’ abuse, the Minnesota legislature passed the Homeowner Bill of Rights almost unanimously–61-1 in the Senate and 123-0 in the House. National analysts are calling this legislation the strongest Homeowner Bill of Rights in the country. This victory shows that the community pressure Occupy Homes MN has helped to build–from grassroots organizing to the hearing rooms at the Capitol–can force legislatures to take steps toward holding Wall Street accountable. This legislation does not solve the housing crisis, but it does enforce basic protections against some of the banks’ worst practices.
The Homeowner Bill of Rights:
Requires mortgage servicers to offer loan modifications to all eligible homeowners
Puts a full stop to dual tracking, the process of foreclosing on someone while they are in the loan modification process
Allows homeowners to take their servicer to court to stop or reverse the foreclosure if the servicer fails to comply
Covers attorneys’ fees for prevailing homeowners, and
Allows a homeowner to submit a loan modification up to one week before the sheriff’s sale to halt the foreclosure (stronger than new federal regulations which will require 37 days)
Passing the Homeowner Bill of Rights required an enormous grassroots effort from Occupy Homes MN, Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, Jewish Community Action, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and ISAIAH. The struggle of Rose McGee, a Golden Valley homeowner fighting her wrongful foreclosure, became the inspiration for the bill. Powerful testimony from homeowners like Rose and Monique White helped pass the bill through its first two committees. But then Senator Jim Metzen, a DFL banker who chairs the commerce committee, refused to hear the bill until the bank lobby agreed to it, which they did not. After our homeowners occupied Metzen’s office, Metzen agreed to hear a different foreclosure bill that was pre-approved by bankers. However, when it came to the floor of the Senate, that bill was strengthened to include most of the components of the original Homeowner Bill of Rights, except mandatory mediation. The pressure we generated caused the banks to back down from opposing meaningful legislation.
Minnesota’s Homeowner Bill of Rights was modeled off similar legislation in California, which went into effect in January. Initial reports from California show a dramatic decrease in foreclosures since the bill took effect–foreclosure filings were down 51.4% in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the previous quarter, though filings are now starting to rise modestly.
“Now no one in the state of Minnesota will have to be dealt the unfair hand of dual tracking like I was,” said Rose McGee, who last week won a mortgage modification from Fannie Mae and CitiMortgage after a year-long battle. “I will be staying in my home, but nobody should have to fight this hard for something so simple. The Homeowner Bill of Rights is a small step towards making sure no one else has to go through such an arduous journey.”
While the Minnesota Homeowner Bill of Rights should rightfully be called a victory for the 99%, it is still too early to assess how much of an impact the new bill will have on the housing crisis. One important component of the original bill–mandatory mediation–was stricken after the bank lobby objected to it. Mandatory mediation has been supported by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and is modeled after Minnesota’s own Farmer-Lender Mediation Act which helped as many as 14,000 farmers save their land during the farm crisis in the 1980s.
The federal government has still not imposed significant new regulations on the banks after the economic collapse of 2008. Banks like Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase are still bundling mortgages and selling them to investors for a profit. After U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came under fire in March for his comments that the banks that crashed the economy were “too big to jail,” foreclosed homeowners and organizers from around the country converged at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. this week demanding the Obama administration show the banks consequences for their actions. Holder is now backpedaling from those comments, but has yet to prosecute any bankers.
2014 will mark the 80-year anniversary of a statewide moratorium on all foreclosures in the State of Minnesota. During the Great Depression, thousands of residents in communities across the state organized powerful movements and mass demonstrations which pressured the legislature to intervene in the foreclosure crisis and stop all foreclosures for two years. Occupy Homes MN is working to organize the first Eviction Free Zone in the country, creating an entire neighborhood standing up and resisting the abuses of the big banks and the injustices of the housing crisis. These on-the-ground organizing efforts combined with strategic political pressure will help Occupy Homes MN effect policy changes that will hold Wall Street and the big banks accountable to those most impacted by the economic crisis.
The Homeowner Bill of Rights is a small but important step in the struggle for housing justice. The bill is not a moratorium, and will not automatically stop all foreclosures, nor will it address the demand of principal reduction by forcing banks to re-write mortgages to today’s market value. But as we keep fighting, the Homeowner Bill of Rights could be the first chapter in the new story of communities organizing to address the gross economic inequality in our society.