MLK Day 2013: Fight for Housing Justice Moves from the Streets to the Capitol

Segregation isn’t over, not even in the year 2013. On Monday, millions of Americans will gather to honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.s’ devotion to the cause of racial justice, which included tireless campaigns against segregated housing and sub-standard housing conditions for the poor. Almost 45 years after Dr. King’s assassination, activists find themselves in a new fight — one for economic and mortgage justice — that carries echoes of the fight against segregation. The home foreclosure crisis has eased in some parts of the country as the economy has begun to recover, but the brunt of the crisis still weighs heavily on working class African-American and Hispanic communities.

The fight to lighten that burden has reached Minnesota’s State Capitol, but it remains to be seen whether it may be too little, or too late to make a difference for homeowners like Rose McGee, who have been pushed to the brink, in danger of losing the dream of home ownership.

A coterie of activist groups, including Occupy Homes MN, Jewish Community Action and the Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition, are rallying behind McGee, a homeowner in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley, who is struggling to keep her home. Earlier this month, the activists took a cue from the 1960s Civil Rights movement and staged a day-long bus tour through the Twin Cities to raise awareness about McGee’s fight, with stops at the State Capitol and a synagogue as well as in North Minneapolis and Powderhorn Park — two neighborhoods heavily hit by the foreclosure crisis.

“Buses were a big part of the Civil Rights movement,” said Vic Rosenthal of Jewish Community Action. “Sometimes you have to get out in multiple parts of the community and send that message. Rose (McGee) is the best example of what happens when the system is broken.”

At the Shir Tikvah synagogue in Minneapolis, U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison was on hand to offer the bus tour support. “Now we have another kind of segregation,” said Ellison, who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus in Washington, D.C. “Between those who get to live safe and secure in their homes, and others who don’t. This foreclosure crisis is a Civil Rights issue.”

McGee fell behind on her mortgage payments during the economic recession and was foreclosed upon by CitiMortgage and Fannie Mae. She sought a mortgage “modification” after regaining employment but has received little help from the bank and lender. McGee is well known in her community, both for her work as an educator and for her sweet potato pies. Her husband was the late Billy McGee, former chief public defender for Hennepin County, who died in 2000.

“One day when I called to ask the status (of the loan modification), they told me ‘Your house has been sold’,” McGee recalls. “You’re kidding, right? You don’t really mean that? But they did mean that.”

At a press conference at the State Capitol this week, McGee quoted African-American poet Langston Hughes to explain why she didn’t back down: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun…Does it explode?”

McGee has become a figurehead for the local anti-foreclosure movement, in part because CitiMortgage used a controversial practice called “dual tracking” in dealing with McGee’s case: On the surface the bank was working toward modifying her mortgage, while simultaneously moving to foreclose on her home. “Dual tracking” has caught the attention of lawmakers in Saint Paul, and on January 16, three Democratic state representatives, Mike Freiberg, Karen Clark and Raymond Dehn introduced legislation that would outlaw dual tracking in Minnesota. Freiberg and Dehn are freshmen at the Capitol, and represent Golden Valley and North Minneapolis, respectively; Clark, a veteran lawmaker, has long advocated for homeowner rights. The legislation is modeled after a California “homeowners’ bill of rights,” which takes effect this month.

“When I went door knocking, I saw lots of vacant, foreclosed homes throughout my district,” said Rep. Freiberg. “The house next door to me in Golden Valley is a vacant, foreclosed home. So this is an issue that affects all of Minnesota, whether it’s urban, rural or suburban.”

Had such a measure been introduced and approved by the Legislature two years ago — closer to the depths of the foreclosure crisis — the law might have made things better for a far greater number of homeowners. But for the past two years, DFL lawmakers were in the minority while Republicans controlled both bodies of the Legislature. Clark held symbolic hearings last year in an attempt to put a spotlight on dual tracking, but the GOP was not in favor of limitations on the practice. With her party now in the majority, Clark hopes she might have the votes to pass the legislation this year.

“This puts a human face on the situation, so that legislative leaders can understand and hopefully move hearts and minds to do the right thing,” said Clark. “We’re going to take the housing committee that I chair this year on a tour of foreclosed properties. We still do need to win some hearts and minds, but I think (passing a bill) is definitely foreseeable.”

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Jacob Wheeler

In addition to shooting videos for The UpTake, Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at the progressive political magazine In These Times, publishes the Glen Arbor Sun in his native Michigan, and authored "Between Light and Shadow," a recent book about the Guatemalan adoption industry. Wheeler's stories have appeared in such magazines as the Utne Reader, Earth Island Journal, Rotarian and Teaching Tolerance magazine, and newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor. He speaks fluent Spanish, German and Danish.

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