October 24, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 43

News

Fighting foreclosure

by: Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction, an organization that grew out of Occupy Seattle, is protesting big banks by helping families

Photo by: Katia Roberts , Contributing Photographer

Photo by: Katia Roberts , Contributing Photographer

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Sue Lubin moved in to the one-story ranch-style home with her husband Bob and young daughter in 1980. For more than 30 years, the little yellow house in West Seattle with green shutters and a bright red door was home to the Lubin family. At first, they rented it, and in 1989, the owner sold it to the couple for $89,000.

Bob worked as an engineer for Boeing while Sue took care of the children, running Brownie meetings and hosting haunted houses in their home, a popular hangout for other neighborhood kids.

The house also offered financial security. In the 1990s, Bob needed a liver transplant, so the couple refinanced their house to pay the $83,000 they owed in medical bills.

In 2011, Bob started having heart trouble and had to quit his job. Family members helped the Lubins keep up on their mortgage payments, but eventually the couple had to put the payments on credit cards.

In November, 2011, Bob passed away. Lubin was making $1,200 a month at Rite Aid in Westwood Village, not enough to cover the $1,800 mortgage payment.

She stopped opening letters from the banks and ignored the warnings of foreclosure posted on her garage door.

These days, Lubin is still clearly grieving her husband and then there is the house. Just thinking of it brings her to tears.

Now in foreclosure, it will go up for auction Oct. 26. Lubin, a 58-year-old cashier and union shop steward, feels powerless.

“I have no trouble fighting for other people,” she said of her role as a union leader, “but I don’t think I can do anything for myself.”

Health problems have kept her out of work four times this year, and she’s worried about money.

The one bright spot is that Lubin is not alone. As part of its ongoing protest of big banks, Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction (SAFE), an organization that grew out of Occupy Seattle, is helping Lubin stay in her home.


Growing problem

Lubin’s situation is increasingly common in Washington. Over the past year, more than 15,000 foreclosures have occurred in the state. According to the RealtyTrac, 80,000 households in Washington are 90 days late on mortgage payments, the third highest rate in the country. Divorce, unemployment, illness and death are common among those facing foreclosure, said Joshua Farris, founder of SAFE.

To help, SAFE took on a model developed in the late 1990s by City Life, a nonprofit in Boston that works on economic justice.

The group found that by helping families fight off foreclosure, they could simultaneously fight the banks and investors that profit from foreclosures and evictions.

It’s a three-pronged approach: legal assistance for home owners to meet with banks and lenders to negotiate their mortgage; protests at auctions and evictions to stop the banks from kicking people out; and deals with banks so that homeowners or nonprofits can buy the houses at a reduced rates.

As for protests, SAFE volunteers have been speaking out at foreclosure auctions, starting in August with an action at Routh Crabtree Olsen in Bellevue, a legal firm that handles about half of the foreclosure sales in Washington, Farris said.


State takes action

Activists aren’t the only ones trying to help those in danger of foreclosure. Earlier this year, the Washington Department of Commerce rolled out the Foreclosure Fairness Program, which connects homeowners with mediators to negotiate with the banks.

State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Normandy Park, introduced legislation that created the program. Since it kicked off this summer, the program has referred 2,200 people to mediators and helped 1,000 people receive legal help. About a third of those in mediation were able to reach an agreement with the banks, most of which allow the families to stay in their homes.

“It’s certainly not a silver bullet, but this is incredibly significant,” Bruce Neas, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services, said of the program.

Farris and others at SAFE say they are glad to have the law in place, but it still only helps a fraction of those facing foreclosure.

About 1,000 people involved in the Foreclosure Fairness Program are still in their homes. That’s only about 6 percent of the total number of people in foreclosure.


Personal and political

Like the Foreclosure Fairness Program, SAFE’s actions slow the foreclosure process. The delay costs the banks money, which encourages them to negotiate with the original homeowners. While this helps individuals, it also serves a broader purpose.

“We’re not a charity,” Farris said. “What we’re trying to build is a movement.”

Helping stall as many foreclosures as possible is SAFE’s way of forcing banks to change how they operate. The group wants banks to prioritize keeping people in their homes.

The work is political, but it’s also personal. Six SAFE volunteers showed up at Lubin’s home in August to put a tarp on her leaking roof.

“I can’t tell you what it was like to open my door and see six people there to fix my roof,” she said with her cheeks red from crying.


Hope for the future

Touched by others’ concern for them, clients of SAFE sometimes become activists. That’s what happened with Luisa Telefoni, who lives in a house in south Seattle with more than 20 other family members. She turned to SAFE to help stop the auction of her home in August.

When Telefoni got divorced five years ago, she learned that her ex-husband had taken out an extra mortgage on the house. She owed $324,000 for a home worth $171,000.

She transferred ownership of the house to her son, Jorge Bartos.

Bartos makes $2,900 a month as a mechanic at Boeing, and every penny is garnished due to his bankruptcy, he said.

Telefoni is negotiating with the banks to keep her home. She wants the bank to rent her the home until she can make the mortgage payments again.

But in the meantime, she’s at every SAFE protest and meeting. While other SAFE volunteers installed the tarp on the West Seattle home, Telefoni sat with Lubin and listened to her story.

Telefoni’s son is looking forward to a time when the ordeal will be behind them. At 26, Bartos has delayed going back to school, getting his degree and starting his own business.

The foreclosed home is holding him back; it’s “the only thing I’ve been thinking about for the last five years,” he said.

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