Thursday, December 18, 2008

Citing solidarity, evicted S. Africans refuse new homes

Boston-Bay State Banner
December 18, 2008

After months of often violent protests, five families belonging to the Symphony Way Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC) received keys earlier this month to their new houses in Delft 7-9, a recently constructed residential development on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Accompanied by an entourage of 80 campaign members sporting red T-shirts bearing the slogan “No Land! No House! No Vote!”, the families found their way through a maze of nearly identical and unnumbered one- and two-story buildings.

After several false starts and wrong turns, the crowd soon found each family’s home. With wide smiles and shouts of excitement, each family christened their new home with water and a silent prayer.

“I’m glad that I received a house for the sake of my children,” said Ethel Abbels. “I’ve been on the waiting list for 17 years. I pray that everybody will get a house very soon.”

Roughly 10 months ago, these families were among thousands who illegally occupied unfinished houses belonging to a government-run N2 Gateway housing project in another part of Delft, a township on the edge of Cape Town. Alleging that they had been given permission to occupy the homes by their local councilor, these families also claimed that their actions reflected their desperate need for housing.

Like Abbels, nearly all the families that occupied the new project’s homes had been on the city of Cape Town’s waiting list for housing, many for more than a decade. While they waited, many rented makeshift shacks in the backyards of residents’ properties.

After two months of protests, court cases and mass meetings, Cape Town’s High Court authorized the eviction of the roughly 1,600 unlawful occupants of the N2 Gateway homes. Beginning at dawn on Feb. 19, police and private security moved from door to door, removing each family.

The scene quickly turned violent, as police began shooting into the gathering crowd of residents, pursuing them as they ran for cover and leaving 20 people wounded. Television cameras and news photographers captured the confrontation, with images reminiscent of the battles between police and anti-apartheid activists.

With their belongings confiscated by a police eviction team, residents were left on the sidewalk along Symphony Way, a main thoroughfare. Rather than dispersing, residents constructed housing for themselves and continued to demand that the city meet their housing needs. Protestors even blocked the road to emphasize their demands.

After a particularly cold and wet winter and a prolonged negotiations process, the first group of Symphony Way residents was able to get their keys. Part of the South African government’s “Breaking New Ground” housing policy, each low-income house was built using a government subsidy provided to each qualifying family.

While acknowledging the happiness of the moment, the recipients of the new houses remained critical of the government’s failure to provide homes for all 127 families still living on Symphony Way. Some have even, in a show of solidarity, refused to accept their new houses, citing the agreement they made after their mass eviction to move into their new homes as a community.

“I am very happy, as I have finally received a house,” said Alfred Arnolds. “But on the other hand, for all the time I am waiting, I am not going to stay in this house until everyone on Symphony Way [receives] their houses. This is how I feel due to the mandate we undertook to move together.”

Jolene Ardense isn’t moving in yet, either.

“The reason why I’m not moving into the house is because of the mandate that we took in the beginning of our struggle that everyone will move together,” she said.

The official statement of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Cape Town-based social movement that has helped to organize the residents of Symphony Way and other squatter camps, echoed these concerns.

“Despite this small victory, each of the five families remain unsatisfied,” the statement reads. “They want their own house, but they do not want their own house if all their brothers and sisters on Symphony Way do not get their own houses as well.

“… As a result, each family has decided that they will not abandon their community on Symphony Way,” the statement continues. “Instead, they have undertaken to hang their keys up in the community office and make a commitment to not leave Symphony Way until every single family on the road is allocated a house.”

Organizers say the sense of solidarity grew out of personal relationships and various community programs developed in the wake of the mass evictions. Residents have had to rely on each other for essentials like building materials, child care and firewood.

While they wait for homes, Symphony Way residents continue to face police harassment. Five officers from the Delft police station last Wednesday threatened a local community organizer and assaulted two visiting Americans, then returned an hour later to arrest a Symphony Way resident for swearing at a police officer and malicious destruction to property.

These assaults fit a pattern of police abuse following the initial mass evictions. Since Feb. 19 of this year, there have been more than 10 such incidents, including the pepper-spraying of this reporter on June 29, 2008.

Chicago workers claim victory in factory occupation

Boston-Bay State Banner
December 18, 2008

CHICAGO — Laid-off workers at recently shuttered Republic Windows and Doors ended their six-day factory occupation late last Wednesday night, claiming victory in negotiations with their employers and its bank creditors.

Some 250 members of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) unanimously accepted a tentative agreement with the owners of the abruptly-closed factory that they said addressed workers’ demands.

Following the vote, the workers and their supporters streamed out of the factory, chanting “We did it” and “Yes we can” in both English and Spanish.

The settlement proved that “you can do anything when you have the support of every one of your co-workers,” said Local President Armando Robles. “This is not a victory just for us. It is a victory for every worker in the country.”

Totaling $1.75 million, the agreement will provide ousted workers with eight weeks of wages owed to them by the company under the 1988 Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, as well as pay for unused vacation time and two months of continued health coverage.

UE Director of Operations Bob Kingsley described the historic settlement as “a win for all working men and women who face uncertainty, unfairness and job loss in a troubled economy.”

The workers’ actions within the factory on this city’s Near North Side, which for years had assembled high-quality sliding doors and vinyl windows, attracted national attention last week.

The occupation began on Friday, Dec. 5. Union members unanimously voted to stage a sit-in at the workplace after Republic’s owners had provided only three days’ notice that the factory would be closing and the company would be financially unable to meet its severance obligations to all those laid off.

The following day, over 200 Chicago-area labor activists and religious leaders attended a spirited rally outside the Republic factory. With placards reading “You got bailed out, We got sold out” and “Don’t Steal Christmas,” speakers expressed frustration not only with their employer, but also the company’s primary creditor, Bank of America, arguing that the bank’s refusal to extend Republic a line of credit had caused the company to suddenly close the factory.

The protestors were particularly chafed that the bank would take such a position after receiving $25 billion from the U.S. Department of the Treasury as part of the federal bank bailout.

After the rally, several workers spoke candidly about not only their frustration and surprise at their employer, but also their fears about how to make ends meet as they face the prospect of being jobless.

“This is such a surprise,” said Lalo Munez, an employee with 34 years’ experience on the factory line. “It’s like they just want to throw us away and get new people with low salaries and no benefits.”

Not going to happen, said Silvia Mazon, a mother of two and a screen worker with 17 years of line experience.

“We are here and we are not going anywhere,” said Mazon. “We are fighting to get what we deserve, what is fair and what is ours … Hopefully we will inspire others to fight so that they don’t get stepped on.”

In the days that followed, the Republic occupiers received an outpouring of support from across the city with donations of money and food. Members of various labor federations mobilized support, viewing the occupation as a tangible expression of the anger that many working people have felt in response to the federal bailout and job losses.

Republic workers also received high-profile support from a number of local politicians and activists. On Sunday, Dec. 7, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH delivered a truckload of food for the workers.

“These workers are to this struggle perhaps what Rosa Parks was to social justice 50 years ago,” Jackson said. “This, in many ways, is the beginning of a larger movement for mass action to resist economic violence.

“We’re going to have a self-induced depression because we are trying to change our economy from the top down,” Jackson added. “It must be changed from the bottom up.”

Later that day, President-elect Barack Obama addressed the Republic dispute during a press conference.

“The workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned, I think they’re absolutely right and understand that what’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy,” Obama said. “I think that these workers, if they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments.”

By the fourth day of the occupation, more elected politicians offered support. Chicago aldermen moved to suspend the city’s business with Bank of America to pressure the company. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich ordered state agencies to stop doing business with the bank until it used some of its federal bailout money to keep the factory open.

“We hope that this kind of leverage and pressure will encourage the Bank of America to do the right thing for this business,” said Blagojevich, one day prior to his arrest on federal corruption charges. “Take some of that federal tax money that they’ve received and invest it by providing the necessary credit to this company so these workers can keep their jobs.”

Activists continued to target Bank of America, picketing outside bank offices in Chicago and in other cities across the country. Though they were in negotiations with the company, UE organizers also called for a rally outside of Bank of America headquarters in Chicago’s Financial District.

Shouting a “victory for one is a victory for all,” more than 500 people from various religious groups, labor organizations and immigrant rights organizations wrapped around the Bank of America building.

“If we stop fighting, business as usual will continue,” shouted the Rev. Gregory Livingston, national field director of Operation PUSH. “But we will not stop fighting and we will prevail. The Republic workers will get Christmas, the Republic workers will get what is owed to them.”

Republic employee Raul Flores thanked all those who came out in support of the workers’ efforts.

“If it wasn’t for you, none of this could have happened,” exclaimed Flores. “It’s not just for Republic workers, it’s for all of us. We are the country; we are the ones who deserve the money. We are united. We are America.”

After the agreement was reached, UE’s Kingsley also announced the creation of a new effort to reopen the Republic factory. Building on the flood of donations to the union local’s solidarity fund and seed money from the UE national union, officials announced the creation of the Window of Opportunity Fund, dedicated to reopening the plant.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Western Mass. organizers hit D.C. grassroots forum

Boston-Bay State Banner
December 11, 2008

More than 80 members of the Springfield, Mass.-based Alliance to Develop Power (ADP) traveled to Washington, D.C., last Thursday to take part in a forum that brought community leaders from across the country together with Beltway insiders.

“Realizing the Promise: A Forum on Community, Faith and Democracy” gave the crowd — consisting of about 2,000 grassroots leaders and community members, as well as senior advisors to President-elect Barack Obama and a number of congressman — the opportunity to sit down and discuss issues facing the nation, as well as practical solutions.

“It’s very important that everyday people be heard during the transition period and the first 100 days, so that the president can begin to address their concerns from day one,” said ADP Executive Director Caroline Murray. “There’s much work to be done in easing the country’s problems; having the transition team’s ear is a good start.”

Among the president-elect’s advisors participating in the discussions were Valerie Jarrett, who was recently appointed senior advisor and assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison, and Melody Barnes, the incoming director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House.

“Realizing the Promise” was an extension of the Heartland Presidential Forum, held on Dec. 1, 2007, during which then-Sen. Obama pledged that grassroots leaders would help shape his agenda as president.

At the Heartland Presidential Forum, ADP leader Dedra Lewis and her daughter Alexsiana appeared on stage with Obama. Dedra Lewis talked about the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and pushed Obama to guarantee health care for all.

“A year ago, then-Sen. Obama promised he would have members of his transition team meet with grassroots leaders,” said Dedra Lewis, who also spoke at a Dec. 4 immigration reform rally with U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. “Well, he fulfilled that promise.”

Last week’s forum also built on the work begun at ADP’s Community Convention, held on Oct. 28, 2008, at which more than 500 community leaders met with Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., and other political leaders to call for an America that works for all citizens.

In addition to the meetings between grassroots leaders and political advisors, “Realizing the Promise” featured two roundtable discussions moderated by Juan Williams, a journalist, author and news analyst for National Public Radio. The discussions provided a setting for dialogue between community and faith leaders, members of Congress and representatives of the incoming Obama administration about a variety of issues facing Americans, including the flagging economy, rising unemployment, increasing health care costs, the immigration debate, environmental dangers and more.

Operating in three Western Massachusetts counties, ADP has worked to transform 1,450 units of deteriorated housing to tenant-owned permanently affordable co-ops, and created worker-controlled businesses and food cooperatives that distribute 200,000 pounds of food each year, among other community-based initiatives.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

‘American Blackout’ looks at the recent past and asks: Will all of our votes count?

Boston-Bay State Banner
October 9, 2008

As the presidential election draws closer and tens of millions prepare to go to the polls, some community and voting rights activists are concerned — not only about whether all citizens will be allowed to vote, but also whether all of their ballots will be counted.

To fully inform the public about protecting their right to vote, activists across the country have been organizing screenings of the documentary “American Blackout.” Greater Boston audiences will have two opportunities to see the award-winning documentary in the coming weeks — tomorrow night at the Democracy Center in Cambridge, and next Thursday, Oct. 16, at the Roxbury offices of Alternatives for Community & Environment.

Honored with a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, the film details numerous cases over the past eight years in which black voters have been disenfranchised.

The documentary opens with a flurry of footage from Florida in 2000, where officials ultimately called the contested presidential election for Republican nominee George W. Bush by a razor-thin margin of 537 votes. Rather than debate the well-worn territory of the subsequent vote recount, “American Blackout” zeroes in on the purging from the voting rolls of tens of thousands of Floridians suspected of being ex-felons.

Nearly all of the roughly 60,000 people removed from the state’s voter list had never committed a crime, but were prevented from casting a ballot on Election Day. Most were African Americans.

“Florida was an apartheid election, a Jim Crow election,” independent journalist Greg Palast says during the film. “That’s what happened.”

The film then shifts to Cynthia McKinney, then a Georgia Democrat in the House of Representatives, who became the only member of Congress to challenge the election’s certification. She called a hearing on racial disenfranchisement to investigate why the voter list provided to the Florida Board of Elections by data analysis company ChoicePoint/DBT was riddled with inaccuracies.

McKinney becomes the focal point of the film, as her outspoken criticism of the voter disenfranchisement — and later, the Bush administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — make her the target of a Republican effort to unseat her during the 2002 congressional midterm election.

Rather than removing voters from the election list, this effort funded the campaign of another black woman during the Democratic primary and turned out thousands of Republicans to vote against McKinney in her own party’s primary. Although legal in Georgia, many contend that the state’s open primary had been used to disenfranchise African Americans.

“It transformed Southern politics when black people started registering and voting,” says U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in the film. “So what happened in Florida and Georgia reminded me of the dark past.”

After losing her seat, McKinney would remain a harsh critic of the Bush administration, ultimately returning to the House in 2004, only to lose her seat in 2006 after another Republican crossover vote in the Democratic primary. Following her second defeat, McKinney committed herself to anti-war activism and is now the Green Party nominee for president in the upcoming November election.

Amee Chew, a community activist helping to organize the local screenings of “American Blackout,” said she was first drawn to the film through her interest in McKinney’s third-party campaign.

“When I first saw ‘American Blackout,’ it reminded me of documentaries about the voting rights struggles of the civil rights movement and made me think about what it means to roll back those gains,” said Chew.

“American Blackout” also calls attention to efforts — similar to those seen in Florida in 2000 — that prevented thousands of black voters in Ohio from casting ballots in 2004.

In cities like Columbus and Cincinnati, where record numbers of new voters had been registered, election officials took voting machines out of some urban precincts and moved them to the suburbs. With only a handful of voting machines in those city polling places, thousands waited in two- or three-hour-long lines. Others had their registration challenged by election officials and were only able to vote by provisional ballot.

Some fear a repeat of the occurrences in that crucial swing state in the 2004 presidential election in other swing states this time around.

Ohio and Florida have again purged tens of thousands of names from state voting lists by using methods that disproportionately impact African Americans. In Indiana, election officials will be guided by a controversial law passed in 2005 that requires voters to produce a driver’s license or a passport at the polls. Published reports out of Michigan have stated that Republican officials plan to challenge the eligibility of voters who have lost their homes to foreclosure.

“We are sold a lot of propaganda on what voting means, but there are a lot of shocking things about the way the electoral system gets used to rob us of what little influence we have,” said Chew.

In Massachusetts, Chew pointed to longtime incumbent Second Suffolk District state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson’s recent loss by just 213 votes to Sonia Chang-Diaz in the Sept. 16 Democratic primary election. Chew compared Wilkerson’s loss to the targeting of McKinney, specifically citing the change of several Second Suffolk voting locations the week before the primary took place.

“In both instances, there was voter disenfranchisement in a racist way, whether it was voters crossing over to vote in the Democratic primary or the way they switched all the polling places in the last minute,” she said. “In both instances, people with power find a way to beat the system, even against Democrats.”

“American Blackout” will be screened tomorrow, Oct. 10, at 6 p.m. at the Democracy Center, 45 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, and next Thursday, Oct. 16, at 5:30 p.m. at Alternatives for Community & Environment, 2181 Washington Street, Roxbury.

For more information, visit

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bolivia, Venezuela united on U.S. ambassador flap

Boston-Bay State Banner
September 25, 2008

Further escalating long-simmering tensions with the United States, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez officially expelled U.S. ambassador Patrick Duddy, declaring that he will not return an envoy to Washington until after the presidential elections in November.

“As soon as a new administration in Washington is sworn in, we will request approval to send and receive new ambassadors, with the hope and condition that they simply respect us,” Chávez said during a state ceremony earlier this month.

“We are not a threat to anyone on the planet or in this continent,” Chávez said. “We are open to cooperating with all of the peoples on earth, including the people of the United States.”

With his Sept. 11 decision to give Duddy just 72 hours to leave the country, Chávez expressed solidarity with Bolivian President Evo Morales, who ordered the top U.S. diplomat in his country to leave on Sept. 10. Both Chávez and Morales have accused the U.S. of backing opposition movements in their countries.

“Charges leveled against our fine ambassadors by the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela are false and the leaders of those countries know it,” responded U.S. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack. “The only overthrow we seek is that of poverty.”

One of the poorest countries in Latin America, Bolivia is in the midst of increasing political turmoil. Morales, elected in 2005 after years as the head of an indigenous peasant movement, has had to contend with increasingly violent protests from right-wing groups opposed to his efforts to establish a constitutional assembly to rewrite the Bolivian constitution.

Concentrated primarily in the resource-rich lowlands of Bolivia, these opposition groups have resisted efforts to redistribute land and revise the sharing of government revenue with the indigenous majority. Following the passage of a new constitution in 2007, opposition groups have pushed governors in six of the country’s nine provinces to seek autonomy from the central government and maintain greater control over natural resources.

Morales has denounced these efforts as an attempt to break up Bolivia. While Morales overwhelmingly won a presidential recall referendum in August 2008, right-wing protests have grown increasingly violent.

Martial law was recently declared in the province of Pando after Peruvian and Brazilian mercenaries hired by the local governor killed as many as 30 peasant supporters of Morales.

Prior to the expulsion, Morales had repeatedly accused U.S. ambassador Phillip Goldberg of working to destabilize Bolivia through his support of the lowland opposition movements and U.S. funding directed to anti-Morales activists.

“Without fear of the empire and before all of you and the people of Bolivia, I declare Goldberg, the U.S. ambassador, persona non grata,” announced Morales from the presidential palace.

On Sept. 15, eight South American presidents met in Chile for an emergency summit on the political crisis in Bolivia. They declared their opposition to efforts to break up Bolivia, and also pledged not to recognize any change in government resulting from a civilian coup.

The relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela had similarly deteriorated several years ago in the wake of a 2002 military coup against Chávez after he oversaw the writing of a new constitution during his first term in office. After popular protests quickly returned Chávez to power, he alleged that the U.S. military had assisted in briefly toppling his government.

After accessing hundreds of government documents through the Freedom of Information Act, independent researcher Eva Gollinger found what she described as “hard evidence of U.S. involvement in undermining the Chávez government and the Bolivarian Revolution.”

According to Gollinger, this involvement has come largely through strategic advice and a fourfold increase in funding to opposition groups in the years after Chávez’s election. While some of this funding has come through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other government organs, much of it has come through semi-private institutions.

“Those in the cabinet of the [2002] coup government received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy,” explained Gollinger. “Two weeks after the coup, the same people who executed the coup continued to get even more funding.

“Groups like the National Endowment for Democracy are all part of the privatization of democracy promotion, as they have used U.S. government money to continue feeding the conflict.”

As Chávez’s government has sought greater control over Venezuela’s oil revenues and put in place a host of education and health programs, the political conflict that came to head in 2002 has continued, marked by a 64-day strike by the nation’s oil executives, a 2004 presidential recall vote, and a 2007 constitutional referendum.

Chávez has consistently alleged that U.S. officials have been involved in efforts to destabilize the Venezuelan government. Earlier this month, Chávez announced the arrest of several people suspected of involvement in a plot to assassinate him and take over government buildings.

In response to the expulsion of Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., treasury officials also announced that three Venezuelan officials are being sanctioned for allegedly supporting drug trafficking and arms smuggling by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Colombian guerrilla group.

While the U.S. and Colombia consider the FARC a terrorist group, Venezuela, Brazil and other Latin American countries reject this classification and advocate direct peace negotiations.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

South Africans protest mass eviction order in court

Boston-Bay State Banner
September 11, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Dancing the toyi-toyi, stomping their feet and singing protest songs, more than 100 residents of the informal Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town and their supporters rallied outside of South Africa’s Constitutional Court last month in support of the community’s right to adequate housing.

Nearly all had traveled 28 hours by train to attend the hearing concerning the future of their community.

Inside the courtroom, their lawyers called upon the court’s nine judges to overturn a controversial eviction order that would have seen all residents of the settlement forcibly removed from the township of Langa, where many have been living for more than 15 years.

Issued by Cape Judge President John Hlophe five months ago, the court order declared all 6,000 families in Joe Slovo to be unlawful occupants of a valuable strip of city land and ordered the community’s relocation to make way for the completion of Phases 2 and 3 of the N2 Gateway, a pilot housing project.

At the heart of the Joe Slovo residents’ case was the widespread belief that if residents moved voluntarily, they had no guarantee that authorities would allow them to return to the still-limited number of houses now planned for construction.

Their skepticism stems from a similar situation in January 2005, after a shack fire burned down portions of Joe Slovo. Hundreds voluntarily relocated to Delft for what authorities promised was only a temporary period until the project’s first phase was completed.

But of 705 former residents, only one was given the opportunity to return to the new housing.

Residents also argued that housing developer Thubelisha Homes and government officials had failed to adequately include their input in the planning of the project or ensure that enough low-income housing would be built to accommodate all residents. After repeated requests failed to secure a meeting with top government officials, Joe Slovo residents made nationwide news by carrying out a daylong blockade of the vital N2 highway in September 2007.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Apartment dwellers also victimized by foreclosures

Boston-Bay State Banner
August 16, 2007

When Rafael Matos of Dorchester received an eviction notice on June 30, he was shocked and confused. In four years of living in his Brook Avenue apartment, he had not missed a rent payment. Moreover, he had not received any complaints from his landlord.

What he did not know was that his landlord had defaulted on the mortgage, and that Deutsche Bank had foreclosed on the property.

“I didn’t know they sold the house,” said Matos, explaining that all he received from the bank was a notice to vacate. A week later, they disconnected his electricity.

“I didn’t do anything,” he said. “I was innocent.”

Matos and 40 other tenants and community activists picketed last week outside Deutsche Bank’s One Beacon Street offices to call attention to the plight of tenants who are being evicted through mortgage foreclosure. City Councilors Chuck Turner, Charles Yancey, Felix Arroyo and Sam Yoon, as well as a representative from City Councilor Mike Ross’ office, joined the protestors, demanding to speak to bank officials.

“The foreclosures we see today are just the tip of the iceberg,” explained Turner. “We need to come together to create precedents. Deutsche Bank, take some of the pressure off of others who will be in the same situation, come forward and see that economic justice is done.”

In a statement released prior to last week’s picket, Deutsche Bank said it was not responsible for the evictions and that it was only a “trustee” whose responsibility is “largely an administrative one.”

Deutsche Bank could not be reached for further comment.

As the councilors tried to enter the building, security officials blocked the door and refused to let them inside Deutsche Bank’s offices. Over the phone, Ted Meyer, the bank’s media relations official, told the councilors that the local branch was not qualified to discuss the mortgage situation.

When Turner asked Meyer to have officials come to Boston to meet with tenants about their problems, he refused, though he did agree to have bank officials speak with tenants and housing rights advocates on a conference call.

“I’m going to tell them to stop the eviction because I don’t want to be another homeless person,” explained Matos, who is still in his apartment while challenging the eviction order in court. “They are millionaires. They don’t care about us. They don’t care about me, but I’m a hardworking man.”

While the nation’s housing crisis continues to attract attention, much of the discussion has focused on small homeowners stuck with unaffordable subprime loans — with very little consideration given to the situations faced by tenants like Matos.

“The number of foreclosure cases is startling,” said Maureen E. McDonagh, a lawyer and clinical instructor at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. “Just because the landlord defaulted on the mortgage, the consequence is for tenants who didn’t do anything wrong.

“The other problem is the bank takes over and doesn’t do anything about conditions, or the water gets shut off, or the electricity gets shut off,” she continued. “Tenants are just completely left in the dark.”

There is no law that requires landlords to notify tenants when their buildings have come under new ownership as a result of foreclosure.

Steve Meacham, a tenant organizer for City Life/Vida Urbana, said he was surprised to learn that more than half of the buildings facing foreclosure are owned by absentee landlords.

Closer investigation by Meacham revealed that Deutsche Bank has foreclosed on the mortgages of 115 houses in the last two years.

“That means that the foreclosing entity is evicting people en masse,” said Meacham. “The mortgage is held with someone else and sold to Deutsche Bank, and then they say they don’t have any responsibility.”

According to Meacham, residents of 116 Brook Avenue in Dorchester and 275 Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury received eviction notices after Deutsche Bank foreclosed on their building.

In both cases, Deutsche Bank raised rents by transferring utilities. Some eviction notices have told tenants they must leave the building by a certain date, even though, as McDonagh pointed out, “You don’t have to leave unless a judge tells you to leave.”

Other tenants have been offered money to move out by a certain date, with as much as $500 being offered in moving expenses from a company called Cash for Keys.

Following the protest, Meacham said that City Life will be working with tenants to demand that Deutsche Bank stop all evictions. Councilor Turner also called for Deutsche Bank to stop evicting its tenants and to work with local community development corporations to create affordable housing. Furthermore, he suggested that Deutsche Bank and other lending institutions review and renegotiate troubled loans.

Turner also pointed out the need for legislation at the state level that would review each foreclosure to ensure that the mortgage was prepared properly.

“This whole foreclosure situation is one where the community and elected officials need to come together,” said Turner. “We need to sit down with these financial institutions and try to resolve the situation so that low- and moderate-income folks are not further assaulted economically.”

While David Grossman of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau said his organization has been fighting to keep tenants from losing their homes because of building foreclosure, he admits that his group’s work amounts to “just a drop in the bucket.”

“The only way to deal with this is collective bargaining,” he said.

For his part, Matos urged others who might be facing eviction to seek legal help and assistance from tenant organizations.

“The big landlords, they don’t know you exist,” he said.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In South Africa, evicted residents struggle

Boston-Bay State Banner
July 10, 2008

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Tensions between police and residents of a shack settlement in Delft, a township on the far outskirts of this city, came to a head last Saturday, as officers with the South African Police Services pepper-sprayed four residents, beating one and taking him into custody following a nighttime operation.

Earlier that day, a speeding motorist struck an 8-year-old child outside of his neighbor’s shack on Symphony Way, a road that is officially closed but is regularly used as a shortcut to get from one end of the township to the other. The incident further stoked frustrations, as provincial officials had previously promised to ensure the road would be free from traffic.

“It’s not something we want to do, because we want people to see the conditions we are living in,” explained Francis Arnold as she wiped pepper spray from her eyes. “But we have to do this for the safety of our children.”

The protests underscore resistance to what some have called the persistent legacy of attempts to keep Cape Town’s impoverished black residents powerless under South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Efforts to keep Cape Town a white-only city under apartheid have left the city with an official backlog of 360,000 people in need of adequate, affordable housing. Yet current housing policies have not yet begun to meet public needs, even as the backlog continues to grow.

“Each year, this backlog increases by some 18,000 — but only 10,000 houses are built,” explained Martin Legassick, emeritus professor at the University of the Western Cape in an article published in February. “Each year, people on the waiting list have less of a chance of getting a house. No wonder they are desperate.”

During the week leading up to the confrontation, more than 200 families living in the settlement have been blocking the road outside of their homes with burning car tires in protest over precarious living conditions.

“They treat us like animals, but we are not animals,” said resident Matilda Groepe as she eyed a barricade of tree limbs and concrete blocks intended to slow oncoming cars. “We are not stupid, we know our rights.”

In addition to Symphony Way, the small wood and tin shacks also look out onto a 7-foot-tall barbed wire fence separating them from the unoccupied homes of a pilot housing project called the N2 Gateway. Six months ago, Symphony Way residents were among some 500 families and residents that had occupied these unfinished homes. Residents alleged that they had been given permission to occupy the homes by their local city councilor.

This illegal action, they claimed, reflected their desperate need for housing. Nearly all the families that occupied the new project’s homes had been on the city of Cape Town’s waiting list for housing, many for more than a decade, while renting makeshift shacks in the backyard of someone else’s property.

After two months of protests, court cases and mass meetings, Cape Town’s High Court authorized the eviction of the roughly 1,600 occupants of the N2 Gateway homes. Beginning at dawn on Feb. 19, police and private security moved from door to door, removing the residents. The scene soon turned violent, as police began shooting into the gathering crowd of residents and pursued them as they ran for cover. Twenty people were wounded in the melee. Police eviction teams also confiscated residents’ belongings, leaving the evicted on the sidewalk alongside Symphony Way.

Since then, residents have constructed housing for themselves, continuing to demand that the city meet their needs after years of patiently waiting. While the cold and wet winter has forced some families to take up the offer of relocation to an equally barren campsite, most residents have maintained their demand for proper housing. When contacted, Cape Town’s Department of Local Government and Housing provided no comment.

“As you can see, this government has no sympathy for us,” sighed Symphony Way resident Alfred Arnold following his release from police custody. “That is why we are living in these conditions.”

Lindiwe Sisulu, South Africa’s minister of housing, has described the N2 Gateway project as “the biggest housing project ever undertaken by any government.” The South African government has outsourced the construction of some 25,000 housing units to a private company, Thubelisha Homes, to manage the project. Although Delft is the primary site of the project, the bulk of the project is being built along the N2, a key highway in and out of this city.

Critics of the project claim that it has been carried out without proper public participation, providing a limited amount of housing that is unaffordable to the hundreds of thousands living in shacks and backyard dwellings. Rather than helping to solve the city’s housing crisis, they allege that it was designed to gentrify the edges of the highway, replacing the gut-wrenching sight of tin shacks with concrete housing in anticipation of the international spotlight of the World Cup, slated to come to South Africa in 2010.

“It’s a personal project,” said Ashraf Cassiem, an organizer from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, at a recent community meeting. “Millions have been overspent for it and Lindiwe Sisulu keeps putting money into it.”

A grassroots social movement, the Anti-Eviction Campaign has sought to bring together residents impacted by different aspects of N2 Gateway, including some 4,500 families of the informal Joe Slovo shack settlement who have been threatened with relocation to Delft to make way for further housing construction. Those affected also include occupants of roughly 700 apartments of Phase 1 of the N2 Gateway Housing Project, currently boycotting their monthly payments because of shoddy construction and high rent.

Representatives from these different communities have established a joint committee and are planning a mass march to Thubelisha Homes, the housing project’s construction company, at the end of July.