Sunday, August 21, 2011

Community Stands Strong to Block Eviction

Community Stands Strong to Block an Eviction


By Natasha Lennard

New York Times

August 19, 2011


From inside Mary Lee Ward's small and sparsely

furnished living room in Bedford-Stuyvesant, it sounded

Friday as if a block party was in full swing in the

street below. Cars and trucks honked their horns

melodically as they passed and almost 200 voices could

be heard cheering and chanting.


But this was no street party; it was not yet 9 a.m. and

the crowd outside was there as a line of defense.


Ms. Ward - a tiny, soft-spoken 82-year-old - faced

forcible eviction by a marshal on Friday morning

because of a subprime mortgage she bought in 1995. And

so neighbors, friends, housing advocates and supporters

had formed a thick human wall outside Ms. Ward's small

gray house on Tompkins Avenue in Brooklyn.


Shortly after 9:30, the local state assemblywoman,

Annette Robinson, emerged from the house with news.


"The marshal will not be taking action today," Ms.

Robinson said over a bullhorn as Ms. Ward stood by her

side. Ms. Robinson vowed to negotiate with the deed

holder to keep Ms. Ward in her home.


Friday's deadline followed three years of work by a

nonprofit legal group, Common Law, and Ms. Robinson,

among others.


"If I'm evicted today, that's it for anybody who's a

senior citizen," Ms. Ward, who has been in the house

since 1967, said earlier in the morning, sitting next

to a table in her living room covered with legal

documents. "It would show they can break up the

community and do anything to us."


Fifteen years ago, Ms. Ward says, she needed money for

a lawyer to help her keep her great-granddaughter from

being put up for adoption. Like many others in her

neighborhood, she turned to a subprime lender.


She signed a contract with Delta Funding, a company she

found advertised on a flier tucked in her mailbox. She

borrowed $82,000 against her house, but claims to have

received a loan of only $1,000. Ms. Ward still displays

a faded portrait of her great-granddaughter as a baby,

even though she was unable to prevent the adoption and

has long lost contact.


In 1999, the state was about to sue Delta Funding when

the two sides reached a settlement over allegations of

predatory lending practices directed at elderly members

of minority groups throughout Queens and Brooklyn. The

next year, federal agencies sued and nearly

simultaneously settled with Delta over similar issues.


Officials from Common Law say the lender sent a letter

to Ms. Ward in 2001 informing her that they were

canceling her loan, but in fact, it never was canceled.

Rather, the mortgage has been passed from financial

institution to financial institution for 10 years,

during which time Ms. Ward has been in and out of court

facing eviction over the loan, Common Law says.


Last year, a real estate speculation company, 768 Dean

Inc., bought Ms. Ward's loan at auction. The company

arranged for a marshal to remove Ms. Ward from her

property on Friday, Common Law says, a move that

galvanized local support for her. By 7 a.m.,

demonstrators stood outside her doorstep, brandishing

banners that read "We stand with Ms. Ward" and "Defend

the block."


"We have the people power to push the landlord to

negotiate with us," said Karen Gargamelli, a lawyer

with Common Law. "Our demands are that the eviction be

stopped and that the landlord give the deed back either

directly to Ms. Ward or to the Bed-Stuy community in a

land trust for affordable housing."


Common Law has also asked the state attorney general to

investigate why Ms. Ward's purportedly rescinded

mortgage has continued to haunt her for over a decade.


768 Dean Inc. does not have a listed phone number.

Voice messages left at the workplace of its principal

owner, Shammeem A. Chowdhury, and with Mr. Chowdhury's

lawyer were not immediately returned.


Ms. Ward is not the first recipient of this brand of

foreclosure defense. Take Back the Land, a housing

activist group founded in Miami, has blockaded houses

in Rochester in recent months to delay or prevent

evictions. Many of the protesters outside Ms. Ward's

house came in response to a call put out by a coalition

of housing advocacy groups, Organizing for Occupation.


A tearful Ms. Ward spoke briefly to those who had

gathered on her behalf. "You have to stick with it when

you know you're right," she said. "We're not slaves

anymore. My grandfather was a slave, but I'm not."


2011 The New York Times Company


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