An irate reader sent me this article last week, which, he asserted, showed evidence of "open criminal activity" that Chicago city officials were tacitly permitting. To make the long human-interest story short, non-profit groups allied with the Occupy Wall Street movement have been looking for abandoned homes that may or may not be in the process of a bank foreclosure and helping homeless people move in and treat the property as if they owned it.
The Occupy Wall Street movement turned its attention to the housing crisis last fall, and groups around the country have worked to keep people in their homes, place the needy in properties that are seemingly abandoned and rid neighborhoods of blight. The size of the movement isn't clear because most go unpublicized.
Mortgage servicers, reeling with hundreds of thousands of foreclosed homes, aren't necessarily giving in. But they have to tread carefully in their dealings with consumers and activists, lest they risk more national media attention and another black eye resulting from news accounts of bankers putting families out on the street, regardless of whether they have a legal right to the home.
The individual instance that Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Ellen Podmolik chose to focus upon demonstrates the public relations risk of trespassing, breaking and entering, and, depending what the squatters do once they're inside the home, committing what could arguably be considered burgary. In this case, it turned out the home was not owned by Bank of America, as the "facilitators" of this illegal occupation supposed, but by a homeowner who is trying to save his home from foreclosure.
And that is worrying to well-established groups like the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, which plans to significantly ramp up the visibility of its "live-ins" prior to May's NATO summit.
The anti-eviction campaign, which trains groups like Liberate the South Side in home takeovers and has participated in seven since June, calls the situation a public relations "nightmare."
A spokeswoman for Liberate calls it a "calculated risk."
In Texas, if you break into a person's home, the "calculated risk" you'd be taking would be of suffering consequences much more deadly than "a public relations nightmare." It would be more like "A Nightmare On Elm Street," only with a lot more double-ought buckshot flying around.
A spokesperson for the "liberators" believes that when it comes to law breaking, it's all relative.
She sees the work as a move toward economic justice and away from the neighborhood blight that has, she said, unfairly affected communities of color. "We don't feel like we're breaking the law compared to what (banks) are doing to everyday families."
I get emails from folks, including attorneys, who have consumed gallons of the Kool-Aide this relativist educational system has been pouring down their ethically-parched throats for decades. The argument generally takes the line that because banks do X, it's proper for homeowners to do X. If your personal code of conduct is based upon what what a bank does, you're doomed for eternity. "I'm not as bad as a bank" is setting the bar awfully low, whether your personal system is based on divine revelation, reason unaided by first principles, or what you had for breakfast this morning.
In this case, the occupiers notified the Chicago alderman who represents the neighborhood where the home is located in advance of the takeover. That paragon of probity wasn't available for comment, nor were any member of her staff. I can't imagine why.
The realtor for the property, who's working with the owner and the bank to try to sell the property, has urged the owner to call the cops and have the occupants "removed." The owner refused to do so, apparently out of compassion, but has finally gone to court to have the family evicted, because the bank has started foreclosure proceedings and thinks that offers of one-half the already depressed listing price (due to the presence of the squatters) isn't in the borrower's or the lender's best interests.
Legally, the issue of Smith's occupancy sends attorneys to their law books.
She isn't the legal occupant of the home, but it's a different situation than, say, a homeowner who returns home to find someone in their house and calls the police. In this case, community members know she's been there for some time. The owner would have to try to evict Smith under the state's Forcible Entry and Detainer Act, designed to protect tenants from quick, forcible evictions, said Mark Swartz, legal director of the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing.
"They're doing (the occupation ) in the light of day," Swartz said. "It's a very clever strategy."
It's also powerful advocacy, Swartz said, but added, "There's a great risk here. We need to be concerned about the people. We need to be concerned about the laws being followed. Organizers have a whole different toolbox than attorneys. I think these people believe they are advocating for a more humane way."
Timothy Hufman, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, isn't so sure a tenancy has been established, because it could boil down to a case of he said/she said between Dodd and Smith.
"If the owner says, 'I never told them they could stay there,' they're screwed," Hufman said.
As well they should be. I don't know why you'd have to "run to your law books" over this issue, unless you're using your Black's Law Dictionary to press cocoa leaves and you need a quick hit.
Also, I don't see the daylight occupation of a house in full view of the neighbors as being "clever" at all. We have criminals in North Texas who break into homes in broad daylight all the time, thinking they can make a quick in-and-out before the neighbors can react and call the cops and/or the cops can react and make it to the house. If someone is unexpectedly home, sunlight makes it easier to draw a true bead on the miscreants as you yell "Freeze!" in the nanosecond before you pull the trigger...repeatedly. In the land of The Castle Law and concealed carry, I'd suggest that strategy is something less than "clever."
On the other hand, Texas and Chicago might as well be on different planets, so perhaps open lawlessness plays a lot better in The Windy City than it would in The Big D. From everything I've read and heard, corruption runs wide and deep in Blogoland, so perhaps citizens of that region have become anesthetized to its occurrence. We've got a proud tradition of incidents of a similar nature in some parts of Texas, of course. It simply hasn't become so widespread or brazen.
At least, not yet.