The house at 4044 Cedar Ave. in Minneapolis has seen a lot of activity lately. Dozens of Occupy Homes Minnesota activists have camped out in it. Police have smashed through its front door with a battering ram. Just this morning, cops reportedly used a chainsaw to get some protestors down from the roof. Apparently the protestors had locked their arms together with a device made out of PVC pipe.
The protestors were there to draw attention to the plight of the Cruz family, who lost the title to the house last year owing to what they say was a glitch in an online banking system. The original lender, PNC Bank, foreclosed on them after they failed to make several payments, and a few months later Freddie Mac bought the home in sheriff's sale. In February a company representative told the family they had 48 hours to give up the home. At the family's invitation, a rotating group of about 50 activists showed up with sleeping bags, and for the past month the group has intermittently hunkered down at the house and squared off with cops in an attempt to pressure the lenders to work out a payment plan with the family. All in all, 26 protestors have been arrested.
The campaign has made national headlines and captured the attention of activists around the country, especially within the Occupy movement. In the past few days, it seems to have gathered steam. Nick Espinosa, an activist with the Occupy Homes movement who helped organize the protests, pointed to an online petition that gained more than 40,000 signatures. "It's blown up nationally," he said.
Thursday afternoon, after two members of the Cruz family and several supporters met with PNC representatives at the bank's headquarters in Pittsburgh, the bank stuck a pin in the activists' ballooning hopes. Alejandra Cruz, a 26-year-old student who lives in the home with her brother and parents, recounted the exchange a couple hours later. "They said they did as much as they could," she said.
The encounter marked the culmination of a road trip that started in Minneapolis and included a stop in Chicago, where Alejandra, her brother, and several supporters tried vainly to meet with representatives of Freddie Mac. As the travelers made their way across the Midwest by van, activists fired off press releases tracking their progress and hyping their case in social media. "I feel bad that we've put in all this work, but I'm not giving up," Alejandra said.
The family has said the trouble began when PNC's online banking system failed to deduct a payment from their account. When they went back online the next month, they discovered that were now two months in the hole. Although all four members of the family had jobs, the $3,200 debt was too much for them. Over the following months, as they tried to get help, the bills kept piling up.
Anthony Newby, an organizer with a Minneapolis nonprofit group called Neighborhood Organizing For Change, accompanied Alejandra Cruz and her brother on the road trip. After showing up at the PNC office, he said, they were cordially welcomed by executives. Things went downhill from there. "We quickly realized that the narrative was going to be, 'You did everything wrong, we did everything right,'" Newby said.
"They tried to say that the family was responsible for not making payments -- the usual PR," Newby continued. "They were making false claims about the family missing payments, and they couldn't verify any of that. They did acknowledge that they tried to call Freddie Mac and work out a solution." This puzzled him, he said. Didn't they claim to have done everything right? In any case, "Freddie Mac told them they were unwilling to work with the family or with the bank."
Fred Solomon, a spokeman for PNC, said the bank's representatives offered to release the family's payment history "for public inspection, but they refused. " He also pointed out that the home is now owned by Freddie Mac.
A spokewoman for Freddie Mac did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
So far, the Occupy Homes Minnesota movement has claimed several victories. Last week, Nick Espinosa's mother, Colleen McKee Espinosa, joined the ranks of victors. Less than 24 hours before her house was due to hit the auction block in a sheriff's sale, Citibank told her it would be willing to work out a loan modification agreement.
Espinosa said she hopes Freddie Mac and PNC Bank will eventually follow Citibank's example. After remarking that police have sealed off the windows and the doors of the Cruz home with reinforced steel, he said, "If there's a way to get in on, there's a way to get it off."