The entrance to the building was surrounded by a high wrought iron fence, reinforced by a dense lattice of chicken wire. Its porch was almost completely enclosed by high wooden panels painted an imposing dark gray. The home of Mary Lee Ward at 320 Tompkins Avenue, in the heart of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, looked more like a heavily-fortified bunker than the dwelling of a kindly 82-year-old great grandmother.
In a sense, that’s exactly what it was last Friday morning, when a New York City marshal was scheduled to evict Ms. Ward from the home that she has lived in for the last 44 years. She would have become the latest elderly, African-American victim of predatory lending if a crowd of about 200 people from around the city hadn’t shown up to stop the marshals from carrying out the eviction notice and putting her on the street.
Ms. Ward’s years-long battle with a subprime lender called Delta Funding is illustrative of the many ways in which real estate speculators have targeted, manipulated, and victimized countless homeowners, particularly the elderly and people of color, across the country in recent years. As the New York Times tells the story,
Fifteen years ago, Ms. Ward says, she needed money for a lawyer to help 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 she only ever received a payment of $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 since lost contact with her.
In 1999 and 2000, several state and federal agencies sued Delta Funding, accusing the company of predatory lending practices directed at elderly members of minority groups throughout Queens and Brooklyn. Those suits were settled with Delta denying wrongdoing. Lawyers from Common Law [a non-profit social justice legal organization that has been working with Ms. Ward - eds] say the lender sent a letter to Ms. Ward in 2001 informing her that they were canceling her loan, but the loan never was canceled. Instead, the mortgage passed from financial institution to financial institution over the last 10 years.
Unable to pay the growing debt, Ms. Ward was issued a judgment of foreclosure in 2008 and the property was put up for auction that July. The winning bidder, the real estate investment company 768 Dean Inc., has been trying to evict Ms. Ward ever since. It arranged, through a court order, for a city marshal to remove her from the residence on Friday, a move that galvanized support for Ms. Ward. By 7 a.m., demonstrators had gathered outside her doorstep, brandishing banners that read “We stand with Ms. Ward” and “Defend the block.”
Around 9:00 AM, the marshal arrived at Ms. Ward’s home, saw the size of the crowd, and informed her that the eviction order would not be carried out. With tears in her eyes and in a shaky voice, Ms. Ward emerged from inside her home to thank everyone who had come to defend her from eviction and to pledge her support for everyone else in the neighborhood threatened by predatory lending, setting off cheers and chants that lasted through the rest of the morning. Flanked by her lawyers and local politicians, Ms. Ward met later that day with representatives from 768 Dean, Inc. to begin negotiating a deal that would allow her to stay in her home, hopefully for the rest of her life. As of this writing a final deal has yet to be concluded, and Organizing for Occupation, the direct action group that organized the protest, has put out a call for neighbors and supporters to meet again at Ms. Ward’s home on Monday morning and march on 768 Dean, Inc.’s offices in Brooklyn.
Evictions in New York were down significantly last year from 2009, primarily because of a new state law that makes it easier for distressed homeowners to settle with their creditors. Still, marshals performed over 1300 evictions throughout the city, with many of them taking place in outer boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens. And it’s not surprising that this particular anti-eviction battle happened in Bedford-Stuyvesant (known to the locals as Bed-Stuy). The demographics of the protesters who formed a human blockade in front of her home reflected the rapid social and economic changes that have transformed the area from a poor and working-class, overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood into one of the focal points of gentrification in Brooklyn. For decades, Bed-Stuy was surpassed only by Harlem as a center of African-American life and culture in New York. But in recent years, gentrification has radiated from places like Williamsburg and Clinton Hill into Bed-Stuy, bringing an influx of young, white professionals and students (including this writer) attracted by the still affordable rents and the high quality of much of the housing stock – the neighborhood boasts some of the most attractive, historic brownstones in the entire city. In certain parts of the neighborhood twee cafés and luxury condo buildings for the kombucha-drinking set mix and mingle cheek by jowl with storefront churches and high-rise public housing complexes. As the numbers from the 2010 Census begin to roll out, they provide empirical evidence for the profound changes that are readily observable at street level. As the New York Times reports,
Overshadowed by Harlem’s racial metamorphosis since 2000, an even more striking evolution has occurred in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Over all, the neighborhood is now barely 60 percent black — down from 75 percent a decade ago. But in the older Bedford section west of Throop Avenue, according to the 2010 census, blacks have recently become a minority of the population for the first time in 50 years…
…In the past decade, the black population of Bedford dropped to 34,000 from 40,000, or to 49 percent from 69 percent. Meanwhile, the number of whites grew to more than 18,000, up from just over 2,000, or to 26 percent, up from 4 percent.
From 2000 to 2010, the white population soared 633 percent — the biggest percentage increase of any major racial or ethnic group in any New York City neighborhood. In Central Harlem, meanwhile, the number of whites rose 400 percent, increasing their share of the population to 10 percent, up from 2 percent.
The crowd amassed in front of Ms. Ward’s home, a coalition of African-Americans who have lived in the neighborhood for years and young whites new to Bed-Stuy, embodied these changes. Many of the newcomers also happen to be progressive and radical graduate students who heard about the action through a call put out over Facebook and the many overlapping networks of New York City activists. At times, I wasn’t sure whether I was at an anti-eviction protest or a CUNY Graduate Center seminar that just happened to be meeting on a sidewalk in Bed-Stuy at 8:00 AM on a hot Friday in August. One hopes that these two groups can overcome the tensions wrought by gentrification and coalesce into a force capable of fighting against its worst aspects – and perhaps they can form a key part of the social base of a broader movement for affordable housing and urban justice in New York. The successful action to defend Ms. Ward from eviction was an inspiring and hopeful start, a sign that people in the U.S. might finally be ready to grasp the nature of the historical moment and act on it.
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