On Wednesday, July 18, a district court judge signed an order evicting Jennifer Britt from her Detroit home, ending for now a complicated legal battle to save her house that began in 2006. On Thursday, July 19, protesters and supporters began a vigil to bar anyone from removing Britt, her family, or their possessions.
“We’re going to be there every day until Fannie Mae agrees to drop the eviction attempt and negotiate a fair deal,” says evict-defense activist Nancy Brigham.
So what’s it like to join a vigil during the long hours and days between rallies, press conferences, and the cameras they attract? ODFP photojournalist Terry Hall shares his experiences.
Week 3, Tues., Aug. 14
Everyone’s excited at news that today, Jennifer Britt finally received a mortgage-resolution offer from Fannie Mae. Attorney Bob Day brought the news. Day is one of the many activist lawyers working with groups like Moratorium NOW!, People Before Banks, and the Sugar Law Center.
The proposal: Jennifer would rent the home from Fannie Mae for 2 years. At the end of the two-year rental, she’d have to move out of her home, and Fannie Mae would sell it. Since Fannie Mae just made the offer, it’s too early to know whether Jennifer will consider it as presented.
It’s easy to see how Fannie Mae would benefit: it would avoid further negative attention of an unpopular eviction, establish Jennifer Britt as a renter rather than owner, and provide a caretaker (Jennifer) for the house. Hard to see how Fannie Mae could lose under those terms. When Jennifer makes her decision, the eviction-defense team will be ready to fully support it.
Week 3, Mon, Aug. 13
There’s a laid-back potluck dinner scheduled for tomorrow evening on Jennifer’s lawn, starting at 5pm. It’s for everyone who supports her and her cause, including those who stand vigil to protect her house.
Weekend, Aug. 11-12
As the vigil protecting Jennifer Britt’s house continues, it’s important to remember that foreclosure-eviction cases like hers often go on long after courts withdraw eviction orders and banks say they’ll (finally) try to work o.ut something homeowners can afford. The vigils may end, but supporters, activists and neighbors will come back if they need to.
This Thursday, Aug. 16, activist supporters of paraplegic Jerome Jackson plan to rally at the Inkster 22nd District Court, where a judge will hear his eviction case again. At a previous hearing in early June, the court gave Jerome a 60-day stay.
The bank, as usual, is Fannie Mae, which bought the mortgage; a second player, a dysfunctional Wayne County assistance agency, caused the mess to start with. During the two-month stay, negotiations fell apart, largely, according to anti-eviction coalition Moratorium NOW!, because the same county agency wouldn’t cooperate.
People in Jennifer Britt’s position, despite all the physical support, legal assistance, and media attention, don’t get solid deals for months or longer. How would you feel if someone were trying to legally force you out of your own house, to back a dumpster up to your door so they could hurriedly clear out your possessions? When would you feel secure and safe again?
These cases aren’t over until every possible document is signed and witnessed; every piece of state, county and city red tape is satisfied; and every imaginable loophole is closed. Only then could you walk in the door, plop on the couch, and sigh in relief. Am I right?
Day 16, Friday, Aug. 3
It’s been a long week. Thankfully, others are relieving us for the weekend. It’s quiet after the drama of the last few days. Talk moves to other current events. A caregiver who grows medical marijuana talks about related appeals court decisions. During the day, the Michigan Supreme Court rules that the question seeking appeal of Public Act 4, the state emergency-manager law, will appear on the November primary ballot, ending a long battle. Click here to see decision. Big news.
Next up: a controversial proposal for the state to take over management of Detroit’s Belle Isle. For decades, the city’s recreation department hasn’t had the money or workforce to keep up the island. The prized Detroit gem has great views of downtown Detroit on one side of the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario, on the other. The 982-acre island park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City. Belle Isle’s larger than Central Park; in fact, it’s the largest island city park in the nation. Many of its famous attractions were designed by globally recognized architects Albert Kahn, Eero Saarinen, and George Mason, who designed the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Some of the attractions have closed or are declining.
We don’t talk about the Britt family’s eviction today. We know we don’t know what will happen next. Instead of fear, I feel reassured that we’re here together to take whatever action becomes necessary. I can feel a shared sense of determination.
Day 15, Thursday, Aug. 2
For a while this morning, I’m the lone watch guard. The sleep deficit from standing vigil in the early morning, often at lunch, and in the evening after work, along with making entries here, is starting to get to me. I can hardly keep my eyes open, so I grab my camera, lean on the trunk, and watch the street.
I think only about the importance of saving another person’s house and of saving energy for winning this long struggle.
For the moment, my mind is free from frustrated anger over banks’ arbitrary foreclosure practices, their toxic responsibility for the devastation of the economy, and the bonuses they walked away with. I’m not thinking about Edward DeMarco’s decision not to let government-owned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide debt relief to people whose mortgages are underwater.
DeMarco, a Bush holdover and acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, told Congress today that loan forgiveness (aka principal reduction) doesn’t benefit taxpayers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and it doesn’t change borrower behavior enough. DeMarco’s decision is a refusal of an Obama administration request.
My mind is too tired for such heavy weights. The banks want us to believe that they are in control, but we choose to believe in ourselves instead.
Day 14, Wednesday, Aug. 1
One advantage of serving in the vigil is getting to know the people I see almost every day and others who join the watch as their schedules permit. Between the core people and the others, someone is always covering the vigil. Today we talked hopefully about an imminent deal.
Jennifer Britt sits with us, drinking in reassurance that she’s helping others as well as herself and her family. Few people are as brave as she is. Many suffer in silence and walk away from their homes. This eviction defense is both crisis intervention and an outreach to people who don’t know where to turn when their banks say “no.”
Day 13 , Tuesday, July 31
Early morning and noon are quiet. After work, I learn that Steve Babson of the People Before Banks coalition asked Jennifer Britt whether she thinks the vigil should continue or break for a few days to see kind of offer Fannie Mae comes up with.
Babson says he fears that the defense might dwindle because people are getting tired. All of us there agree that the vigil continues. We can’t risk the work we’ve invested here, let alone the work of people like attorney Joe McGuire and all the groups supporting Jennifer.
Day 12, Monday, July 30
Early morning: There’s a bigger crew, about 15 people. I catch up with Tristan Taylor from BAMN. He says U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow has told Fannie Mae representatives that Jennifer Britt isn’t moving out, that she’ll have to be dragged out publicly in front of the cameras — which would make Fannie Mae look bad and the eviction-defense movement look very good. Word is that the eviction remains on hold, but nothing official yet. The vigil continues.
Noon: A small crew from Swiss public television is here to shoot some footage of the eviction defense and vigil. The crew, from SRG SSR was already filming in Detroit, a subject of international fascination.
Evening: Last watch of the day, five people here. I talk to Jennifer, who agrees that while resolution may seem close, we haven’t reached the end. We stow the chairs in the garage for the night.
Days 10-11, weekend of July 28-29
Terry takes the weekend off, but a skeleton crew keeps watch.
Day 9, Friday, July 27
Early morning: Another skeleton crew preventing any attempts to evict 49-year-old Jennifer Britt, her 74-year-mother, 77-year-old uncle, and two children. The watchers don’t just walk the walk; they’re talking the talk. I join the others’ discussion on the economic and social theories of philosophers Karl Marx, Ptolemy, and Noam Chomsky; on the similarities and differences among capitalism, Marxism, communism and anarchy.
How would revolution work down-to-earth? How many chickens will I need to trade for a Nikon camera? After some chuckles, talk turns to the Vietnam War, the era’s protests against ROTC presence on school campuses, and the deep mental toll Vietnam vets suffered and suffer today.
Wow. One of us works at the same company (name withheld) as I do, and another used to. Small world.
Back to my “wage slave” gig. All’s quiet, but word is we’re gearing up for possible dumpster-truck attempts Monday and Tuesday unless Jennifer has a signed deal in hand. As long as Jennifer waits, we wait.
Day 8, Thursday, July 26
Early morning: It’s raining lightly. I join four men under the tent-canopy, chewing over tactics for moving forward with eviction defense; occasional, generational communications gaps within Detroit’s broad activist community. Good conversation. Getting here in the morning is worth it. No matter how worthless my work day might seem, I know I’m doing something very important. It keeps me going.
Noon: The subjects have switched to mortgage-principal reduction and debt forgiveness. The weather’s nice, the neighborhood’s quiet. The only real noise is from larger trucks passing a block up on Grand River. The discussion’s a good break from my daily routine.
up, including new people at the meeting. It looks like the word is getting out.
Day 7, Wednesday, July 25
Early morning: It’s quiet today, cool and sunny in Rosedale Park. There are seven of us here, chatting about Jennifer Britt’s case and eviction defense. I’ve heard the same thing at other eviction defenses: Jennifer’s fought hard for years, but if she’d known to get legal help earlier, it likely would have been much easier to stop the eviction. And how shame sometimes immobilizes and isolates people facing foreclosure or eviction, leaves them feeling powerless.
Just before I leave for work, we get a visit from some people in a local group they call Y.O.U.T.H. Inc. The group is based in an old bakery not far from the Britt House. It’s good to see more community involvement.
Noon: The few people in Jennifer’s yard are cleaning up, gathering trash and recyclables, putting the yard in order. It’s still quiet. We get some curious looks from passersby.
Evening: I walk into a surprise meeting. James Hunter, from the Sugar Law Center for economic and social justice, is giving a talk about today’s hearings in Lansing about Public Act 4, the emergency manager law. He was there. He tells us it looks good for getting a referendum on repealing the law on the November ballot; he expects a decision within a week. The justices were tough on the attorneys for both sides of the issue, Democracy Now (in favor) and Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility (against). It’s a good sign, he says. The justices will have solid legal basis to rule in favor of putting the question to a public vote. As a progressive, I’m cheered by Hunter’s impressions.
Day 6, Tuesday, July 24
6 a.m. Another hot, muggy morning. Two people are standing at each corner of the block as look-outs. Tense defenders turn their heads every time they hear the air brakes of a truck. I’m one of them. There’s no sign of the truck carrying the dumpster before I leave for work.
Noon. BAMN organizer Tristan Taylor and Occupy Detroit’s Joe McGuire, the attorney representing Jennifer Britt, tell me that Fannie Mae has apparently halted the eviction for two days while someone there reviews Jennifer’s mortgage and the long history of her case.
Steve Babson on vigil status. Video by Erik Shelley, Occupy Detroit
Joe’s still waiting for confirmation from the court that ordered the eviction or Fannie Mae lawyers. It looks like Fannie Mae is bending under pressure from Michigan’s representatives in Washington: Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, and 13th District Rep. Hansen Clarke, who was here yesterday.
Evening. I’m back after work. The mood’s upbeat. Everyone’s eating barbecued chicken and corn on the cob off the grill while listening to a one-man blues band. He’s playing everything: guitar, drums, harmonica. Until Jennifer Britt and Fannie Mae sign a solid deal, there’ll be people standing watch here.
I’ll be back in the morning.
Day 5, Monday, July 23
4:30 p.m.: It’s been a long, hot day. Everyone gathers in the shade on Jennifer’s front yard, working out plans for the morning and the expected arrival of the dumpster truck. They are ready.
3:22 p.m.: Steve Babson of People Before Banks just issued an urgent warning to expect a dumpster truck tomorrow. The warning urges every supporter, activist, and witness available to join the vigil and keep the dumpster away from Jennifer’s house.
Noon: Clarke expresses his support for Jennifer and his frustration with lack of housing-market oversight. “Foreclosures are devastating our neighborhoods.”
video by Erik Shelley, Occupy Detroit
6:00 a.m.: Today’s vigil starts under a cloudy sky. It’s hot and muggy. There’s a steady pulse of excitement and determination beneath the calm faces of the 40 or so people in front of the well-shaded house.
2:19 a.m.: Today Michigan U.S Rep. Hansen Clarke is scheduled to hold a press conference here at noon. He has proposed a law to halt mortgage foreclosures and evictions, make banks cut mortgage principal to a home’s real market value, and save neighborhoods like this one.
From the first day of the eviction-defense vigil, Terry Hall has joined Jennifer Britt’s defenders from 6-8 a.m. weekdays before going to his full-time day job. He returns daily, whenever he can, to participate, watch, and listen. These are some of his impressions and photos from that first morning. Starting on the fifth day, Monday, July 23, he began keeping a daily journal.
Day 1, Thursday, July 19
It’s very hot. People are taking turns going out into the bright sun to catch the attention of drivers on Grand River with signs protesting evictions from foreclosed homes. When they retreat to Jennifer Britt’s lawn for shade and water, they’re getting caught up in discussions. One is about what it means to win a case like Jennifer’s.
Does a homeowner win when a bank agrees to modify a mortgage by lowering payments but stretching out the length of the mortgage? Or when a bank lowers payments temporarily? Or is it only a real victory when an embarrassed banker agrees to sell a foreclosed home back to its owner at current market value?
Another subject getting a lot of interest: Who’s responsible for homes losing so much value? How did it happen?
Everyone’s watching out for the truck that could come at any time hauling a large dumpster. If the truck gets through the defense line blocking the street and drops the dumpster next to the Britt house, Jennifer and her family will have just 24 hours to clear out their belongings. After that, a work crew will toss out anything left behind.
Detroit police aren’t getting involved in enforcing evictions because they’re civil cases, not criminal. So far, so good.
Like other battles to stop foreclosures and evictions in Metro Detroit, the effort to save Jennifer Britt’s home is the work of a coalition of groups including People Before Banks, Moratorium NOW!, BAMN, and Occupy Detroit.