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Moving Into Miami's Foreclosed Homes

Andrew Stelzer

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An abandoned home in Miami
(Andrew Stelzer)
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New numbers on foreclosure rates came out this week, and Florida has risen to the number two spot. One in every 173 homes there is now in foreclosure, and that rate is not looking to get better in the near future. That adds up to a lot of empty houses in Miami, a place where there are a lot of homeless families as well. One local activist has decided to match the two together. Reporter Andrew Stelzer has our story.

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In early November, Marie Nadine Pierre and her 18-month-old daughter moved into a four-bedroom house on a tree-lined street in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood.

"I've never lived in a place like this before." says Pierre, as she shows off the house with the pride of a new home owner.

It's a 1400-square-foot home with a huge backyard. But there was no furniture to move in, and the rooms remain empty. That's because Pierre has been homeless on and off for several years, working all types of jobs to get by. Pierre and her daughter had no place to live last fall, when she heard about a local group called Take Back the Land, a project started by community organizer Max Rameau.

Rameau finds houses that are either owned by the government or a bank. Along with a few volunteers, he fixes them up, changes the locks, and moves families in. He calls it "liberating" homes.

"We have, all around our community, vacant homes with no one living in them; they're empty," says Rameau, who helped Pierre move into her house. "And we have homeless people living on the street. So we started to engage in the process of matching homeless people with people-less homes."

Driving down 15th Avenue in North Miami, Rameau points out one of the half- dozen homes his group has "liberated" in the past year. The house he points to is a few years old and owned by Miami-Dade county. As far as Rameau can tell, no one has ever legally lived on the property. Take Back the Land moved two families into the house, including the family who lives there currently.

Squatters occupying houses is nothing new - what makes Take Back the Land unique is that it's an organized effort. The squatting is done more or less out in the open. "We want them to come in and out of the front door," Rameau says. "As long as they make good neighbors, people are happy to have them in there. It's certainly better than having a vacant unit, or having a unit where people are going in and taking out copper wiring."

Rameau is aware of the laws that his group is breaking - trespassing and possibly even racketeering. But authorities only get involved if they are requested to interfere by the property owner. Although no legal action has been taken so far, Kelly Penton, a City of Miami spokesperson, says the city does not condone Take Back the Land's actions.

"It does not help people find a permanent solution for their situation, and it also presents concerns related to the safety of these individuals, and related to laws that are being broken," Penton says.

But Max Rameau says current laws may have to be broken to make a larger point. He hopes that the current financial and housing crisis will lead society to reevaluate its entire philosophy about private property.

"We are asserting that our right to housing supersedes someone else's right to profit," he says. "We have a greater right to vacant homes than a bank getting billions of dollars in government bailout money does."

The house occupied by Marie Nadine Pierre is owned by Aurora Loan Services, a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers, the now infamous holdings firm that went bankrupt and sparked the global economic collapse. Pierre stands in her new kitchen with her baby in her arms. She says she's extremely thankful to Take Back the Land. Her situation, she says, is far better than what her life was like before. Pierre had her own home foreclosed on in 2003, and her bad credit made it hard for her and her husband to rent an apartment.

"We had to constantly be begging people to rent a space, and then when we didn't have any more money to rent places, we began squatting," says Pierre. "It was just awful with kids. We had to sleep in our car in the park." She breaks into tears as she recalls some of the scariest times of her life.

Three of Pierre's children now live in the Bahamas with their father. She's determined to get them back now that she has a house. But it won't be easy. She's already come home here once to find the locks changed and her few belongings removed. But with the help of Take Back the Land, she moved right back in and hung Christmas decorations on the door.

Comments

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  • By Sam Smith

    From Miami, FL, 03/30/2009

    First off, I'd like to say that people have a right to live and survive. If people are forced to live on the streets and because of something as lame as "not having enough green paper", then this country has truely been handed over to its own destruction. People have always fought for their right to live, their right to survive, and nothing will ever stop that.

    All of you who think that the things being done here should stop, you need to take a moment to think about how long you have left. You may have a house that you've worked hard to pay for, and you may have nice cars that you "earned" with that fat bonus you got for christmas, but you are at just as much risk of losing your home as anyone else. Who knows which bank will go under next?! And when you are on the street, you'll be looking for any means you can to find a home.

    As for health care, this countries benefits suck, and they always have. In England, if you are born IN ENGLAND you automatically have health insurance until the day you die. What is wrong with this picture? "The Best Country In The World" as some say, and we can't even get health benefits without paying out the ass for it?!

    I say Take Back The Land, and if someone tries to push to stop you, push back! Keep this going until people start to listen! Taking someone's home away isn't benefitting anyone right now. Who can afford to buy a house right now anyways? The banks should be more apt to work deals with people BEFORE screwing them over for a handfull of green paper.

    By Victor Ramos

    From Port St Joe, FL, 02/14/2009

    Nowhere in the comments by readers or the article by Andrew Seltzer is 'responsibility' mentioned. We, as a country have forgotten that the two sided coin of rights has responsibility on the other side. Nowhere in the story does Mr. Seltzer investigate or just ask Marie Nadine Pierre how it came to pass how she landed in her situation. It does not seem possible that she and her husband have been 'responsible' parents. Why did Andrew Seltzer conveniently not complete his story if he is a true journalist and not one of the new hybrid 'journalactivist' that plauge our country. Had he performed his duties as a profesional journalist he should have asked the hard questions and found out why Marie Nadine Pierre's credit is in the gutter. I belive that if our country exercises two simple rules of a viable society we would not be in the fix we are in: hard work and responsibility.

    By Mike Hammond

    From Chicago, IL, 12/21/2008

    THe point is, we already own these houses. if they are "owned" by the government or the banks that our tax dollars have bailed out, then they are already ours. People forget that tax dollars are OUR dollars, not mystical money coming from the government. I say let's take our houses back, the more the better. They should require the banks to use some of that 700 million of our money to buy them furniture, too, and health care and food.

    By Aaron Harvey

    From Los Angeles, CA, 12/14/2008

    So, what about the people who lost their homes in the first place? Perhaps they got a bad loan and a house that shouldn't have been sold to them, or maybe they lost their job or even went bankrupt because of medical bills. Whatever the reason, they had the house legally at one time. If anyone should have the 'right' to the foreclosed house, shouldn't it be them? Maybe they're on the street watching someone move in for free right now.

    By Marc Naimark

    From Paris, YT, 12/14/2008

    Since this guy's invented a right to housing, I think I'm going to invent myself a right to sex. Is Max a hot dude?

    But then again... it turns out this IS a right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 60th anniversary was this last week, says:
    "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

    By Troy Davis

    From Seattle, WA, 12/13/2008

    I too am interested in stealing someone else's house. I'd prefer it be in Seattle. It should have at least 3 bedrooms and an Internet connection. An Xbox 360 with Xbox Live would be nice.

    Finally, I promise to act like I own the place, pretend that it hurts no one, and justify my new pad through nothing more than righteous indignation. When can I move in?

    By Eliza Blake

    From Greensboro, NC, 12/13/2008

    I heard about "Take Back the Land" on another NPR story earlier in the week, and played it for three high school sociology classes because we are studying "deviance" and will be studying stratification next. My classes are in three schools with very different demographics, and in each class, including at the more conservative schools, the students were able to weigh the risks as well as the benefits to this arrangement without either condemnation or unquestioning endorsement. They were all concerned with the corruption and bureaucratic ritualism that prevents Max and others from adequately addressing homelessness by "working within the system" as well as admiration for his willingness to be public and open about his organization's actions.

    By Greg Shultz

    From MN, 12/13/2008

    It bothers me that the term "human right" is being cheapened by inflation of the definition. It is being thrown around for things that need to be paid for like health care and now housing. Who is going to do the work in a society when so many people think they can get so much for free?

    By Gerald Fnord

    From New York, NY, 12/13/2008

    I expect that you'll get a few plaintive or loud missives about "property rights", so I'd like to point out that large-scale property rights are of the State---Ben Franklin said it better when I could when he called such property a "Creature" (creation) of society, and answerable to the needs of that society down 'to the last farthing'.

    I would further add that most of these properties are owned either by one part or another of the State, or by limited liability corporations, State creations designed to reduce individuals' responsibility for their actions. As such, if it means actual people aren't out in the rain, I won't let respect for the rights of such fictitious "persons" stop my cheering.

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