Activists 'break up' with bank

Tenant activists took to the streets Saturday in front of the Bank of America's Fields Corner branch: The group was protesting the bank's evictions of tenants in foreclosed properties. Photo by Chris Lovett.Tenant activists took to the streets Saturday in front of the Bank of America's Fields Corner branch: The group was protesting the bank's evictions of tenants in foreclosed properties. Photo by Chris Lovett.

Federally-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recently ended evictions of rent-paying tenants in foreclosed properties in response to the current economic crisis. Corporate lenders like Bank of America have held out, however, prompting a coalition of activists to take the battle to the streets.

More than 50 protesters marched around the Bank of America's Fields Corner branch Saturday, demanding an end to post-foreclosure no-fault evictions. Others chose to cancel their accounts with the bank, a symbolic "break up" on Valentine's Day.

"I'm seeing house after house emptied out and Bank of America's response is, 'hey, it's just business,'" said Soledad Lawrence of Grove Hall, a member of the tenant activist organization City Life. "They've taken billions in bailout funds. They recently bought Merrill Lynch. This is ridiculous. And they don't do anything for the communities they're sucking on."

Currently, many rent-paying tenants face eviction when their landlords default on mortgage payments and enter foreclosure.

Lawrence said she's seen friends evicted this way. Tenants on her street were forced out a year ago and the house is still vacant.

"These banking priorities have to change," she said.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have ended all eviction proceedings on no-fault tenants and now allow them to continue paying rent. Bank of America and other large lenders have not followed suit.

"That's the big question," said James Brooks, a tenant organizer with City Life. "It makes more sense to keep people in their homes and accept rent than to leave the properties abandoned."

A Bank of America spokesperson did not respond by deadline to a request for comment.

"We don't want Bank of America to blaze new trails, but to walk down the well-trodden paths," said City Life's Steve Meacham. "The key issue is value. Will they admit they artificially inflated the value of real estate? Will they admit that the bubble has burst and take the loss? They should bear the price of it because they are the ones who inflated the price in the first place."

Other protestors drew attention to homeowner foreclosures. Dorchester's Melonie Griffiths lost her home a year ago. She bought it for $470,000 and couldn't keep up with payments. After foreclosure the property was appraised at $275,000 and eventually sold for $270,000.

"We have to let the banks know that we're people and they should negotiate with us," she said. "Why couldn't they have just renegotiated the loan? Why not save the money on foreclosure and work out deals to keep the community together?"

Also at the demonstration was Tina Hollis, a Hyde Park homeowner facing foreclosure. Hollis, a union construction worker, was recently laid off and has fallen behind on her mortgage with Chase Bank. She's trying to negotiate.

"It's very sad and depressing," she said. "They need to soften up and give a person a chance. Let's try to compromise."

Some help may be on the way. President Barack Obama intends to address the foreclosure crisis this week and announce a housing rescue plan.

In anticipation of Obama's plan, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and banks including Bank of America have suspended foreclosures for owner-occupied properties through March 6.

In addition, legislation sponsored by Rep. Liz Malia that would end no-fault tenant evictions is making its way through the State House.

But until change comes, the demonstrations will continue, according to Meacham. This was the third protest at the Fields Corner location. Other branches in Dudley Square, South Bay and Grove Hall have already been targeted. Weekly demonstrations at the Copley Square Bank of America will begin Feb. 26.

In addition to Saturday's protest, the Fields Corner Bank of America branch is currently dealing with fallout from an alleged check-kiting scheme. Michael David Scott, real estate agent Joan Ruggiero, branch manager Arthur Samuels, assistant manager Clarista Bramble and others are all implicated in a lawsuit charging a conspiracy to cash $1.5 million in bad checks at the branch.

The scheme was reported in a Boston Globe story from last week, though details about Michael Scott's local real estate dealings first began surfacing in the Reporter last summer.

Among others, the chant "Banks get bailed out, people get thrown out" caught the attention of the bank's customers Saturday. Even City Councillor Chuck Turner - recently charged with accepting a $1,000 bribe from a businessman 0 showed up and rallied the crowd through a megaphone.

"We've given the banks the opportunity to do the right thing," said Turner. "Have they done anything? No. The question is how we solve this problem and the answer is right here."

City Life offers education programs for tenants through its Bank Tenant Association (BTA). Those who reach the BTA in time are usually successful in remaining in their homes, said Brooks. The organization informs tenants of their rights and can help defend them in court.

"Force the bank to take you through the eviction process," said Brooks. "That's our biggest leverage. The longer it takes they'll see it's not worth their while. Too many people just move."