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Home Defenders League Seeks to Create Constituency Out of Underwater Borrowers

One of the bigger problems in US politics is the relationship between money and power. Just as big a problem, in many ways, is the difficulty that comes with organizing traditionally marginalized groups. It’s hard to organize the jobless, for example, or the poor, because of their transient nature and focus on survival rather than politics.

But thanks to the collapse of the housing bubble, we now have a large constituency that is more definable and able to be mobilized. That would be the nearly 16 million American homeowners who are underwater, who owe more on their homes than what the homes are worth. We don’t have perfect statistics on who these people are, but we know in general terms the hard-hit housing areas in America, and housing prices for those areas. So it’s not as difficult as you’d think to identify and organize underwater borrowers into a constituency to push for policies that would benefit them (and the greater economy, I might add). It so happens that a very large number of these underwater homeowners are concentrated in states that will have a major bearing on the Presidential election – places like Nevada, Florida, Arizona, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania

Now, 17 local community organizations, along with some national groups, are giving this idea a try. Today, they launched the Home Defenders League with the explicit goal of organizing the 16 million underwater homeowners and demanding the political leadership for policies that would even the playing field between them and the banks. They want to build a national movement of underwater homeowners.

We have seen homeowners band together, through the Occupy Our Homes movement and several other foreclosure defense groups, to stop illegal foreclosures from taking place. The Home Defenders League scales up that process, and sets out a series of actions that they view as bright lines for supporting members of Congress and Presidential candidates.

The Home Defenders League claims to have 50,000 households already involved, based on their partnership with existing state-based groups. They plan to expand those numbers through ordinary grassroots organizing. On a conference call today, Rose Gudiel, a La Puente, California resident who has fought One West Bank’s attempted takeover of her home for years, said that she would be attending a phone bank today in Los Angeles to identify underwater homeowners. They will call voter lists in hard-hit areas and try to get people to join the Home Defenders League. Parallel actions will be happening in 22 states. This is part of a three-day launch effort which will involve phone banks, house parties and door-to-door canvassing. “We intend to hold our politicians and law enforcement officials accountable,” Gudiel said.

The group has taken out Facebook ads in swing states for additional mass outreach, which drive voters to post messages at the state-based Obama For America pages.

The policy goals of the Home Defenders League include resetting underwater mortgages to their current market value through principal reductions; opportunities for foreclosure victims to rent or buy back their homes at market rates; a moratorium on foreclosures; and justice for the bankers who fraudulently manipulated the mortgage market and crashed the economy.

In a short segment today on Marketplace, Home Defender Michael Levar summed up the idea behind the coalition:

We are not going to give our votes away for free. We expect to see something substantive occur in order to vote those people back in office.

The New Bottom Line and Campaign for a Fair Settlement are among the national groups behind this effort. In a statement today, The New Bottom Line’s Tracy Van Slyke said, “Almost 16 million homeowners — almost one-third of all borrowers — owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth. That’s 16 million votes that President Obama could win by showing leadership on the housing crisis. It’s time for the President to demonstrate his commitment to all of us and push Wall Street to reset mortgages to fair market value to stabilize the housing market and to jumpstart our economy.”

The Home Defenders League sees all efforts up to this point to provide relief to homeowners and hold banks accountable to be insufficient. Asked about the impact of the foreclosure fraud settlement on principal reduction, Cathy Busby, a Home Defender from Denver, Colorado, who has been attempting to get a loan modification from Wells Fargo for four years, replied, “I am very active in finding out what’s going on … I have not heard anything to date of Wells Fargo giving a single principal reduction.” She and the other Home Defenders see a need for this fight.

Ruby Brown, an underwater homeowner in Minneapolis, concurred. “Tell us what side you’re on, the people or the banks, and we’ll tell you whether we’ll vote for you.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen