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Take Back the Land: Miami Grassroots Group Moves Struggling Families into Vacant Homes

StoryDecember 19, 2008
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The Miami grassroots group Take Back the Land has launched a campaign to help some of the victims of the foreclosure crisis. The group has been helping homeless families illegally move into vacant homes that have been foreclosed. We speak to Take Back the Land founder Max Rameau. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Earlier this week, President-elect Barack Obama nominated Shaun Donovan to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. One of Donovan’s main challenges will be dealing with the foreclosure crisis. An estimated 2.5 million homes have been foreclosed this year. One of the hardest-hit states has been Florida. Over 40,000 homes have been foreclosed in Miami-Dade County alone.

One grassroots group in Miami called Take Back the Land has launched a campaign to help some of the victims of the foreclosure crisis. The group, led by activist Max Rameau, has been helping homeless families illegally move into vacant homes that have been foreclosed. Two years ago, Rameau helped build the Umoja Village Shantytown that housed hundreds of homeless men and women. He is the author of the book Take Back the Land: Land Gentrification and the Umoja Village Shantytown.

AMY GOODMAN: Max Rameau joins us now from Miami. We welcome you to Democracy Now! Max, tell us exactly what you’re doing right now to deal with the foreclosure crisis.

MAX RAMEAU: Well, there are a lot of vacant homes in Miami, and so this is creating all kinds of problems in our community. But the worst thing is that there’s all these vacant homes while there are people literally across the street sometimes sleeping in parks and in empty lots. So, Take Back the Land is identifying vacant government-owned and foreclosed homes. We’re going into them, we’re cleaning them up, and we’re moving homeless families into those homes so that they have a place to stay.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Max, back in the 1970s, there was a similar problem with a lot of federally owned houses after the big FHA mortgage crisis. And there were squatters’ movements around the country. What’s been the reaction of local officials to this movement that you’ve started?

MAX RAMEAU: Well, we haven’t had a whole lot of reaction. Up until last week, there was really no reaction at all. And, of course, people were aware of what we were doing when we started this in October of 2007. We did so very openly and very publicly, and we had a big feature in the local newspaper about it, so that it wasn’t like we were keeping this secret or anything, and our activities were very well known.

However, last weekend, one of the homes that we moved a family in, this family identified themselves publicly and has done media and did not conceal their identity at all. The police chief of the city of Miami did send over two officers last week to check on the house and to look around in order to advance his own investigation of what was happening, and we had to respond to questions about what was going on.

But I will say that I think the crisis is at such a level right now that I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of public appetite for the police doing a widespread crackdown on this kind of thing, given the fact that there are a whole lot of people who need homes, there’s a whole lot of empty homes, and there’s a whole lot of money that’s being shoveled over to the banks. So the banks have all this money, and they don’t even have to give up the homes. They get both the money and the homes. So I think that the police are being used as a tool for the banks so that the banks can keep these places vacant and cash in on them a little bit later. I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of public sympathy for that position.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response overall? The press? The authorities? And how many people have you found homes for?

MAX RAMEAU: Well, the authorities, we haven’t had much response from at all, except for that one incident last week, which, you know, didn’t amount to anything but a fact-finding mission.

The general public has been very responsive to it. Obviously, we go and we talk to the neighbors before we move people into these homes, because we’re not only trying to improve the lives of these individuals, we also want to improve our communities, the communities that, you know, I live in and that we live in. So we feel that having the neighbors a part of the process is a very important part of this campaign. And the general public, I think, supports it, because they recognize that there is a real crisis here, and these houses are not doing anything good.

I think what’s happening is we’re having a — approaching a real clash between two rights, or at least perceived rights. One is the right of human beings to have housing, and the other is the right of corporations to make a profit. And there’s a clash going on between these two rights, or perceived rights, and the society is starting to work out which one it thinks is the most important right. And we are asserting that the right of human beings to housing supersedes the right of corporations to make a profit. And I think people are starting to come to that same conclusion.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the impact on Miami-Dade of this phenomenal increase in foreclosures?

MAX RAMEAU: Well, obviously, there’s a lot of people who are hurting. There’s a lot of families who are being forced out and becoming homeless or being forced to move in with other relatives. And so, what’s happening is you have a two-bedroom house that has a family, you know, couple and the child, and then suddenly a brother or sister or another child and their children move into the place. There’s a lot of overcrowding going on. There’s a lot of deterioration of property, because there’s too many people living there. There’s a lot of people in really, really desperate situations. And getting a financial break of a month, two months, six months, eight months, however the time will be, where they don’t have to pay rent and they can save up money, I think is a big help.

But this crisis is absolutely devastating, and I think it’s compounded by the fact that government on every level — the federal, state and local — has not only failed to do anything to alleviate the crisis, they’ve actually played a very active role in exacerbating the crisis. And I think people understand that and are very upset by that. So this has really been devastating for a lot, a lot of people.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting to see this model being used in other places. In Cleveland, advocates are working with the city to allow homeless people to legally move into and repair empty dilapidated houses. In Atlanta, some property owners pay homeless people to live in abandoned homes as a security measure. I’m looking at an AP piece. Talk about Marie Nadine Pierre, the woman who was sleeping in a shelter with her child, and the house you moved her into. And we only have about a minute to go. Describe that situation.

MAX RAMEAU: Well, first of all, a lot of those things are happening here also in Miami, where homeless people — we have several people who are in these homes, you know, somewhat protecting them, I guess, from squatters, by being allowed to move there. Of course, their status there is still very shaky.

With the shelter system here, once you’re in the homeless assistance center in Miami for thirty days, the shelter kicks you out for thirty more days. So, in other words, you go in there for thirty days, they kick you out, and they say, “You can come back again after you spend thirty days on the street, if you have nowhere else to go.” And that is exactly what happened to Marie Nadine Pierre. She got kicked out, and she contacted us right before she did. And so, the day she got kicked out, she was moved into a place where she was able to stay herself. So she would have spent thirty more days on the street, with her and her children. And luckily, she was able to avoid doing that. Now she’s staying in a home that otherwise would have been completely and totally vacant and not doing [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: And that house, you know the house well?

MAX RAMEAU: Yes, I do know the house well. In fact, my friends rented the house out, and the landlord, of course, you know, took out one of these bogus mortgages, where they, you know, winked at the mortgage broker and the mortgage broker winked right back. And he said, “You know, I’m willing to take this mortgage that I know I can’t afford, if the bank is willing to give me the money.” And, of course, the bank was more than willing to give them the money.

And so, I’ve been to that house many times visiting friends, and each one of the residents of that house have volunteered at one point or another for Take Back the Land. And they were very happy to make that place available for a family, rather than stay empty so that a bank can cash in. Lehman Brothers, in fact, owns the house, the Lehman Brothers corporation, so we’ve been very happy a family got to use it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, Max Rameau. The Lehman Brothers corporation that, well, supposedly doesn’t quite exist anymore. Max Rameau, Miami-based activist and organizer of Take Back the Land.

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