News Hits wasn't sure what to expect Saturday when we dropped in on a national conference being held by the folks from the group Moratorium Now!, a Detroit group fighting home foreclosures and utility shutoffs.
Would this, we wondered, be an exercise in preaching to the choir?
And there was indeed some of that. The Rev. Ed Rowe, pastor at downtown Detroit's Central United Methodist Church where the event was being held, lit into religious organizations of all stripes — Christian, Jewish, Muslim — for failing to rise to the fore of a movement seeking to address the plight of people Rowe said should be a focus of any congregation: those among us who have been "kicked to the curb."
More than preaching, though, we heard members of the anti-foreclosure choir from around the country looking for ways to share pages from their various hymnals and harmonize sometimes-disparate efforts.
More than 120 people attended the event. Along with activists from cities across Michigan, people representing groups from a half-dozen other places around the country, from North Carolina and Maryland to Wisconsin, were also in attendance. Occupiers from Los Angeles and Chicago were there alongside a couple from rural Oregon.
Although Michigan — especially metro Detroit — has been hit harder than many other parts of the country, the crisis is a national one. As The New York Times recently reported, "All told, roughly 4 million families lost their homes to foreclosure between the beginning of 2007 and early 2012."
A number of experts are predicting a new surge in foreclosures this year and next, after a slowdown last year, as banks, the federal government and state attorneys general tried to get a handle on fraudulent "robo signings" on the part of lenders.
The overarching message — or at least one of them — was this: The only way to truly address the ongoing foreclosure crisis is to form a national mass movement that will force the courts, politicians and banks to make the kinds of drastic changes that are needed to keep millions of families from losing their homes.
Here in Detroit, we've seen a few handfuls of instances where public pressure has forced the banks to stop evictions and work out deals designed to keep people in their homes. But for every such victory, tens of thousands of homeowners are finding themselves kicked to the curb that the Rev. Rowe talked about.
Detroit attorney Vanessa Fluker provided the equivalent of a fire-and-brimstone sermon aimed at those delusional enough to believe that this is a problem that will take care of itself, with units of government and the courts protecting the interests of struggling homeowners.
"We always wait for someone else to do something," Fluker said. "We always wait for someone else to lead."
Although the individual victories have been heartening, going from "lawn to lawn" in an attempt to halt individual homeowners from being evicted is far too limited a strategy, Fluker said.
People need to be fighting this battle "in the streets, making our presence known," she said, but such public protest has to be directed at something larger than individual foreclosures.
Moratorium Now! member David Sole told us that the event served as "a step forward in trying to pull together people around the country fighting foreclosures."
Although local activists have been in contact with others nationwide for the past few years, "This is the first effort to try and coordinate the work" different groups are undertaking, Sole said. "In addition to the direct actions people are taking in various cities and towns, there is strong support for a national moratorium," he added.
U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke promised that there would soon be national legislation for people from around the country to get behind. Talking to the gathering, Clarke, a Detroit Democrat, held a copy of a bill calling for a nationwide moratorium on foreclosures he said he will introduce within the next few weeks.
For that bill to have any hope whatsoever, Sole said, there must be a massive outpouring of public support. Clarke said as much Saturday, noting the intense lobbying and campaign contributions used by the banks and other aspects of the financial services sector to influence lawmakers.
As Clarke and others pointed out, this isn't an issue affecting just those who have lost their homes, or are at risk. There's no clearer example than Detroit of how this crisis affects everyone in the form of lowered housing values and declining property tax revenues.
Among those from other areas speaking at the conference was Matt Ward, a member of Occupy Los Angeles. He reported that activists there are, among other things, disrupting public auctions of foreclosed homes in an attempt to throw a monkey wrench into the process.
Nancie Koerber and her husband Mark Thomas came from Oregon, where they have launched a nonprofit dedicated to helping others fend off eviction after their home was foreclosed on more than three years ago. Koerber said that a career in the real estate industry helped provide her with the tools needed to tie up the banks. That knowledge is shared in an e-book available on the website of their organization, Project Reconomy.
That group has found success getting legislation passed in Oregon that makes foreclosure more difficult there, she said. What impressed her about Detroit, she said, was the degree of community activism on display, and the push to have a moratorium instituted.
"You are the leaders in the nation on that piece," she said.