SEATTLE – The Occupy Wall Street protests are moving into the neighborhood. Finding it increasingly difficult to camp in public spaces, Occupy protesters across the country are reclaiming foreclosed homes and boarded-up properties, signaling a tactical shift for the movement against wealth inequality.
Groups in more than 25 cities held protests Tuesday on behalf of homeowners facing evictions.
In Atlanta, protesters held a boisterous rally at a county courthouse and used whistles and sirens to disrupt an auction of seized houses. In New York, they marched through a residential neighborhood in Brooklyn carrying signs that read "Foreclose on banks, not people." Southern California protesters rallied around a family of six that reclaimed the home they lost six months ago in foreclosure.
"It's pretty clear that the fight is against the banks, and the Occupy movement is about occupying spaces. So occupying a space that should belong to homeowners but belongs to the banks seems like the logical next step for the Occupy movement," said Jeff Ordower, one of the organizers of Occupy Homes.
The events reflect the protesters' lingering frustration over the housing crisis that has sent millions of homes into foreclosure after the burst of the housing bubble that helped cripple the country's economy. Nearly a quarter of all U.S. homeowners with mortgages are now underwater, representing nearly 11 million homes, according to CoreLogic, a real estate research firm.
Protesters say that banks and financial firms own abandoned foreclosed houses that could be housing people.
Seattle has become a leader in the anti-foreclosure movement as protesters took over a formerly boarded-up duplex last month. They painted the bare wood sidings with green, black and red paint, and strung up a banner that says "Occupy Everything - No Banks No Landlords."
While arrests have already been made in a couple of squatting cases in Seattle and Portland, it remains to be seen how authorities will react to this latest tactic.
In Portland, police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said he's aware that the movement called for people to occupy foreclosed homes, but said it's difficult to distinguish between the people who would squat in homes as a political statement and those that do it for shelter.
"The vacant property issue is of concern in cities nationwide," Simpson said. "We'll treat them all as trespassers."
In Seattle, protesters took over a boarded-up warehouse slated for demolition last weekend. In an announcement, the protesters said they planned to make the warehouse into a community center, and hosted a party the night they opened the building. Police moved in soon after, arresting 16 people in the process of clearing it out.
Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said his department sees squatting in private properties as the same violation of trespassing Occupy Seattle made when it camped in a downtown park.
"It's no different than when people were trespassing (in the park)," Whitcomb said. "We went nights and days, letting people camp in the park. We relied on education and outreach, rather than enforcing the law to the letter."
Atlanta protesters took a more aggressive approach in trying to disrupt the home auction. The auction went on but the whistles and sirens made it difficult for the auctioneers to communicate, said Occupy Atlanta spokesman Tim Franzen.
"We don't know how many homes we saved for one more month during the holiday season," he said. "It was kind of a Christmas gift to the people."
In Riverside, Calif., Art de los Santos arrived in a U-Haul with assorted furniture and about three dozen supporters at his former three-bedroom, three bathroom home. He broke the lock and moved back in.
Reclaiming his old home is his last resort to get the attention of bank JP Morgan Chase after he applied three times for a loan modification to no avail.
"I'm getting down to my last option," he said. "Nothing seems to work. Maybe if I protest, it'll get their attention."
The home, which was foreclosed on, is sitting empty while he, his wife and four children, aged 11 to 7, are squeezed into an Orange County rental apartment. He's also renting a storage unit.
"It's sad because you have all these memories there," said the 46-year-old. "My kids were running around the neighborhood on their bikes. It's a nice little community."
Tom Kelly, spokesman for JPMorganChase, had no immediate knowledge of de los Santos' case and could not comment, but noted that he is trespassing.
New York protesters introduced members of a homeless family at the end of their rally and said they plan renovate and clean up the house so the family can live in a house they said had been abandoned by a bank.
In Portland, a press conference was held at the home of a woman facing foreclosure next March. She vowed to stay in her house until authorities take her out.
"We belong here," said Deb Austin, who said she fell behind in payments after a cancer diagnosis and after her husband lost her second job. "And we're not leaving."
Associated Press writers Nigel Duara in Portland, Ore., Cristina Silva in Las Vegas, Leonard Pallats in Atlanta, Deepti Hajela in New York, and Christina Hoag in Los Angeles contributed to this report.