December 4, 2011 OccupyDC engaged in a non-violent direct action to build a semi-permanent structure at the McPherson Square park. The small wooden pentagon-shaped structure used passive solar heating, was built “to code”, and was not attached to the ground. In addition to being practical, the action was highly symbolic and sent a very clear message. In the OccupyDC official press release I said the following:
“In a culture and city with chronic homelessness and foreclosures, this structure is a symbol of what people working together under principles of mutual aid can accomplish with limited time and resources. The police response demonstrates that our system is not committed to building up–they’re only concerned with tearing down.”
The clear message from my perspective is that the building points out the inherent inequality of the capitalist system we live in: Our System Doesn’t Know How to Build Things, Only How to Tear Them Down. The federal and local government sent in SWAT teams, mounted officers, federal park police, and DC police to tear down the “People’s Pentagon” under the guise that it was “unsafe”. Not only is that claim untrue, but the bridges in this country have failing grades and our unsafe (remember Minnesota’s 35W bridge?), yet the government isn’t doing anything about them.
Now, I am a firm believer in this direct-action. First, the building had a practical purpose. We used our space to provide warmth and safety to people who sleep outdoors, some of whom are houseless D.C. residents looking for shelter. Second, this building is juxtaposed against a system that makes little to no effort to provide affordable housing with reasonable accommodations. The “People’s Pentagon” demonstrates that if we labor under the principle of mutual aid, and not profit-seeking, we can actually get things done.
Providing and protecting housing for people is not a government priority.
Take public affordable housing, according to the Washington Post people wait in long lines overnight for a chance to be on the 100-spot waiting list for one D.C.-area complex. The complex only has about 10 open units per-year, and the city-wide waiting list is 20,000 requests long. However, the story here isn’t that people need affordable housing; it’s that the government is wasting or losing the money set-aside for such projects. Again, from the Washington Post:
“Affordable housing construction projects around the country have stalled or never been built, and hundreds of millions of government dollars set aside for them have been lost or sit idle”
“The District lost a third of its low-cost rental units from 2000 to 2007, at the height of the housing boom, according to a 2010 study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Many dwellings that have been built since are for upper-income brackets. Meanwhile, rents continue to increase.”
In addition to inefficiency in low-cost housing provision, the government was not interested in structuring the bailout to help the people stay in the homes they were already paying for. According to Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, the most equitable solution would have been to tackle housing debt directly; unfortunately “the politics on housing are hideous”.
It’s hard to get through a debt-driven crisis without doing anything about, well, debt. In our crisis, the “debt” in question is housing debt. Home prices have fallen almost 33 percent since the beginning of the crisis. All together, the nation’s housing stock is worth $8 trillion less than it was in 2006. And we’re not done. Morgan Stanley estimates there are more than 2.2 million homes sitting vacant, and 7.5 million more facing foreclosure. It is housing debt that has weakened the banks, and mortgage debt that is keeping consumers from spending.
In late 2008, when the economy was cratering, Holtz-Eakin convinced McCain that the way out of a housing crisis was to tackle housing debt directly. “What we proposed at the time was to buy up the troubled mortgages, pay them off and let people refinance at the lower rates,” he recalls. “That would have filled up the negative equity and healed bank balance sheets.”
To this day, Holtz-Eakin thinks the proposal made sense. There was one problem. “No one liked that plan,” he says. “In fact, they hated it. The politics on housing are hideous.”
The programs that did emerge under the stimulus were largely underfunded and ineffective. Again, Ezra Klein reports:
“The Home Affordable Modification Program, which proposed to pay mortgage servicers to renegotiate with financially stressed homeowners, couldn’t persuade the servicers to play ball and so has left most of its $75 billion unspent. The Home Affordable Refinance Program was projected to help 5 million underwater homeowners. It has reached fewer than 1 million.”
Despite the government being comprised of public funds, it is not an effecient or equitable contributor to housing works that benefit the public, particularly people who struggle to afford housing. Perhaps the private sector, as many of my conservative friends recommend, is a better distributor.
The private sector cares even less than the government does about providing housing.
Banks engaged in predatory lending to the detriment of low-income people (so-called sub-prime loans). The private lending system was structured to incentivize the bankers to loan to poor and brown people at high-rates. A New York Times interview with a former Chase Banker reveals the biased and predatory nature of the loan process.
“He says that some account executives earned a commission seven times higher from subprime loans, rather than prime mortgages. So they looked for less savvy borrowers — those with less education, without previous mortgage experience, or without fluent English — and nudged them toward subprime loans.
These less savvy borrowers were disproportionately blacks and Latinos, he said, and they ended up paying a higher rate so that they were more likely to lose their homes. Senior executives seemed aware of this racial mismatch, he recalled, and frantically tried to cover it up.”
This meant that even if a person qualified for a prime loan, the bankers would push a sub-prime loan onto the borrower, particularly if the person were brown.
The private banks have also been involved in wide-spread foreclosure fraud. CNBC provides a good summary of the basic mechanics of one such fraud scheme. One firm that engaged in foreclosure fraud is JP Morgan chase (who received over 25 billion dollars in bailout money).
San Francisco Gate reports:
“Chase is one of the major banks that announced a suspension of its foreclosure efforts in the fall of 2010 amid revelations of industry-wide mortgage document fraud according to media reports at the time. In the rush to process hundreds of thousands of foreclosures, Chase allegedly employed people to supply the necessary signatures for the documents that allowed the foreclosures to go forward. This practice, common among the major banks, came to be known as “robo-signing” and has been the target of lawsuits ever since.”
The private sector is more interested in exploiting people’s housing needs for profit, not actually providing housing for people.
The Power of Direct-Action
Returning to my original quote, I highlighted that the movement’s principles enable us to build what the private sector and government will not: works for the public good. Look back at the Free Franklin direct-action of November 19, 2011. The Franklin School had been a homeless shelter from 2002-2008, at which point the city closed it down with the intention to renovate it for luxury hotels. The space remains vacant since 2008.
A group of activists occupied the Franklin School, a homeless shelter about two blocks away from OccupyDC claiming: “If this city won’t give us access to our public property, then maybe it’s time we take it.”
This powerful direct-action reveals the collusion between the government and the private sector to profit from our most basic need: shelter. As the courageous people in the Free Franklin action demonstrated, perhaps it is time that we begin to provide for our housing needs outside of the rules of the government or private sector.
The “People’s Pentagon” demonstrates that if we just shift our values to the principle of mutual aid, and not profit-seeking, we can actually get things done. We don’t need to ask permission, we must take responsibility and get things done.