Foreclosures Fuel Political Activism

Groups are trying to stay one step ahead of the economic forces eroding their communities.

By Michelle Chen May 28, 2009

For groups that have long struggled against social inequities, the loss of homes in the foreclosure crisis poses a two-fold challenge as they face not only the economic devastation, but also the impact displacement has on a community’s political cohesion.

For the Black households who aspired to homeownership and middle-class pride, Wilhelmina Leigh, a research associate with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the impact could reverberate across generations. “It’s really putting a crimp in the growth of what might be a more robust middle class,” she said. “Here there were people trying to do well and move forward, and they get kicked in the teeth.”

George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, a Chicago-based network of community organizations, said that in working-class cities around the country, “we’re seeing serious abandonment, particularly in communities of color. It makes it hard to build strong community power when you have that level of displacement."

But many activists are working to stay one step ahead of the economic forces eroding their communities. In addition to protesting foreclosures, National People’s Action is pursuing a long-range “bank accountability and housing justice” agenda focused on tightening financial regulations and crafting equitable community development policies.

In more than a dozen cities, ACORN has launched “home staying” campaigns, encouraging homeowners to stay in their homes to protest foreclosures. Similar movements are gaining steam in Minnesota and Florida, where activists are seizing foreclosed properties to block evictions or turn houses over to homeless community members.

"We don’t invite people in just to get help,” said Austin King, director of ACORN’s Financial Justice Center. “We also invite them in to build power for their neighborhoods and join up with their neighbors, who are all being affected by these issues."

Some groups are reaching out to youth to inspire grassroots activism and to provide much-needed stability for uprooted young people.

Andre Love, 18, was holed up with his mother and sister in a Columbus YWCA shelter, feeling isolated and adrift, when he met organizers with the Youth Empowerment Program. The project, part of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, engages homeless and transitional youth in community education, civic participation and legislative advocacy efforts. Though Love had initially tried to keep his homelessness a secret from peers, he found a platform for self-expression as a public speaker and poet, eventually becoming a youth representative for his city.

Now, he said, “I tell everybody. I’m not ashamed of it now… I don’t [like] getting into all details, ’cause it reminds me of a darker time. So, I just say, ‘Yes, I used to be homeless, but my family overcame that together.’”

Michelle Chen is a freelance writer in New York and a blogger at