Birthday eviction hearing for Minneapolis woman

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Rosemary Williams spent her sixtieth birthday inside a crowded courtroom April 22, where she began the legal process of fighting eviction from her foreclosed Minneapolis home.

UPDATE April 26, 2009 Rosemary Williams’ court date has been postponed until May 26. The Minneapolis resident’s supporters declared the date change a victory, as it will allow Williams to remain in her home for at least another month. “GMAC is really freaked out,” Linden Gawboy, organizer for the MN Coalition for a People’s Bailout, said. “It shows that we’re having an effect and they’re running scared.” GMAC Mortgage, Williams’ lender, could not be reached for immediate comment.

Dozens of local activists packed the Hennepin County Housing Court to support Williams’ legal challenge, vowing to engage in civil disobedience if the court rules in favor of eviction in an upcoming jury trial.

“This case is not just about me,” Williams said in a press conference before the hearing. “This is about our whole country. We’re here today to say the evictions have to stop.”

Williams has lived on the 3100 block of Clinton Ave. S. since she was five years old. Twenty-six years ago, she and her mother purchased her current home. When her mother died six years ago, Williams, who worked in social services, struggled financially. She refinanced twice into an adjustable rate mortgage and her monthly mortgage payments went from $1,200 to $2,200. She recently lost her job and owes about $184,000 to her lender, GMAC Mortgage.

When Williams’ home was sold at a sheriff’s auction, she received notice that she needed to vacate the property by the end of March. Since then, several local activist groups, including the Minnesota Coalition for a People’s Bailout, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and the Welfare Rights Committee, have held events and press conferences at Williams’ home.

Jordan Kushner, Williams’ pro-bono attorney, requested that the court consider the community impact of foreclosures before evicting households. He argued that allowing Williams’ home to become vacant would constitute a nuisance. Minnesota statutes define a nuisance as “an activity that, in one way or another, affects the right of an individual to enjoy the use of a specified property.” Kushner stated that he is not aware of any legal precedent for his argument.

“There are certain times when the law actually gives way to social needs, when the human suffering that the law causes is so obvious and so significant that the law needs to change,” Kushner said. “This is one of those times.”

Activists said that several houses on Williams’ block are already vacant. Cheri Honkala, an organizer with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, argued that empty homes lead to increased criminal activity and destroy neighborhoods. “We don’t want these empty houses to be used as crack houses,” Honkala said. “We want these empty houses to be used for families. And so we are stepping forward to say no.”

Last week, the state Senate’s Economic Development and Housing Budget Division voted against a proposed one-year moratorium on foreclosures, angering local activists who contend that the current economic crisis demands a more radical response. Nationwide, the number of foreclosures increased 24 percent in the last three months. Over 800,000 households received a foreclosure notice from January to March, according to the Associated Press.

Judge Mark Levine granted Kushner’s request for a jury trial, over the objections of GMAC Mortgage’s attorney Robert Williams. The next court date is set for April 28 at 9 a.m.

Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist, specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.

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