Taking it to court in Minneapolis: Fight against foreclosure and eviction

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The fight against foreclosures heated up at the Hennepin County Government Center Tuesday, May 26, as two Minneapolis women used unique arguments to fight back against their lenders.

Rosemary Williams and Tecora Parks, who separately appeared in court today, are just two of at least six homeowners in the Twin Cities who have publicly vowed to remain in their foreclosed homes. Local activist groups, including the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and the Minnesota Coalition for a People’s Bailout, have been working with these homeowners to organize a statewide movement against foreclosures.

Neighbors of Williams, a south Minneapolis woman who refused to leave her home after it went into foreclosure, filed suit against GMAC Mortgage in District Court. The plaintiffs, including the Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization and 17 neighbors, argue that leaving her home vacant would create a public nuisance.

At the same time, GMAC, Williams’ lender, filed suit to evict Williams from her home, which was sold to the lender at a sheriff’s sale in March.

Over forty supporters packed the small courtroom. Initially, a sheriff informed the activists that anyone unable to find an empty seat would have to leave. After protests from Williams’ supporters, the court relented and allowed the activists to sit in the jury seats. “They’re going to have to start getting bigger courtrooms!” one supporter observed.

Jordan Kushner, the attorney for Williams and her neighbors, argued that the rising number of vacant foreclosed homes causes neighborhoods to deteriorate as the properties fall into disrepair and become havens for criminal activity. Kushner acknowledged that public nuisance statutes are not typically used to fight foreclosures. “These are complicated and novel issues,” he said.

Attorneys for GMAC stated that the lender wants to sell the building and therefore needs to evict Williams. The judge rescheduled the trial due to scheduling conflicts. A motion hearing to decide whether to consolidate the two cases will be held June 16. The jury trial will begin June 22.

After the hearing, Williams expressed satisfaction with the delays, as it will allow her more time to remain in her home and attempt to negotiate with her lenders. Williams then turned to several GMAC attorneys and asked, “Do you know why GMAC is not willing to refinance?” The lawyers declined to comment.

An hour later, Leslie Parks, Tecora Parks’ daughter, took mortgage lender IndyMac Federal Bank to Housing Court for changing the locks on her mother’s foreclosed South Minneapolis home, where Leslie Parks lives as a tenant.

Leslie Parks said that when she returned from work last week to find that the building’s locks had been changed, she immediately worried that someone had burglarized her home and was inside. “Fear just raged through my body right then and there,” she said. “I just kind of lost it.” She then went to her mother’s house, where she contacted local activists who helped arrange for a locksmith to open the newly installed lock box.

“She had to basically break into her own house,” Carla Magnuson, Leslie Parks’ attorney stated.

Although a foreclosure notice had been served on the property, the lender changed the locks prior to the sheriff’s sale. Under Minnesota statute, IndyMac needed to prove that the home was vacant in order to change the locks before the sale. The statute also requires that the lender provide new keys to the homeowner.

IndyMac’s attorney, Larry Zielke, argued that activists are “trying to make a political statement” by bringing the case to court. He said that the lender would have been willing to provide new keys to Tecora Parks, but acknowledged that IndyMac did not leave any written notice or contact information at the house at the time of the lock change.

An inspector hired by the lender said that he went to the home four times in the past five months to determine whether the building was occupied. John Stewart, the inspector, said that the home did not appear vacant the first three times, but that the final time he noticed that the lawn had not been mowed, the electric meters were not active, and there were no cars parked in the driveway. Stewart then notified IndyMac that the building was vacant.

But Stewart acknowledged that he could never be 100 percent sure that a building is vacant, adding, “I usually get kind of upset when I find an empty house.”

Leslie Parks’ attorneys argued that the lender should have known that the home was occupied. Even the judge, when examining photos of the home taken by the inspector, remarked that the yard appears to be in good condition.

“You guys moved pretty quick on this,” Judge Zimmerman said, addressing Zielke. “I’m a little surprised.” The judge ruled in favor of Leslie Parks and ordered the lender to pay a $500 penalty and $500 in attorneys’ fees.

Immediately following the hearing, Tecora Parks broke down in tears and hugged her daughter and supporters. “I just have to thank the Lord right now,” she said.
Tecora Parks’ home will be sold at a sheriff’s sale this Friday. However, activists said that they plan to protest in an attempt to cause enough public outrage to stop the sale.

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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