Got some new heroes. From The Miami New Times.
Her knee-length dreadlocks wrapped in a green cloth, Cassy hoists her two-year-old daughter up on a hip and shuffles in her socks into her big, clean bedroom. “This house is a castle,” says the slender, soft-skinned former university teaching assistant, shaking her head in disbelief. “I’ve never had a walk-in closet … and all this space.”
Not everybody in Miami-Dade County is crying over this year’s 40,342 foreclosed properties. Cassy is part of a small, well-executed movement by activists at Take Back the Land to relocate homeless families into empty houses and abandoned government-owned buildings.
The 39-year-old Haitian mother recently lost her North Miami house after agreeing to a too-good-to-be-true mortgage loan. She lived in the much less spacious place for years before she was forced to leave. Ironically, the place where she now stays is owned by Lehman Brothers, a major player in the market for subprime mortgages — thought to be a catalyst for the housing crisis.
Cassy was guided to the home two weeks ago by Take Back the Land, a group with a long record of standing up for the poor and needling authorities who fail them. During the past year, the organization has risked significant legal trouble to aid several people such as Cassy in getting roofs over their heads. It hopes to do much more. “We could virtually empty the streets and shelters simply by filling the vacant houses,” director Max Rameau says. “Homes should go to people, not kept empty so banks can cash in.”
Take Back the Land, which has 10 volunteers, first gained national media attention two years ago after setting up a contentious shantytown called Umoja Village at NW 17th Avenue and 62nd Street in Liberty City. Asserting the “black community’s right to own land” in its own neighborhood, they erected 21 shanties on public land using wooden pallets and tarps.
After months of wrangling between city zoning authorities and Rameau, the village burnt down in April 2007. Residents suspected city employees had a hand in the fire. Afterward, the activist leader helped 14 displaced villagers to a warehouse in Liberty City, where they stayed for about three weeks.
A new crisis exploded around the same time across the county. Empty houses began to pop up in record numbers. Foreclosed properties nearly tripled from 2006 to 2007, swelling from 9,814 to 26,691. And some displaced homeowners — such as Cassy — became temporarily homeless. Indeed, between January and July 2007, the number of homeless on the street increased by nearly one-quarter, according to the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust.
Then, on October 22, 2007, Take Back the Land moved its first homeless family into a foreclosed house.
The next day — on the one-year anniversary of the Umoja Village construction — Rameau announced he was cooking up a new strategy. The plan: Move the homeless into the deserted houses, with or without permission. They would carefully choose participants, he told the Miami Herald, to avoid “creat[ing] crack houses in Liberty City.”
The idea soon faded from the public spotlight. Since then, Take Back the Land has “liberated” six others, Rameau says, aiming to find them a place to stay for at least three months.
The move-ins work like this: Rameau and four other volunteers screen candidates to measure “urgency of need” — and to ensure they aren’t mentally ill or addicted to drugs. Next the group chooses a house. Repair costs, safety, livability, and proximity to Take Back’s headquarters in Liberty City are considered. Volunteers then “visit the location several times in order to gauge if the place is being watched,” Rameau says.
Participants are instructed to enter through the front door and to be honest — even to befriend neighbors and put utilities in their own names. So far, it has worked.