Occupy Our Homes moves into Palm Beach County
By Kimberly Miller – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
An offshoot of the infamous Occupy Wall Street movement is taking up residence in Palm Beach County with a grassroots effort to keep homes from foreclosure.Occupy Our Homes Palm Beach County is expected to set up an office as early as this month with two full-time organizers who will run campaigns to fight foreclosure and teach homeowners how to conduct their own activism, said Tim Franzen, a member of the Occupy Our Homes national steering committee.
“We get more phone calls from Palm Beach County than almost anywhere else in the country right now,” Franzen said. “The national movement has had an eye on the area, and we decided in the fall to make it a priority to get a thriving chapter down there.”
Franzen said the national coordinator for Occupy Our Homes, Shab Bashiri, will spend several weeks in Palm Beach County setting up the group’s Housing Justice Academy. The academy is a three-day event that trains homeowners how to build their own campaigns.
While the worst of Palm Beach County’s foreclosure crisis has past, there are still about 19,000 cases in the court system and more trickling in.
Statewide, there are about 262,910 foreclosure cases pending in the courts.
Last summer, and with millions of dollars from the National Mortgage Settlement, Florida’s courts began fast-tracking foreclosures through the system by hiring more manpower and forcing cases to trial.
For the most part, Occupy Our Homes uses “public pressure campaigns” to push banks to modify home loans instead of evicting delinquent borrowers. The campaigns begin with an online petition and can progress to sit-ins at local banks.
“Eventually, we will shut down bank branches if we have to,” Franzen said.
Occupy Our Homes Palm Beach County follows other local grassroots groups that formed during the early days of the foreclosure epidemic. Notably, Lisa Epstein attracted followers nationally in 2010 with her Foreclosure Hamlet blog and monthly foreclosure happy hours held at Palm Beach County watering holes.
Epstein, who ran unsuccessfully for Palm Beach County Clerk of Court in 2012, was helped by fellow blogger Michael Redman, who still posts to his 4closureFraud.com website.
“Our work to expose massive fraud in land records, foreclosures, and mortgage servicing was successful on a national level. Unfortunately, elected officials, regulatory agencies, law enforcers, and the Florida Bar failed us all,” Epstein said. “I still receive countless cries for help from desperate families begging for a way to stop foreclosure fraud or bank modification fraud.”
In another long-running housing-related battle, some Community Association Managers are fearful a pending Florida Supreme Court ruling will mean higher legal fees for cash-strapped condo communities and homeowner associations.
The Florida Bar asked the Supreme Court in May to clarify what is considered the unlicensed practice of law when it comes to different functions performed in the running of a community association.
Aaron Gordon, corporate counsel for LM Funding in Tampa, which manages the receivables of associations, supports allowing community managers to perform certain jobs, such as determining a quorum. He said it’s unfair for the Florida Bar, whose members can profit from a ruling that restricts non-lawyers from performing work, to have so much power in asking the court for an advisory opinion.
“The Bar and the Supreme Court are making the rules that will benefit the people who have an economic interest in this,” Gordon said. “I don’t think a lot of people know this is happening.”
The Bar did conduct public hearings and take testimony in the fall of 2012 before submitting its request. There is no timeline for the Supreme Court to act.
West Palm Beach attorney Michael Gelfand, who represents associations, said community managers performing what could be construed as legal work can end up costing homeowners more money.
“Free is so enticing short term,” Gelfand said. “We have seen the problems created in the long run when boards of directors try to conserve money by asking managers to do things better suited for a lawyer.”