Community Stands Strong to Block an Eviction
By Natasha Lennard
New York Times
August 19, 2011
From inside Mary Lee Ward's small and sparsely
furnished living room in Bedford-Stuyvesant, it sounded
Friday as if a block party was in full swing in the
street below. Cars and trucks honked their horns
melodically as they passed and almost 200 voices could
be heard cheering and chanting.
But this was no street party; it was not yet 9 a.m. and
the crowd outside was there as a line of defense.
Ms. Ward - a tiny, soft-spoken 82-year-old - faced
forcible eviction by a marshal on Friday morning
because of a subprime mortgage she bought in 1995. And
so neighbors, friends, housing advocates and supporters
had formed a thick human wall outside Ms. Ward's small
gray house on Tompkins Avenue in Brooklyn.
Shortly after 9:30, the local state assemblywoman,
Annette Robinson, emerged from the house with news.
"The marshal will not be taking action today," Ms.
Robinson said over a bullhorn as Ms. Ward stood by her
side. Ms. Robinson vowed to negotiate with the deed
holder to keep Ms. Ward in her home.
Friday's deadline followed three years of work by a
nonprofit legal group, Common Law, and Ms. Robinson,
"If I'm evicted today, that's it for anybody who's a
senior citizen," Ms. Ward, who has been in the house
since 1967, said earlier in the morning, sitting next
to a table in her living room covered with legal
documents. "It would show they can break up the
community and do anything to us."
Fifteen years ago, Ms. Ward says, she needed money for
a lawyer to help her keep her great-granddaughter from
being put up for adoption. Like many others in her
neighborhood, she turned to a subprime lender.
She signed a contract with Delta Funding, a company she
found advertised on a flier tucked in her mailbox. She
borrowed $82,000 against her house, but claims to have
received a loan of only $1,000. Ms. Ward still displays
a faded portrait of her great-granddaughter as a baby,
even though she was unable to prevent the adoption and
has long lost contact.
In 1999, the state was about to sue Delta Funding when
the two sides reached a settlement over allegations of
predatory lending practices directed at elderly members
of minority groups throughout Queens and Brooklyn. The
next year, federal agencies sued and nearly
simultaneously settled with Delta over similar issues.
Officials from Common Law say the lender sent a letter
to Ms. Ward in 2001 informing her that they were
canceling her loan, but in fact, it never was canceled.
Rather, the mortgage has been passed from financial
institution to financial institution for 10 years,
during which time Ms. Ward has been in and out of court
facing eviction over the loan, Common Law says.
Last year, a real estate speculation company, 768 Dean
Inc., bought Ms. Ward's loan at auction. The company
arranged for a marshal to remove Ms. Ward from her
property on Friday, Common Law says, a move that
galvanized local support for her. By 7 a.m.,
demonstrators stood outside her doorstep, brandishing
banners that read "We stand with Ms. Ward" and "Defend
"We have the people power to push the landlord to
negotiate with us," said Karen Gargamelli, a lawyer
with Common Law. "Our demands are that the eviction be
stopped and that the landlord give the deed back either
directly to Ms. Ward or to the Bed-Stuy community in a
land trust for affordable housing."
Common Law has also asked the state attorney general to
investigate why Ms. Ward's purportedly rescinded
mortgage has continued to haunt her for over a decade.
768 Dean Inc. does not have a listed phone number.
Voice messages left at the workplace of its principal
owner, Shammeem A. Chowdhury, and with Mr. Chowdhury's
lawyer were not immediately returned.
Ms. Ward is not the first recipient of this brand of
foreclosure defense. Take Back the Land, a housing
activist group founded in Miami, has blockaded houses
in Rochester in recent months to delay or prevent
evictions. Many of the protesters outside Ms. Ward's
house came in response to a call put out by a coalition
of housing advocacy groups, Organizing for Occupation.
A tearful Ms. Ward spoke briefly to those who had
gathered on her behalf. "You have to stick with it when
you know you're right," she said. "We're not slaves
anymore. My grandfather was a slave, but I'm not."
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