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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Occupy Our Homes crashes foreclosure auction, protests investment firms buying up distressed properties

Dozens of Occupy Our Homes Atlanta activists played an oversized game of Monopoly in the midst of monthly foreclosure auctions at the Fulton County Courthouse this morning, protesting what's been called a real-life Game of Homes.

Multicolored piggy banks named after some of the investment firms currently buying large numbers of homes in Atlanta moved around the 6' x 6' board, landing on spaces named after Atlanta neighborhoods such as Kirkwood, Grant Park, and Vine City. The participants paid for properties with fictitious cashiers checks - an allusion to the process many firms use to pay for newly purchased homes on the courthouse steps.

Starting around mid-2012, a handful of large investment firms began spending millions of dollars each month to buy up thousands of foreclosed and undervalued houses around metro Atlanta. Their plan: convert the properties into rentals, pay investors with the monthly incomes, and possibly sell the homes a few years down the road when values improve.

"They also want to securitize rental-income flows from these homes [and that] is the exact same financial instrument that caused the collapse of the American economy in 2007 and 2008," OOHA protestor Rob Call said, adding that the group hopes to stop that process before it happens. "We plan on going after investors and letting them know exactly what's going on, and the risk of another bubble and crash involved with these investment instruments."

Unlike Occupy Our Homes Atlanta's last rally at a foreclosure auction, bidding went on as usual at the courthouse. The group said it was more concerned about raising awareness around the activities of investment firms than stopping the actual sale of homes.

PEACEFUL PROTEST: A man (left) who declined to give his name walked through OOHAs game of Monopoly, kicking a pig and knocking over protestor Tim Franzen.
  • Joeff Davis
  • PEACEFUL PROTEST: A man (left) who declined to give his name walked through OOHA's game of Monopoly, kicking a pig and knocking over protestor Tim Franzen (and there's a video)

At one point a man that said he was trying to buy a house and couldn't hear over the protestors walked through OOHA's Monopoly game, kicking a pig and knocking over protestor Tim Franzen. The man, who declined to give his name, later said he tripped.

"This isn't the way to do this. There's no reason," said Malik, an independent investor who exchanged heated words with the protestors and declined to give his last name. "This is, like, the last stage. If you don't buy [a property] someone else will buy it."

"Whether we're here or not, these houses will get foreclosed on," a bidder for a large investment firm said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Why don't they go protest in front of Chase or Bank of America? It just doesn't make sense."

MAKE ROOM: Sheriffs charged with policing the courthouse clear the sidewalk, eventually stringing police tape to keep an open path into the building
  • Joeff Davis
  • MAKE ROOM: Fulton County Sheriffs charged with policing the courthouse clear the sidewalk, eventually stringing police tape to keep an open path into the building

Police at the courthouse struggled to manage the large crowd of about 200 people - nearly double the turn out for January's auction - and eventually used police tape to mark a path into the building. Laurie Burkhead, a small-scale investor who has attended auctions in Fulton County for years, said she'd never seen anything quite like it.

"There's just so many people here, and of course this [protest] is adding to it," she said. "I think the Sheriffs are feeling a little stressed out, and they're reacting."

Nicholas Burraughs (center) narrowly avoided foreclosure last month after filing for bankruptcy the day his East Atlanta home went up for auction on the courthouse steps
  • Joeff Davis
  • CLOSE CALL: Nicholas Burraughs (center) narrowly avoided foreclosure last month after filing for bankruptcy the same day that his East Atlanta home went up for auction on the courthouse steps

Four current or former homeowners who have struggled with foreclosure spoke, including Nicholas Burraughs. Last month, Burraughs narrowly avoided losing his East Atlanta home after it was purchased at auction by the Blackstone Group, one of the largest investors in metro Atlanta housing. Burraughs filed for bankruptcy the same morning, which allowed him to stay in his home. At least for now.

"The problem is it's a recovery that leaves regular people behind and again creates another opportunity for all these companies to treat our neighborhoods like ATMs," OOHA's Tim Franzen said. "Ultimately, we think the awareness around this is going to create so much shame that the investors are going to take a step back."

And if that doesn't work, the group said it has other plans.

See more photos from the protest.


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PHOTOS: Occupy Our Homes Atlanta takes "Game of Homes" to foreclosure auction

By Joeff Davis

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