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Feature Mon May 24 2010
This feature was submitted by Brian L. Reilly
Maggie crosses herself as we drive past St. Rita's on 63rd Street. She is taking me around the neighborhood to see the board ups.
Maggie Perales is an organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). Her work for SWOP connects the divergent interests throughout the southwest side of Chicago. She has advocated for educational initiatives, immigrant rights, violence reduction and most relevant now, mortgage reform.
This is ground zero for the financial meltdown. Over the past two years, four zip codes in the southwest side have seen 6,100 foreclosures. The wreckage is everywhere. Every block seems to have a least one house boarded up by the bank; the previous owners long since gone.
Some blocks have five or more board ups. One block; the houses abandoned and cringing as the streets take over.
This is Maggie's neighborhood. It is her home.
Maggie shows me what the banks have left behind. The global financial crisis, fueled by mortgage-backed securities, has taken swing after swing at this neighborhood.
First, investors came through with mortgages backed by fiction. Superficial changes would be made to properties and then the homes would be flipped to some dupe or another investor intending to do the same thing all over.
Next came the sub prime loans. Signing on the line could offer a person, a family, a place to belong; not knowing when the loan would explode. They left overnight and nobody seems to know what happened to them.
Then came the crash; the global financial conflagration that reeked havoc throughout the economy circled back here quickly. Job loss has put homeowners with good loans behind.
The issue is to fight foreclosure. The really toxic deals have sunk into the ground water and now the unemployed can't get help with their mortgages.
SWOP has sent workers to houses throughout the community to inform homeowners that HUD certified counseling is available and to inform them of their options if they are in foreclosure. The campaign is even more vital now that foreclosure assistance scams are proliferating.
"These outreach workers were starting to connect with people in their neighborhoods. Sometimes you never have time to talk to your neighbor," Maggie explains. "They let us in their house. They shared their story, they shared their pictures. They started to connect with one another, build relationships. The message for us is don't leave your home until you've tried everything you can to preserve it. This is your home."
This is Maggie's home. All her adult life the family's money went into house and tuition. Her kids have moved on to the suburbs and wonder why their parents don't as well.
"I like my relationships with my neighbors. I can remember when I did move in, I wasn't accepted," she explains. "And that's what I tell my son. I suffered a lot when the kids didn't want to play with you guys; when the kids called you names. That was difficult for me that you weren't accepted into the environment that I brought you into because I always wanted something better for you."
Over time things changed. The neighborhood changed and she, her family, her neighbors, became a part of it. If it wasn't a lot, it was theirs; they belonged.
Then the predators came with pens and dice. The game was fixed, some should have known better. When SWOP tried to put out a warning, they were shouted down. Nobody was losing money yet.
"We need to pressure the banks. We need to beat 'em up," Maggie tells me. "I mean every time we hear on the news about how much money they're making and fees they're charging for everything else..." she trails off.
"And we understand we're against a beast, when you think about it. They're just so big that if I were to say, 'O.K., I'm gonna pull all my money out of the bank,' it probably wouldn't hurt them. But I think we need to shame them, we really need to go after them because they're not willing to work with families."
Meanwhile Maggie shows me around the wreckage. She points to a house on her block and tells a story.
"I saw when this family was getting evicted, this brown house here. The parents were out working and it was just their kids at home and they were crying and I said, 'Oh, no, something's got to happen.' What do you do when you see something like that? To me it saddens me that kids have to walk through this on a daily basis. They walk through going to school. What inspires them to even continue? I wonder. I wonder."
Against a beast, in a time when so much is transitory and disposable, why keep fighting?
"There's a story in every home, that's for sure and I can't say my reasons are the same as others are," she says looking around. "But, I think, as we band together we're seeing all the different reasons."
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Learn more here.