Fort Hernandez Fights Mortgage Crisis With Occupy L.A. Protesters
Since the Hernandez family received an eviction notice at the end of last August, their once unassuming, three-bedroom Van Nuys home has become the neighborhood’s biggest attraction.
It's constantly teeming with small crowds. A tall barricade stands between the house and the street, across which a banner hangs, declaring the structure “#FortHernandez.”
It’s been 37 days since the letter first arrived, and the Hernandez family still lives on the property – along with 20 to 70 of their supporters, who camp out on the lawn every night.
The Hernandez home, dubbed Fort Hernandez, has become a microcosm of the Occupy community that once existed on the grounds of Los Angeles City Hall. Tents cover the front lawn. Couches, spray-painted with popular slogans of the movement, line the sidewalk in front of their home, and Bob Marley's voice can be frequently heard singing from behind the plywood barricade.
The protesters – a large portion of them associated with the Occupy movement – rallied around the Hernandez family when their home was threatened with foreclosure.
Ulises Hernandez, one of four brothers who lives in the house, had been involved with Occupy L.A. and Occupy San Fernando Valley in the past year; he was the one who sounded the rallying cry.
"We got hit with a five-day notice to vacate; the sheriffs would be here to escort us off the premises and change the locks,” the 21-year-old said. “At that point we knew we weren't going to leave the home, we were going to show resistance.”
Hernandez had been involved in foreclosure fights before. The Occupy L.A. movement’s campgrounds at City Hall were raided last year by the LAPD, but a contingent of passionate protesters has continued the movement through other means.
Part of their recent agenda has involved foreclosure fights, where participants protest foreclosure and fight off eviction by occupying the homes of families who can no longer afford to pay their mortgage payments.
Carlos Marroquin, a homeowners' advocate for Occupy L.A., says the organization has been formally involved in several hundred foreclosure cases and ten occupations – all of which have been successful in one way or another.
"We have had major successes in cases where homeowners have literally been thrown out of their homes," said Marroquin. "Ninety-five percent of the time the homeowner comes to us because they have no where else to go."
Marroquin says most cases are easily solved with paperwork, especially when it involves wrongdoing by the bank or lawyers. But some cases require solutions from "outside the system," he said. Only then do they resort to a physical occupation. This is the situation the Hernandez family found themselves in.
“I knew that if anybody was going to help, it was going to be [Occupy],” said Hernandez. “Because the courts and the banks, they weren’t trying to help. Neither were the lawyers.“
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The fight for the Hernandez family home began five years ago, in 2007, when they first defaulted on their loan. They bought the house for half a million dollars only two years before, with a loan from Countrywide Mortgage. The family struggled to make their payments for two years before their interest rate was raised and they could no longer afford to pay on time.
"We're a lower income family," said Javier Hernandez, "We lived in apartments in the worst neighborhoods, in the poorest living conditions and we said 'we can't be doing this for the rest of our life. We have to try to get a house.' That was the dream we had. We had the dream for two years, and then it turned into a nightmare."
Millions of homeowners across the country faced a similar scenario. From 2005 to 2006, U.S. property values were rising through the roof, and banks attempted to capitalize on the phenomena by handing out loans with incredibly low interest rates. Many homebuyers, like the Hernandez family, were able to purchase homes with no money down.
But in 2007, home values began to drop drastically and many homeowners found themselves with mortgages they could no longer afford.
Minorities were hit the hardest. A 2010 study by the Center for Responsible Lending found Latinos were 70 percent more likely than whites to lose their homes during the 2007-2009 period. They were also 13 percent more likely to sign up for a high-risk loan.
Marroquin says this is because banks and lenders intentionally target minority communities. Because there is often a language barrier, minorities saddled with higher interest rates have a hard time negotiating them down or even requesting a loan modification.
"To us this is a grotesque wrong-doing by the banks towards a targeted population," Marroquin said.
Often, he says, the cases he receives require only a little bit of paperwork, but homeowners come to him under the impression they've already lost the fight.
Unfortunately, for the Hernandez family, it wasn't just a case of missing paperwork.
During the mortgage crisis, they went from paying about $3,700 a month to $4,500 a month. The raise stretched the limits of their monthly income.
Antonio Hernandez, the middle brother, says they were told they could only modify their loan if they defaulted.
“We stopped paying, hoping to modify,” Antonio said. “What we didn't know is that when we stopped paying, they had started the foreclosure process and we were unaware of it.”
Javier, whose name is on the loan, began applying for a loan modification.
“I was denied three modifications over the process of four years,” said Javier.
Each time the bank cited different reasons for rejecting their loan, including insufficient income and lost paperwork.
The Hernandez home went up for auction. It was sold to Bank of America for $270,000 in 2011 – nearly half the price the family originally bought it for.
Jumana Bauwens, a representative of Bank of America, told Neon Tommy in an email that the bank last attempted to work on a modification from February 2011 to August 2011.
"During that time, we made multiple requests for documentation, but Mr. Hernandez never submitted the necessary documentation for us to complete the review," Bauwens wrote, "Unfortunately, we had no choice but to proceed with foreclosure."
It wasn't soon after that the Hernandez family first recieved a notice of eviction from Bank of America.
“I thought, this is it,” said Javier. “I'm going to have to move out with my family and go back to renting after two years of paying over $100,000.”
But Ulises had been involved with Occupy Los Angeles and Occupy San Fernando at the time, and realized they might have another way out. The brothers became involved in the movement.
“Occupy always tries to help with nothing in return,“ said Antonio. “They're giving up homes and a roof to sleep in at night for tents. And they're doing that for us.”
The Hernandez family and their supporters have duplicated some of the community organizing tactics of Occupy. They held a foreclosure forum last week, inviting speakers to lecture on mortgages and bank loans. They clean up the neighborhood and hold activities for the kids, like face painting and water balloon fights.
The Hernandez brothers run a rigorous social media campaign across several platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube – that allows them to reach out to online audiences and raise money.
Although the family still has their home, Fort Hernandez has been the object of severe LAPD surveillance for the past three weeks. Police cars pass by the home several times a day.
“They've continually harassed supporters here, they've impounded a car,” said Ulises. “They've pulled people over as they leave. As people are walking home, [LAPD] harass them over the loudspeaker.”
The Los Angeles Police Department says the policemen aren't doing anything they shouldn't be.
"They're just driving back and forth," said an officer from the media relations office, "They're not doing anything wrong."
The protesters, however, call it "scare tactics."
Occupiers take shifts watching out for cop cars on an hourly shift they call Cop Watch. Karo Szymanska, a friend of Ulises, says the LAPD even drive by late at night.
“This one night, they just rolled by every fifteen minutes, just driving by,” said Szymanska. “They’d shine the light that they have on top of their car on us.”
One night around midnight, two policemen arrived at the Hernandez home with agents from the Department of Children and Family Services, Antonio said. They asked to see the youngest Hernandez brother, five-year-old Adrian. They said they received a complaint that the young boy was living in less-than-ideal living conditions.
“They came here, they're accusing us of no running water, no electricity,” said Antonio. “The Christmas lights were on.“
The family denied the officers’ request to question Adrian. Ulises began taping the ordeal, and uploaded the video to their YouTube account.
“How are you going to wake up a five year old that's gotta go to school the next day and bring him outside to two strangers and two LAPD officers?” asked Antonio.
He suspects it was the bank that called the Department of Children and Family Services with the complaint, though Bank of America denies any involvement with police activity on the Hernandez home.
“I don't think they're here trying to intimidate us,” said Ulises. “I think they're here to try to intimidate the neighborhood and the community. When you see a cop car stationed outside for so long, you start wondering, why are they here? There must be a reason.”
The brothers say that the response from the neighborhood, however, has been largely positive.
Antonio says that their neighbors understand the situation the Hernandez family is in.
"All these homeowners around here, they know exactly what we're going through," said Antonio. "They're going through the same thing or worse."
The crisis has taken plenty of victims.
The Mortgage Bankers’ Association estimates that over 6 million homes have been foreclosed since 2007, and around 4 million are currently in the foreclosure process. Millions of families around the U.S. are facing the same crisis that the Hernandez family is trying to fight.
Bank of America recently contacted the Hernandez family -- presumably after media attention of #FortHernandez became ubiquitous -- and they are currently in talks with the bank about another loan modification.
"We have reviewed [their] documents and are now asking for additional information pertaining to non-borrowers who are residing at the property," wrote Bauwens on behalf of Bank of America. "We are looking forward to receiving that information so we can continue our review."
The Hernandez family continues, however, to occupy the home, protecting their family from eviction.
But it’s a difficult task, and they have unique challenges to overcome. Several members of the Hernandez family, including Ulises, are undocumented immigrants. Their father was deported two years ago after an encounter with the police, and the brothers realize the same threat hangs over their heads, but they’re willing to take the risk.
“If I get deported for trying to save this house for my family, for trying to draw awareness of the foreclosure crisis that's affected the nation, if they want to deport me for that, then so be it,” said Ulises.
Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of the Occupy movement here.
Reach Senior Staff Reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here.