A protest over the foreclosure of a house in south Minneapolis has escalated into a nightly confrontation with police and created a political dilemma for city leaders, who loathe taking part in foreclosures but say they have to keep the peace.
Fifteen activists with the Occupy movement were arrested Wednesday after repeated episodes over the past week in which the city has tossed out protesters and boarded up the house, only to see the demonstrators peel back the boards and use chains, concrete-filled barrels and other obstacles to make it more difficult to carry them away.
The protesters say they're acting on behalf of David Cruz and his family, but neither he nor his family has lived in the residence at 4044 Cedar Av. S. for two months. After a foreclosure sale last year, the property belongs to Freddie Mac, the federally owned mortgage giant, which says no one has made a mortgage payment since July 2010.
Freddie Mac owns 59,000 foreclosed homes and has encountered protests before but, according to spokesman Brad German, this one stands out.
"What is unusual, in fact to our experience utterly unprecedented, is the level of aggression and defiance of the law by these activists," German said.
Gathering outside City Hall on Thursday, those activists say they will back at the house at 2 p.m. Friday, inviting another confrontation.
"We're using public resources to defend big banks and very little to keep people in their homes," said Anthony Newby, an organizer with Occupy Homes.
"They should know [that] if we haven't gone yet, we are never going to go," yelled activist Cat Salonek, who was among those arrested Wednesday.
Court records show that David Cruz-Sanchez got a $194,000 mortgage to buy the house in July 2007. Activists say the Cruzes became delinquent in 2010 because of an online bank glitch related to automatic mortgage payments. Newby said the family asked PNC Bank, the original lender, if the balance could be paid in increments -- but PNC said no.
German, the Freddie Mac spokesman, countered that PNC Bank attempted to reach the Cruzes several times in 2010 and 2011 to discuss a loan modification. He said they never responded.
The home was sold back to the lender at a sheriff's foreclosure auction in August 2011. Under the law, the Cruzes were allowed to stay in the house during the redemption period, which expired in February. In April, a Hennepin County judge ordered the eviction of the family, although the Cruzes had already moved out.
Yet Occupy protesters, who have fended off other foreclosures in the city, moved in.
Neighbor losing sleep
Next-door neighbor Margaret Kowalke, 63, said the singing and chanting and other noise from the protests interfere with her sleep.
"I do want this whole situation to end because it's wreaking havoc on my health," she said.
Kowalke said she called the police on Wednesday about noon when she saw protesters taking the boards off the back door. She called the police again during the night when she woke to the sounds of people trying to break in again.
Kowalke said that, while she understood the plight of the family, she didn't comprehend why protesters had to keep reoccupying the house.
"I think they're taking it too far," Kowalke said.
After Hennepin County sheriff's deputies arrested five people last week while carrying out the court order, three City Council members expressed sympathy with the Occupy protesters.
Then the protest became the province of Minneapolis police, and put council members and Mayor R.T. Rybak in a difficult situation.
City proclamations are only adding to the confusion: The city issued a statement Tuesday night that City Attorney Susan Segal had, at Rybak's direction, "reached out to [owner of the house] Freddie Mac to say that the city is not in the foreclosure business."
Activists took that to mean police would ease up on the arrests, which was proved erroneous on Wednesday night, when Chief Tim Dolan oversaw an operation carried out by about 20 officers.
"Mayor Rybak has said that they're not in the foreclosure business," activist Nick Espinosa said. "And that the house now is Freddie Mac's problem. But twice yesterday they evicted the house. Fifteen people were arrested in total. When is it going to stop?"
The mayor's spokesman, John Stiles, said Rybak wants Freddie Mac to renegotiate with the family and take physical care of securing the property. He added that the city has to respond to 911 calls from residents.
"We don't want to be involved in civil issues between property owners and tenants," Stiles said. "But if there's criminal trespass on a property, we're under obligation to respond."
Council Member Gary Schiff called the situation "unsustainable." Police and the city attorney's office should act when there is concern for the personal safety of neighbors, drivers or the security guards, he said.
"But shy of that, I don't think we should be involved," Schiff said, adding it should be up to the banks to secure their private property.
German said Freddie Mac is now securing the property with the intent to evaluate it and put it on the market. That process could take as long as two months, and selling it could take up to four.