Monique White of Minneapolis, who fell behind on her mortgage when she hit a rough patch, has become a key figure in the anti-foreclosure movement.
The faded signs on Monique White's fence are starting to fall down now, signs of earlier protests. Her fight rages on.
When the 46-year-old single mother of two sons faced eviction from her north Minneapolis house last fall, about 50 Occupy demonstrators camped in and around the weathered two-story house in protest. A crew from Al Jazeera English interviewed her. Consumer rights legend Ralph Nader discussed White in a Chicago Tribune opinion piece in February about the "Occupy Homes" offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
She has become something of a folk hero in the foreclosure-protest movement for her refusal to give up her fight with Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giant. On Thursday, a Hennepin County district judge could give Freddie Mac the green light to evict.
"To us, she's become something of the Rosa Parks of the foreclosure and bank reform movement," said Anthony Newby, an activist with Neighbors Organizing for Change. "At a certain point there's a personality that galvanizes public opinion in such as way that it becomes transcendent. It's much bigger than her home."
White's dispute is a microcosm of the foreclosure debate. Banks say they're willing to work with homeowners, but at some point they need to collect what they're owed. White says she wants the lenders to be reasonable while she gets through a tough financial stretch.
At its core, her story isn't that different than those of many struggling homeowners in north Minneapolis, ground zero in Minnesota for the housing crisis. She lost her job in 2010 when her employer shut down, and she admits she hasn't been making payments.
She gained public attention as one of the first whose cause was taken up by Occupy Wall Street as protesters focused their energies on foreclosures, launching "Occupy Homes," according to Nick Espinosa, a local organizer. According to Espinosa, the tactic of physically occupying houses has scored some success elsewhere in bringing banks to the negotiating table.
Most recently, White took the microphone as part of a demonstration at U.S. Bank's annual shareholders meeting.
CEO Richard Davis responded by making it clear how he felt about the bank's being made a symbol of hard-hearted lending practices.
"I refuse to have this company vilified as someone who's not involved in north Minneapolis, not deeply engaged in the welfare of everyone who lives up there with the branches that we have and the production and performance we have, and have anyone try to cast a claim on this company for one loan when the facts have not been registered accurately yet so far anywhere," Davis told White.
In March, a lawsuit White filed against Freddie Mac and U.S. Bank moved to federal court. Although some facts are in dispute, White's lawyers assert that the foreclosure should be declared invalid because U.S. Bank continually lost and failed to analyze her applications for a loan modification, and because the lender went through with the foreclosure sale in January 2011 after telling White it wouldn't if her application was submitted by the deadline.
Both U.S. Bank and Freddie Mac, which has held White's mortgage since 2005 and now owns the house, have moved to dismiss the case.
Freddie Mac called White's foreclosure and eviction lawful. "At this point we are under a lot of pressure to minimize our losses, and we have pursued all of the different avenues that can be pursued," spokesman Brad German said. "We're going to have to secure the house and market it to a new buyer."
White has been partially packed and ready to leave since last fall. Stacks of boxes tumble across her dining room.
But she says she's standing up for what she's convinced is right. "I'm not asking for a handout," she said. She just wants the bank "to be reasonable."
U.S. Bank spokesman Tom Joyce said White didn't qualify for a loan modification with the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) because of her income.
Joyce said White's issues are with Freddie Mac but reiterated that foreclosure is "absolutely the last option" for the bank and that it's working with "thousands of borrowers" around the country to modify loans.
"It's also why we continue to work with Freddie Mac and Ms. White to see if a solution can be found for this issue," he said.
Joyce said Davis met with White for a few minutes after the shareholders' meeting and that other bank employees have called her since then. They've walked White through her file, he said, and given some new information to Freddie Mac. As of late Wednesday, no deals have been made.
U.S. Bank wasn't a player in subprime mortgages. The $123,190 loan it made to White in 2003 for the house on N. 6th Street was a relatively conventional one, it said. Back then she earned about $26,000 a year as a counselor at Hearthstone of Minnesota, a nonprofit that ran group homes for troubled youths.
As White tells it, she missed two mortgage payments in 2009 after a bad car accident threw her out of work for a time. When she couldn't pay the full past-due amount, U.S. Bank stopped accepting her checks, she said, so she hasn't made a payment since then.
Catastrophe struck when Hearthstone shut down in early 2010 because of the recession and county budget cuts. She struggled to find new work, relying on a liquor store job and unemployment payments. She's currently training for a union construction job that she says will pay at least $20 an hour.
According to her lawsuit, White and her stepfather sent six HAMP loan workout applications to U.S. Bank between late 2009 and mid-2011, but employees continually lost her paperwork, needed updates and asked for additional documents. White claims she was never informed that her application was denied.
The bank proceeded with the foreclosure sale on Jan. 25, 2011, according to the lawsuit, after a bank employee told her it would not proceed if she submitted her application by the deadline. White said she discovered her house had been sold about nine months later when her gas was shut off.
For now, White's house is quiet, except for the television and the chatter of her 3-year old grandson upstairs. She expects the demonstrators who once filled the house will return if she's evicted.
"The last I heard, it's like 'We'll lock fists around the house,'" White said. "Whatever the outcome for me, I'm grateful I told my story."
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683