Fighting for Housing Rights in Rochester, NY

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Joe Woods has lived in his home on 394 Webster Avenue for over 25 years. He has raised his kids in this home. When the financial crisis left his wife, Glenda, unemployed in 2009, reducing the family’s income, the Woods came together to support each other and make good on all of the debts. MidFirst Bank elected not to accept payments on the house, and instead of negotiating further, they foreclosed. According to Woods, their best offer was a “Cash for Keys” deal of $5000. If he was not willing to give them his home for that price, they told him that he could buy back his home for $108,000, despite it’s assessed value of $28,000.

Based on their actions up until this point, it appears that MidFirst Bank does not really care who owns this home.

Furthermore, it also appears that the City of Rochester does not care either. Ignoring several calls for a moratorium on police enforced evictions, the Lovely Warren administration has demonstrated that it is able and willing to use taxpayer dollars to threaten and physically coerce homeowners. And sadly, many residents of Monroe County and the City of Rochester support the Mayor’s policy. Her proponents view these type of housing rights campaigns as politically misguided and socially unrealistic. There is a visceral reaction against these “eviction watches” that seems to be tainted by several strands of resentment, including anti-communism, anti-socialism, racism, and classism.

Regardless of this widespread indifference towards his plight, what is routinely overlooked in all of the propaganda is that every single American possesses the right to have adequate housing. This right is implied by the U.S. Constitution in principle, and it became an international law ratified by the United Sates in 1948 when our leaders approved Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This founding UN document states: “Every one has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, involving food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

When people argue that housing is not a legal right, they are actually choosing to obey an inferior law that is not recognized as being morally legitimate by the vast majority of global citizens. As MLK was apt to point out, everything Hitler did was legal in Nazi Germany. In truth, authoritarian governments have always implemented laws that serve their purposes at the expense of poor and disenfranchised peoples. Slavery became lawful when the State of Virginia voted time and again to enshrine it as a immutable doctrine that influenced every facet of Virginian life. Similarly, in the 19th century it was lawful to work children until they died of exhaustion or illness in factories inside great American cities such as Chicago, Boston and New York City. Before the heroic efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and other Suffragists, it would still be illegal for women to vote. Just because a law is written in a book, voted on in an election, and ruthlessly enforced out in the streets, does not make it worth following. There are human laws and there are natural laws. The right to shelter is a natural law. Not only is it based on commonsense and common decency, it is universally agreed upon by anyone who requires protection from the elements and privacy from the world. I have noticed that those who argue that housing is not a universal right live in secure, comfortable and permanent dwellings.

Empowered by his training with Take Back the Land Rochester, Joe Woods knows that MidFirst Bank does not have a moral right to evict him. Moreover, Woods knows that the City of Rochester does not have a moral right to use taxpayer dollars to intimidate and dispossess homeowners of their property and belongings. He also knows that this policy is at odds with the strategic goals of “rehabilitating” the Beechwood and Marketview Heights neighborhoods. The only way to truly rehabilitate a neighborhood is to establish relationships with its residents that are built on trust and mutual respect. Sending heavily armored police officers to force people out of their homes is no way to build trust. In other words, the alternative to fair negotiations and finding a way to keep Mr. Woods in his home, is to make one more citizen homeless and to leave another empty building in a neglected neighborhood. This is not a solution that our community can afford.

That being said, if a home is that familiar place that one returns to because it shelters the people and values that we feel most obligated to defend, then after 25 years of sacrifice and devotion to this building and its inhabitants, Joe Woods has earned the right to be a homeowner of 394 Webster Ave. I believe that he is a hero. By choosing to stay in his home and risk arrest, Woods not only defended the memories and aspirations of his family, the integrity of the Beechwood neighborhood, and the mission of his fellow activists with Take Back the Land Rochester, but he stood up for a natural right that belongs to every sovereign person in our world today. Rather than dismiss his crusade as foolish, misguided or illegal, we should celebrate his courage and rally around his family in their hour of need. That hour has surely come.

In the early morning of Wednesday, June 17th, 2015, the City Marshal and Rochester Police Department arrested six protestors defending Joe Woods’ right to remain in his home. Take Back the Land spokespersons reported that “Mr. Woods was coerced by the police to leave his home, as the result of an underhanded tactic. Woods and his daughters were in the house and refused to leave. When one of his daughters stepped outside, she was arrested, and taken to the downtown jail. Joe was then told that she would not be charged if he abandoned the house. Joe and his other family members in the house agreed to leave, and left in their car to go downtown to retrieve his daughter. Once gone the house was boarded up by contractors sent by the bank. At that point a number of protestors were arrested after they crossed the police barriers.“

IMG_20150618_185705601_HDRTo support the Woods family and to learn more about Take Back the Land Rochester, visit: https://www.facebook.com/TakeBackRoc


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