It’s official: Woman who refused to accept foreclosure is keeping her house

By Erica Bryant

 

Elizabeth McGriff got her house back.

She always believed in her right to 618 Cedarwood Terrace, which was lost in a foreclosure many called unjust. Now — after years of bank negotiations, eviction blockades, public rallies, acts of civil disobedience, prayer services, lockouts and a sustained “live-in” —  she has the deed.

And Take Back the Land, an organization that says housing should be a human right, has added another victory to its tally sheet.

“We have never lost a house,” said Ryan Acuff, of Take Back the Land. “Anybody who has followed our model of nonviolent action has always won.”

McGriff can’t talk about the deal she made with MidFirst Bank because of a nondisclosure agreement. Property records show she bought the three-bedroom house for a final $15,000 on Jan. 31. That’s much less than the $129,720.45 in cash the bank had asked of her before taking the house — which is assessed at $73,000 — in foreclosure.

McGriff bought her home in 2001, taking out a loan to cover the $53,000 purchase price.  She made the $635 monthly payments until 2008, when she lost her job as a U.S. postal worker. After getting back on her feet, she tried to catch up on her payments and to take advantage of laws that require banks to make several specific efforts to help homeowners keep their property.

She hoped MidFirst Bank, which is based in Oklahoma, would allow her to make up the debt by extending the term of her mortgage. Instead, it offered her a higher monthly payment that was not affordable.

After the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings, McGriff’s troubles were registered at the County Clerk’s Office. Take Back the Land monitors foreclosure filings sent outreach volunteers to knock on her door. They encouraged McGriff to see the fight to keep her home as part of a social movement. “From our perspective, it is a moral issue,” said Acuff. “What would it mean to change how we think about housing? We need a different system that is resident-controlled and permanently affordable.”

McGriff began going to Take Back the Land meetings and met people who had successfully kept their homes using the organization’s methods of nonviolent resistance. She met Catherine Griffin-Lennon, for example, who had gotten her Ravenwood Avenue home back from Bank of America after losing it in a foreclosure she considered unjust. Take Back the Land protesters, some of them chained to Griffin-Lennon’s porch, twice dissuaded a city marshal who had come to evict her. Eventually she was evicted, but Griffin-Lennon moved back into the home in a defiant and public manner. After years of uncertainty, Bank of America ended up deeding her the home back for $1.

As McGriff’s foreclosure proceedings progressed, MidFirst Bank told McGriff she could buy the house back for $129,720.45. She had already paid several years worth of mortgage payments for the home, which was assessed at $73,000 in 2015. The bank’s request was “just totally crazy,” Acuff said. She could not come up with this money and lost the home in foreclosure, but she didn’t consider the fight over.

When McGriff got her first eviction notice, Take Back the Land mobilized its eviction blockade team. When the team learned that law enforcement was trying to enforce the eviction order, “there would be a protest and people would be chained to the front porch,” said Acuff, who recalled that blockades dissuaded law enforcement at least four times. “It was a constant showdown.”

On April 5, 2016, sheriff’s deputies removed McGriff’s belongings from the house despite the protesters. Two of the protesters were arrested. About a month after being evicted, McGriff returned to the home. “It was open,” she said. “I just moved back in.”

This method of civil disobedience is called a “live-in” and is named after the illegal “sit-ins” of the civil rights movement. When MidFirst Bank hired property managers to remove her property from 618 Cedarwood Terrace, Take Back the Land volunteers showed up and moved her couches and dressers right back in.

“Each time they changed the locks, miraculously the locks got changed again,” said Julie Gelfand, a Take Back The Land activist who documented McGriff’s efforts to keep her house.

The Rochester Police Department told property managers they needed a new court order of eviction. This was served on August 1, 2017. In response, McGriff’s  supporters tied a massive red, black and green Take Back the Land banner to the front of the house. “Housing is a human right” and “Greedy banks love vacant homes.”

Supporters launched a letter-writing campaign and made a video asking Oklahoma City Thunder basketball player Russell Westbrook to try to intervene with MidFirst Bank.  They hosted a week of religious services on the front lawn to pray for McGriff to keep her home and for homeless people around the world. One was led by Spiritus Christi’s the Rev. Myra Brown who had tweeted at MidFirst Bank to encourage them to negotiate a fair solution. Father Robert Reiser, president of McQuaid Jesuit High School, said a mass on the lawn. “A home is something much much more than a building,” he said. “There is always that element of God’s love that includes’ justice.”

A rotation of “house sitters” watched for deputies when McGriff was at work. Mayoral candidate Alex White, House of Mercy founder Sister Grace Miller and Nazareth College professor Harry Murray were among those prepared to put out the call for an eviction blockade.

Mike Connelly, who had been arrested and charged with trespassing when he wouldn’t leave McGriff’s porch during the eviction, was in charge of keeping the house sitters schedule. Getting arrested was easy compared with the logistics of an extended home defense, he said, but the hard work was worth it. “Change doesn’t happened because people are wishful and show up to a demonstration here and there,” he said.

The sheriff’s deputies did not come.

One issue was manpower, said Paul Gombatto, chief of the civil bureau of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. Knowing that Take Back the Land was planning eviction blockades with dozens of people, they needed to plan for officer and citizen safety. “Normally we would have two or three deputies,” he said. “On this one, we were planning at least 30 or 40 deputies to be safe.”

McGriff met with Gombatto and asked him to ask the bank to agree to a reasonable payoff amount that would allow her to keep the home. He passed along the request to MidFirst’s attorney and postponed the lockout date to wait for a response. On Nov. 8 he got a message from the bank asking the sheriff to hold off on the eviction. An online fundraiser was started to raise $15,000 to allow McGriff to buy her house. By January 31 the house was back in McGriff’s name.

Gombatto said he was glad that McGriff and the bank came to an agreement. “We are glad she is able to stay,” he said. “Obviously the sheriff doesn’t like doing evictions.”

MidFirst Bank did not respond to requests for comment so we can only guess what led to its change of heart.

Acuff said the victory shows that more homeowners should stand their ground. “Real power always rests with the people,” said Acuff. “Whenever we are organized we can change any situation.”

Having fought so hard to keep her home, McGriff now plans to sell the land underneath it to the City Roots Community Land Trust. The organization, founded in 2016, seeks to permanently preserve housing affordability in Rochester through a community owned and managed land model.  McGriff will maintain ownership of the home and rent the land under it from the Land Trust, which will ensure that when the house is sold, it is sold at an affordable price. “She is a pioneer in inaugurating this process in Rochester,” said Acuff. “To reorient ourselves around permanent affordability and resident control.”

Having won her house back, McGriff has moved on to become a leader in Take Back the Land’s City Wide Tenant Union, which tries to protect people against eviction and poor living conditions. The union made news this past week for organizing a rent strike in a 48-unit apartment building on Thurston Road that has 38 code violations, including sewage falling into apartments. The residents hope to force the landlord to make improvements. McGriff’s success, driven by the united efforts of a committed group, can provide them with hope.

“It took a community coming together to make one change,” she said. “I hope to continue, so that there will be a change in policies to benefit the whole community. I wish there were more victories.”

Erica Bryant is the pay it forward columnist. Contact her at ebryant@gannett.com. 

13 Responses

  1. I am so happy for you Ms. McGriff. Just having someone to stand with you helps a lot. I am dealing with this here in New Jersey. Having someone to talk with who will not look down on you and stand with you seems to be very hard to find. This whole system is crooked and you cannot trust anyone in it.

    We need more orgs like Take Back the Land more importantly we need “The People” to take a stand. There is no media talking about the huge amount of unlawful foreclosures that are still going on even though 98% of them are based on fraud in and upon the courts. This too is policing for profits by the court system. Is there anyone that will stand with me in New Jersey please?

  2. Midfirst bank is the gov debt collector for fha loans that GINNIE MAE has/owns in their pools

    Midfirst bank uses their collection company Midland mortgage , you will see this company everywhere in your papers, but once in fraudclosure everything will be change to Midfirst bank name because they are the issuers for the pools and notes will be fabricated accordly.

    They have been the gov’s fha collection agency of choice for years so they know all the dirty tricks and have very low life attorneys at their service .

  3. I’ve been caught up in court for eight years with Wells Fargo unjustly foreclosing when I tried to modify my payment. This is brilliant to offer them “cash for free title”. I’ve been in uphill legal battles when all they want is money. This could be way easier than I thought. My default balance was $67 and they turned it into a $157,000 mod offer LOL!!!!! I have already paid $136k in mortgage payments on a $100k loan so they already made $36k and the total
    Finance charge on the last 15 year refi was $43k. Offering them $15k to go away brings their total interest to $51k. On a $100k note. I’m sick of being in court and even a small buy out may Work.

  4. This is not a legal advise.

    List of loan numbers(loan IDs) for the CWABS 2007-4 trust may be found in the SEC filing below:

    https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1393418/000114420407013714/v069039_fwp.htm

  5. Our foreclosure was illegal with fabricated documents with forged signatures. The servicer had the audacity to send us a copy of promissory note with no signatures on it. This is egregious We reported to the police and no action from them.

    Its nice to know that people are helping people to stop illegal foreclosure.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful story and example of how direct action can really work! I am attempting to do similar things to save my home and will put out this story to inspire others to join me!

  7. How do we contact Take Back the Land organization to get our home back after an illegal foreclosure.

    We need these kind of movements in the USA. My daughter was telling us that kids are walking out of classes and going on strike, just like what is going on in communist countries.

    WE THE PEOPLE NEED CHANGE FOR THE PEOPLE.

  8. Viva! McGriff!!! Genius bravery did not give up

  9. Reblogged this on California freelance paralegal and commented:
    This is a very inspiring story that should be duplicated all over the United States.

  10. Yay!! Thank you Neil for posting this!
    FYI, I’m still in my home too!

    Sent from my iPad

  11. You cannot win if you do not play the game.

  12. Good for you Ms. McGriff. these kind of stories are so good to hear about. I have been fighting nasty old racketeering Bank of America for over 8 years and don’t know if I will ever get anywhere when our very own government is part of the huge financial collapse and bailing out the wrong people, but I won’t give up and it is great that you finally won back what was taken from you.
    My one foreclosure was totally wrongful and fraudulent on behalf of MERS, Bank of America, the local phony court system, and the alleged assignment was executed by Michele Sjolander- a well known “robosigner” and a crooked lawfirm that was fined by the Colorado AG back in 2016. The Janeway lawfirm is allegedly bank rolled by a huge lawfirm out of state!!! I will hang in there!!! Semper Fi

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