Rochester family stops mortgage vultures

November 22, 2011

Brian Lenzo reports on a victory for a Rochester family fighting to stay in their home--and how activist pressure made the difference.

WHAT STARTED as a spirited rally against tax breaks for millionaires turned into a victory celebration for the Steidel family in their struggle against Wells Fargo, Freddie Mac and the notoriously corrupt Stephen J. Baum law firm in Rochester, N.Y.

On November 14, over 120 people rallied at Washington Square Park, the site of Occupy Rochester's 24-hour encampment, to protest New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to let a tax surcharge on wealthy New Yorker's incomes expire--the so-called "millionaires' tax." The event was called jointly by the We Are One Rochester Network, a coalition of unions and community groups, and Occupy Rochester.

As the spirited rally wound down, Harold Steidel suddenly took the megaphone to announce that he had secured a 30-day suspension of the eviction notice his family received on November 14. This is a remarkable victory, not only for the Steidels, but also for Take Back the Land and Occupy Rochester.

The Steidel family's story is, unfortunately, a familiar one. The combined effect of the economic crisis and a series of health issues severely impacted their ability to meet the original terms of their mortgage. They tried for over a year to simply modify the terms and arrange a new payment plan with the bank, Wells Fargo.

Supporters of Occupy Rochester rally against corporate greed and foreclosures
Supporters of Occupy Rochester rally against corporate greed and foreclosures

They were told to let their payments lapse so they would qualify for modification. However, instead of moving into mediation, the bank immediately began foreclosing, transferring the property to Freddie Mac and the Stephen J. Baum firm. The banks and lawyers refused to negotiate, even after Harold Steidel drove to Baum's offices in Buffalo, N.Y., with a $40,000 check to put as a down payment on their debts.

The Steidels received notice that their home would be foreclosed on in September. Not knowing what else to do, Maria Steidel remembered seeing Take Back the Land Rochester (TBTL) on the news, after the group successfully defended the Lennon Family from eviction earlier this year. She called the news station, and luckily, they gave her contact information that put her in touch with TBTL and, ultimately, Occupy Rochester.

In the past two weeks, numerous protests and actions were organized to support the Steidels in the fight to keep their home. An impromptu press conference was held just as Rochester Mayor Richards appeared, media in tow, to sign an agreement with Occupy Rochester for our right to camp 24 hours a day.

On November 7, 90 people protested outside Wells Fargo's Rochester offices, demanding they negotiate with the family. Three dozen protesters from Occupy Buffalo also demonstrated in front of the Amherst offices of Steven J. Baum PC, denouncing the controversial foreclosure attorney and calling on state authorities to shut down his office, take away his law license and even put him in jail.

Occupy Rochester and publicly announced its intention to set up an encampment on the Steidel's front lawn to prevent the imminent eviction and draw media attention to the case. However, it never came to that. Harold and Maria received word that they had secured at 30-day suspension of the eviction notice. Furthermore, Freddie Mac announced that they were pulling Steven J. Baum's firm off every foreclosure case they had.

The implications of this move on other families and their cases is unclear. However, Baum's firm was one of the largest handlers of foreclosures in upstate New York, and any uncertainty over the company's legal practices and filings could mean a delay on thousands of foreclosure cases.

Following similar victories in San Francisco, Minneapolis and a number of other cities, the Occupy Movement is proving it is willing to fight on the front lines of the war on working people. More importantly, it is proving that it can win.

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