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To Save Their Home, Van Nuys Family Joins With Activists To Erect 'Fort Hernandez'

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By Bethania Palma Markus

It's been roughly five years since the U.S. foreclosure crisis began, but substantial, widespread help for troubled borrowers has yet to materialize. Foreclosures continue to sweep across the country. When the Hernandez family of Van Nuys went into foreclosure last month, they had no interest in becoming one of these statistics. With help from loved ones, the Occupy movement and the community, they decided to stand their ground.

The beginning of their story started the same as millions of borrowers nationwide. When the housing bubble burst, their adjustable rate mortgage jumped from $3,900 to $4,500 monthly, and they began having trouble making payments. Ulises Hernandez said their lender, Countrywide (now Bank of America), told them to stop making payments so they could qualify for a loan modification.

"We applied for one and they denied us. We applied for a second time, and they denied us again," he said, sitting outside the home at 14620 Leadwell Street.

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As the family was in the process of applying a third time, the bank sold their house out from under them to Bank of New York Mellon. After four years of slogging unsuccessfully through bank paperwork and being denied assistance, the family got notice that they were to vacate the property by August 26.

They erected barricades instead. According to their Facebook page, they intend to "peacefully resist until Bank of America negotiates in good faith, or the Sheriffs come."

Dozens of supporters have hunkered down at the Hernandez home. Their front lawn is a colorful mélange of banners, posters and human activity. Couches are lined up just beyond the front walkway, where they casually perch and watch the perimeter of what's now known as "Fort Hernandez."

The activists believe the situation symbolizes the heart of American economic injustice: ordinary people left dangling precariously while banks were rescued with their tax dollars, and no hope for a solution in sight.

As of August 2012, one in every 681 American homes is in foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac. Statistics show about 4 million families lost homes to foreclosure since the start of the crisis in December 2007, and millions more are in danger. According to RealtyTrac, there are hundreds of homes in the Hernandez's ZIP code in the foreclosure process.

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The housing crisis and ensuing economic fallout rolled back hard-won progress for Latino and black communities, draining untold wealth from neighborhoods. Van Nuys is roughly 60 percent Latino, according to a 2009 Los Angeles Times survey. A 2010 study by the Center for Responsible Lending showed black and Latino families were specifically vulnerable to predatory loans. They were a whopping 70 percent more likely to suffer foreclosure than whites.

"All their wealth was in their homes," said Occupier Esho Funi. "There's no wealth left in those neighborhoods, and these families are less likely to fight back."

In the meantime, the federal government used $700 billion in public funds to rescue banks who'd given out the failing home loans.

"If people were going to lose their houses anyway, I'd rather have not given the banks that $700 billion," Funi said.

Fellow activist Jesus Ramos agreed.

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"This is a direct attack on people's right to housing," he said. "It's displacing people. They're disintegrating families."

Occupier Adam Rice was blunter.

"They don't give a fuck about people. They just want the land," he said.

Ulises Hernandez pointed out that if they lose the home, the family of nine, including four children, would most likely have to splinter as they seek shelter, as did neighbors in a now-vacant foreclosed home across from Fort Hernandez.

Even more chilling is the escalation of what Fort Hernandez activists characterize as intimidation by authorities. On Sept. 17, a social worker came to the door with police at midnight and said he was responding to a report there was no running water in the house. He demanded to see the family's 5 year old.

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(We asked both the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services and the Bank of New York Mellon to provide a comment on the Hernandez case. Neither have responded, but we will update this post if we receive a comment.)

In response, Fort Hernandez quickly posted video on their Facebook page showing running faucets. But Ulises said the county now has an open case on the family.

"It's funny, they come here with Child Protective Services, but they won't go knock on the door of the bank CEO for throwing millions of children out of their homes," he said.

Within the last week, Los Angeles police have begun constantly patrolling the block and impounded an activist's car for having out-of-state plates. For now, Fort Hernandez is in a holding pattern, waiting to see whether the bank will negotiate with them or send the police to raid them. But Fort Hernandez isn't backing down because it's not just about them, they pointed out.

"If we were the only family losing our house, we wouldn't have taken this stand," Ulises Hernandez said. "Millions of houses have been taken away. Millions more are being taken away."