They call it Fort Hernandez, the house on Leadwell Street in the heart of Van Nuys that has become a symbol of resistance as La Familia Hernandez and their Occupier friends fended off eviction for the past 122 days as of Christmas Day.
A 100-minute meeting between Monday morning between Sheriff’s Department civil commanders and three of Lupe Hernandez’s adult children – Javier, Brenda and Antonio – and their lawyer Philip Koebel bought them a last-minute reprieve from being removed by force if necessary from their house on Christmas Eve.
But deputies are due back sometime Wednesday, or maybe a few days later, with a court order to clear the premises of everyone – the family and the dozen or more supporters who have camped out on the lawn, built a high wooden wall around the front of the house and covered it with murals and political slogans.
Some will obey deputies’ orders and leave. Others will passively resist and face arrest. No one expects or wants violence but a large crowd of protesters connected to the Occupy Fights Foreclosures movement could descend on the house as they did in late October when LAPD officers bulldozed an earlier wall, used force against the protesters and brought in Children’s Services investigators because of the family’s youngest children.
It was the kind of heavy-handed harassment that helped put Fort Hernandez on the media map with coverage on TV and the press. The Sheriff is taking a different tack.
“It was extraordinary, the meeting with the sheriff’s officials, the most important I’ve ever had in this kind of case,” said Koebel, a Pasadena attorney who handles many eviction and tenants’ rights cases.
“They listened to what we had to say, all that’s wrong with this foreclosure, down to question of whether Bank of New York Mellon or Bank of America actually has title to the property and whether state law and bankruptcy law is being followed. Our hope is that they will give us the two weeks we have left to appeal the court’s order.”
For his part, Lt. Christopher Reed, head of the civil division who came from downtown to participate in the meeting, said his hands are tied.
“All we know is we have a court order to execute,” he said in the sixth floor hallway of the Van Nuys Courthouse. “In 99.9 percent of these cases, people leave voluntarily and that’s the end of it for us whatever else happens later in the courts. This case is different. We know that and are trying to be sensitive, help them find a housing alternative but their time is just about up.”
The family bought the house in 2006 with no money down and mortgage payments that they could manage because of an adjustable rate loan that would soon balloon right at the time Javier, 31, lost his job as a laborer.
He says the agent from Countrywide, Angelo Mozilo’s high-flying mortgage firm that went under in the economic collapse and became part of BoA, fudged their income numbers to make them eligible for the loan without explaining the high risk they faced when the interest rate began to rise.
“What did we know, it was a dream come true for us,” he said. “Now our best chance is going to be to go back to court and try to get our house back because the foreclosure wasn’t legal.”
Spirits were high on Christmas Eve at Fort Hernandez. They had won a victory against authority, a small victory to be sure in what Occupy Fights Foreclosure activists like Matt Ward see as a long struggle to force the banks to carry through on promises to provide loan modifications that keep people in their homes, to change the laws to protect the rights of tenants and home buyers, ultimately to change the world to the point everyone has a decent home.
“It’s not going to change over night,” he said. “But in a few months we’ve made a lot of progress. It takes people like the Hernandez family to stand up for their rights.”
On Sunday, Occupiers broke into the Lincoln Heights home of Soledad Corona, who was evicted Dec. 14 after a three-year fight, so the single mother and her family could spend the holidays in their house.
“Bank of America had announced in November that they would avoid foreclosures during the holidays. It turned out a blatant LIE,” according to a post on the Occupy Fights Foreclosures website. “ BoA continued their assault against families like the Corona family by fraudulently evicting them and none of 10 BoA officials we spoke in last few days, who continued to downplay their actions, gave us any reason why they broke their promise not to.”
For all the posturing at City Hall and in the Legislature about the evil banks and the unfairness of the laws, measures like the city’s protections for some tenants living in foreclosed properties and the state’s new Home Owner Bill of Rights, nearly 200 families face foreclosure in Van Nuys alone right now.
The Hernandez family is alone in fighting foreclsoure with the help of mostly young idealists who believe they can embarrass Bank of America into acting compassionately and government into taking strong steps, and attorney like Koebel who believes the laws support putting the family back into the house or paying as much as $100,000 to them under what’s called the homestead exemption.
“We just need our day in court but that could take four or five years the way the system works,” he said, “and the banks won’t be able to sell the property without a cloud over it. That’s the leverage we have.”