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Occupiers in City Hall

The 99 percent comprised about 65 percent of the audience at Tuesday's meeting of the Buffalo Common Council's finance committee.

While a dozen or more occupiers of Niagara Square rode the elevators to the 13th floor of City Hall on Tuesday morning, representatives of JPMorgan Chase apparently sat in the 14th-floor office of South District Councilman Mickey Kearns, waiting to speak with him privately about the occupiers’ demand that the city stop doing business with the bank. Kearns, however, was in Council Chambers, chairing a meeting of the finance committee. He told the occupiers that whatever the bankers had to say should be said in the same public forum the committee offered to the protesters.

The Occupy Buffalo movement, in league with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy movements in other cities, arise out of the belief that the big banks, and the financial system generally, exploit the poor and middle class in the service of the very rich. In Buffalo, protesters have singled out Chase for its foreclosure policies and practices. Harold Miller of New York Communities for Change told the committee that, among the big mortgage servicers, Chase has the highest rate of foreclosures initiated and the second-highest rate of foreclosures completed, as well as an abysmal record of helping homeowners into mortgage adjustment programs that might allow them to keep their houses.

Miller said that in Western New York, homeowners who took a mortgage from Chase in 2006 or 2007—the years leading into the financial collapse precipitated by the subprime mortgage crisis—had a 76 percent chance of getting a subprime loan, compared to the average rate of 49 percent.

“Chase does not have the interest of Buffalo in mind. They are not designed to do so,” said Brian Trzeciak, one of Niagara Square’s occupiers. “Chase has proved that they are not of Buffalo. They remind us every time they file a foreclosure on our people instead of working for us.”

The members of the Common Council present for the committee meeting were largely sympathetic. “Chase seems to be the biggest offender, and no one seems to want to hold them accountable,” said Delaware District Councilman Mike LoCurto. “If we have to close accounts to get their attention, that’s what we should do.”

Deputy City Comptroller Darby Fishkin told the committee that the city maintained a couple of accounts with chase and has used the bank for some bond issues, all awarded through a competitive bid process. She warned that it would be bad policy for the city to base its choice of vendors on anything but financial considerations and might constitute a violation of the city charter.

But Kearns, who cited institutions like Bank of America for starting foreclosures and then failing to complete them, leaving properties in limbo, agreed with LoCurto. The Niagara District’s David Rivera wanted to make sure that whatever demands the city made of financial vendors like Chase would not cause a straitening of lending practices for low-income borrowers. And Lovejoy’s Rich Fontana asked that Occupy Buffalo and its allies file a formal list of complaints and demands on which the Common Council could base its actions, if any are taken.

In fact, Miller provided a preliminary list in his statement to the committee. Occupy Buffalo and NYCC are asking that JPMorgan Chase:

• stop all filed and unfiled foreclosure actions;

• put in place a mortgage modification process which is affordable, transparent, and timely;

• pay for an independent reviewer and pay for borrower representation for an independent appeal process for modification requests that are denied;

• pay restitution to homeowners who have lost their properties unfairly;

• release dates about proprietary and HAMP mortgage modifications.

Meantime, outside in Niagara Square, the 99 percenter encampment continues to grow: Another portable toilet and a new communal tent have been added, and the northeast corner of the square is a tent city now, as well as the southeast corner. The occupiers have undertaken regular forays into the streets of downtown and continue to plan solidarity actions with other activist organizations in the city. On Saturday, November 5 (“Remember, remember, the Fifth of November”), the occupiers will join forces with Buffalo First!, PUSH Buffalo, and host of other community groups to promote Buffalo Bank Transfer Day, an effort to convince Western New Yorkers to remove their assets from big banks in favor of local credit unions. There will be a workshop on the subject on Wednesday, November 1, 7pm, at the Buffalo First! offices (910 Main Street, above Hyatt’s).

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