December 3, 2008 in Business

Taking up residence

Activist helps homeless move into foreclosed homes
By TAMARA LUSH Associated Press
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Marie Nadine Pierre holds her daughter, Nennon, as she walks around inside the house where she lives in Miami. Pierre is squatting in a foreclosed house.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

MIAMI – Max Rameau delivers his sales pitch like a pro. “All tile floor!” he says during a recent showing. “And the living room, wow! It has great blinds.”

But in nearly every other respect, he is unlike any real estate agent you’ve ever met. He is unshaven, drives a beat-up car and wears grungy cut-off sweat pants. He also breaks into the homes he shows. And his clients don’t have a dime for a down payment.

Rameau is an activist who has been executing a bailout plan of his own around Miami’s empty streets: He is helping homeless people illegally move into foreclosed homes.

“We’re matching homeless people with people-less homes,” he said.

Rameau and a group of like-minded advocates formed Take Back the Land, which also helps the new “tenants” with secondhand furniture, cleaning supplies and yard upkeep. So far, he has moved six families into foreclosed homes and has nine on a waiting list.

“I think everyone deserves a home,” said Rameau, who said he takes no money from his work with the homeless. “Homeless people across the country are squatting in empty homes. The question is: Is this going to be done out of desperation or with direction?”

With the housing market collapsing, squatting in foreclosed homes is believed to be on the rise around the country.

But squatters usually move in on their own, at night, when no one is watching. Rarely is the phenomenon as organized as Rameau’s effort to “liberate” foreclosed homes.

Florida – especially the Miami area, with its once-booming condo market – is one of the hardest-hit states in the housing crisis, largely because of overbuilding and speculation.

In early November, Rameau drove a woman and her 18-month-old daughter to a ranch home on a quiet street lined with swaying tropical foliage. Marie Nadine Pierre, 39, has been sleeping at a shelter with her toddler. She said she had been homeless off and on for a year, after losing various jobs and getting evicted from several apartments.

“My heart is heavy. I’ve lived in a lot of different shelters, a lot of bad situations,” Pierre said. “In my own home, I’m free. I’m a human being now.”

Rameau chose the house for Pierre, in part, because he knew its history. A man had bought the home in the city’s predominantly Haitian neighborhood in 2006 for $430,000, then rented it to Rameau’s friends. Those friends were evicted in October because the homeowner had stopped paying his mortgage and the property went into foreclosure.

Rameau, who makes his living as a computer consultant, said he is doing the owner a favor. Before Pierre moved in, someone stole the air conditioning unit from the backyard, and it was only a matter of time before thieves took the copper pipes and wiring, he said.

“Within a couple of months, this place would be stripped and drug dealers would be living here,” he said.

Miami spokeswoman Kelly Penton said city officials did not know Rameau was moving homeless into empty buildings – but they are also not stopping him. It’s up to property owners to remove trespassers, she said.

Pierre herself could be charged with trespassing, vandalism or breaking and entering. Rameau assured her he has lawyers who will represent her free.

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