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Fighting for Housing Rights in Rochester, NY

Posted by Ryan Hall

The following article was written by George Payne with Gandhi Earth Keepers International, a Campaign Nonviolence Endorsing Organization. Several housing rights organizations led by Take Back the Land launched an Eviction Watch rally and daily vigil at Joe Woods’ House in the Beechwood Neighborhood of downtown Rochester, NY. Participants were willing to use civil disobedience, including locking themselves to the steps of the house. Others chose to give speeches, engage with the media, chant, and even meditate. Below is a short reflection about the meaning of home and the right to housing in this country.


IMG_20150611_204619Joe Woods has lived in his home on 394 Webster Avenue for over 25 years. He has raised his kids in this home. When the financial crisis left his wife, Glenda, unemployed in 2009, reducing the family’s income, the Woods came together to support each other and make good on all of the debts. MidFirst Bank elected not to accept payments on the house, and instead of negotiating further, they foreclosed. According to Woods, their best offer was a “Cash for Keys” deal of $5000. If he was not willing to give them his home for that price, they told him that he could buy back his home for $108,000, despite it’s assessed value of $28,000.

Based on their actions, it appears that MidFirst Bank does not care who owns this home.

IMG_20150611_205131Furthermore, it also appears that the City of Rochester does not care either. Ignoring several calls for a moratorium on police enforced evictions, the Lovely Warren administration has demonstrated that it is able and willing to use taxpayer dollars to threaten and physically coerce homeowners. And sadly, many residents of Monroe County and the City of Rochester support the Mayor’s policy. Her proponents view these type of housing rights campaigns- and the “eviction watches” they utilize to garner public attention- as politically misguided and socially unrealistic. There is a visceral reaction against these “eviction watches” that is influenced by several threads of resentment, including anti-communism, anti-socialism, racism, and classism.

In spite of this widespread indifference towards his plight, what gets overlooked is that every single American possesses the right to have adequate housing. This right is implied by the U.S. Constitution, and it became an international law signed by the United Sates in 1948, when our leaders approved Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This founding UN document states: “Every one has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, involving food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

IMG_20150611_204735 (1)When people argue that housing is not a legal right, they are actually choosing to obey an inferior law that is not recognized as being morally legitimate by the vast majority of global citizens. As MLK liked to point out, everything Hitler did was legal in Nazi Germany. In fact, authoritarian governments have always implemented laws that serve their purposes at the expense of poor and disenfranchised peoples. Slavery became lawful when the State of Virginia voted time and again to enshrine it as a immutable doctrine. Similarly, in the 18th and 19th centuries it was lawful to work children until they died of exhaustion or illness in factories in places like Chicago, Boston and New York City. Just because a law is written in a book, voted on in an election, and ruthlessly enforced out in the streets, does not make it worth following. There are human laws and there are natural laws. The right to shelter is a natural law. Not only is it based on common sense and common decency, it is universally agreed upon by anyone who requires protection from the elements and privacy from the world. The only people who say that housing is not a universal right live in secure, comfortable and permanent dwellings.

IMG_20150611_205508Empowered by this innate knowledge of his lawful right to occupy his home, Joe Woods is aware that MidFirst Bank does not have a moral right to evict him. Moreover, Woods knows that the City of Rochester does not have a moral right to use taxpayer dollars to intimidate and dispossess homeowners of their property and belongings. He also knows that this policy is at odds with the strategic goals of “rehabilitating” the Beechwood and Marketview Heights neighborhoods. The only way to truly rehabilitate a neighborhood is to establish relationships with its residents that are built on trust and mutual respect. Sending heavily armored police officers to force people out of their homes is no way to build trust. The alternative to fair negotiations and finding a way to keep Mr. Woods in his home, is to make one more citizen homeless and to leave another empty building in a neglected neighborhood. This is not a solution that our community can afford.

That being said, if a home is that familiar place that one returns to because it shelters the people and values that we feel most obligated to defend, then after 25 years of sacrifice and devotion, Joe Woods has earned the right to be the true homeowner of 394 Webster Ave. In my mind, he is a hero. By choosing to stay in his home and risk arrest, Woods not only defended the memories and aspirations of his family, the integrity of the Beechwood neighborhood, and the mission of his fellow activists with Take Back the Land Rochester, but he stood up for a natural right that belongs to every sovereign person in our world today. Rather than dismiss his crusade, we should celebrate his courage and rally around his family in their hour of need. That hour has surely come.

IMG_20150611_205625In the early morning of Wednesday, June 17th, 2015, the City Marshal and Rochester Police Department arrested six protestors defending Joe Woods’ right to remain in his home Take Back the Land spokespersons reported that “Mr. Woods was coerced by the police to leave his home, as the result of what they perceived to be an underhanded tactic. Woods and his daughters were in the house and refused to leave. When one of his daughters stepped outside, she was arrested, and taken to the downtown jail. Joe was then told that she would not be charged if he abandoned the house. Joe and his other family members in the house agreed to leave, and left in their car to go downtown to retrieve his daughter. Once gone the house was boarded up by contractors sent by the bank. At that point a number of protestors were arrested after they crossed the police barriers.“

To support the Woods family and to learn more about Take Back the Land Rochester, visit:

*All photos were taken by George Payne.

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