Activist steers homeless to empty homes
Squatters exploit foreclosure crisis
MIAMI - Max Rameau delivers his sales pitch like a pro. "All tile floor!" he says. "And the living room, wow! It has great blinds."
But he is unlike any real estate agent you've 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.
Rameau has been executing a bailout plan of his own around Miami: He is helping homeless people illegally move into foreclosed homes.
"We're matching homeless people with people-less homes," he said with a grin.
Rameau and like-minded advocates formed Take Back the Land, which also helps the new "tenants" with 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. "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?"
Florida is one of the hardest-hit states in the housing crisis, largely because of overbuilding and speculation. In September, it had the second-highest foreclosure rate, with one out of 178 homes in default, according to Realty Trac. Only Nevada's rate was higher.
Like other cities, Miami is trying to ease the problem. Officials launched a foreclosure-prevention program, with loans of up to $7,500 per household. The city also passed an ordinance requiring owners of empty homes to register the properties so police can monitor them.
In early November, Rameau drove a woman and her 18-month old daughter to a ranch home on a quiet street. Marie Nadine Pierre, 39, had been sleeping at a shelter.
"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 2006 for $430,000, then rented it to Rameau's friends, who were evicted because the homeowner stopped paying his mortgage and the property went into foreclosure.
Rameau, a computer consultant, said he's doing the owner a favor. Before Pierre moved in, someone stole the air conditioning unit. "Within a couple of months, this place would be stripped and drug dealers would be living here," he said.
He said he is not afraid of arrest. "There's a real need here, and there's a disconnect between the need and the law," he said.
City spokeswoman Kelly Penton said officials did not know Rameau was moving the homeless into empty buildings - but "There are no actions on the city's part to stop this."
"It is important to note that if people trespass into private property, it is up to the property owner to take action."
Pierre could be charged with trespassing or breaking and entering. Rameau assured her he has lawyers who will represent her for free.
Two weeks after Pierre moved in, she came home to find the locks had been changed. Her food, clothes, and family photos were gone. But late last month, with Rameau's help, she got back in. So far, the police have not gotten involved.