- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

MIAMI

Max Rameau delivers his sales pitch like a pro. “All tile floor!” he said 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.

Mr. 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 with a grin.

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

Florida, especially the Miami area, with its once-booming condominium market, is one of the hardest-hit states in the housing crisis, largely because of overbuilding and speculation. In September, Florida had the nation’s second-highest foreclosure rate, with one out of every 178 homes in default, according to RealtyTrac Inc., an online marketer of foreclosed properties. Only Nevada’s rate was higher.

Like other cities, Miami is trying to ease the problem. Officials launched a foreclosure-prevention program to help homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgage, with loans of up to $7,500 per household.

The city also recently passed an ordinance requiring owners of abandoned homes - whether an individual or bank - to register those properties with the city so that police can better monitor them.

Elsewhere, advocates in Cleveland are working with the city to allow homeless people to legally move into and repair empty, dilapidated houses. In Atlanta, some property owners pay homeless people to live in abandoned homes as a security measure.

In early November, Mr. 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,” Miss Pierre said. “In my own home, I’m free. I’m a human being now.”

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