Ten years after the end of the financial crisis that forced nearly 4 million Americans into foreclosure, the Kinney family and the so-called Red House on Mississippi have become a flashpoint over the inequities facing Black families and people of color in inner North and Northeast Portland.
On one side, thousands of people have contributed cash in an effort to repurchase the house, which the family lost in a 2018 foreclosure sale. Hundreds showed up on Dec. 8 to prevent their forcible eviction and have maintained an occupation and ongoing protest at the home for months.
But others have far less sympathy for the family, who identifies as Afro-Indigenous. Critics question their past legal issues, failure to make mortgage payments and the sovereign citizen beliefs espoused by Julie Ann Metcalf Kinney and her son, William Kinney III, who now goes by William X. Nietzche.
Some neighbors are supportive of the Kinneys’ cause, but others say they’ve been threatened and intimidated by the family’s sympathizers. After months of vandalism, trespassing and occupation at the house on North Mississippi Ave., they are scared and exhausted. They say city, county and police leaders have ignored their calls for help, leading them to think they’re more concerned with public relations optics than enforcing the law.
Meanwhile, the Red House on Mississippi has become one of the most active topics on the Portland subreddit, a social media forum where participants have dissected and debated the Kinneys’ situation.
The Kinneys lost their home because after 13 years of faithfully paying their mortgage, they stopped in January 2017. They said they were confused about who to pay when the loan was sold and the servicer changed, and missed the next 17 payments. They declined to participate in the state’s foreclosure avoidance program, which would have provided a mediator to help negotiate terms with the lender.
Instead, the family made an increasingly questionable set of claims to the lender, essentially that as indigenous people and sovereign citizens, the bank had no right to collect on the loan. Courts have rejected their claims against lenders and other parties involved.
The GoFundMe fundraising pitch for the Kinneys says the “attack on their family” started in 2002, when they had to take out a $96,300 adjustable-rate mortgage to pay off their son’s legal fees after he was involved in what it describes as an “automobile accident.” As a teen-ager, William Kinney III was charged with manslaughter, reckless driving and felony hit and run after he sped through a stop sign and hit another vehicle, killing an 83-year-old man and seriously injuring his wife.
But in 2001, a year before the incident, the Kinney took out a $55,000 loan against the house. The interest rates on their successive refinancings were higher than average mortgage rates at the time, and one included a steep origination fee and disability insurance payments that lending advocates criticize as abusive. But by the time of their default, 13 years later, their loan terms had improved and weren’t as onerous.
While some rallied behind the family, others believe the family is exploiting community sympathy to fix a problem that was self-inflicted.
Experts say the family’s statements in legal filings, in communications with lenders and in videos posted online have all the hallmarks of the Moorish sovereign citizen movement, whose adherents believe they are independent of federal and state authority. Debt elimination is one of the movement’s central themes.
Coupled with the increasingly militant stance of the Kinneys’ sympathizers, that has prompted neighbors to say Mayor Ted Wheeler should have maintained a hard line to end the ongoing occupation that for several days blocked public streets and sidewalk.
Critics have also asked GoFundMe to suspend the family’s fundraiser, which has raised enough to repurchase the house, as they feel the plea to the public was misleading.
“As a Black Man in Portland this is shameful,” a Reddit contributor posted to one of more than a dozen threads on the subject. “I have been told to ‘pick a side’ because I see this as one big scam…I beg people start looking at the bigger picture, ignore these loons and donate to causes that ACTUALLY help Afro-Indigenous houseless people.”
Haley Flood, a Portland service worker, spent hours combing through the Kinneys’ legal filings and educating herself on the sovereign citizen philosophy after she heard about the family’s campaign on social media. She then decided to post it all on Reddit, attracting hundreds of comments.
Flood says she’s sympathetic to the plight of residents who have faced discrimination, gentrification, predatory lending practices and foreclosure. “I just don’t think this is the family to rally behind.”
Others who are familiar with conflicting aspects of the Kinneys’ story say they still support the family. Bruce Knivila, a Portland attorney who has acted as a legal observer at racial justice protests for the ACLU, says he’s made a couple donations to the family’s GoFundMe campaign, the last for $300. He believes the sovereign citizen issue has been overblown, and the balance of equity still rests with the Kinneys.
“It was unfortunate the family decided to represent themselves” in court, he said. “There were a number of avenues they weren’t aware of that might have resolved this, and some of the defenses they asserted were difficult for the court to adjudicate in their favor.”
The Kinneys and the organizer of their GoFundMe campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But the family said in a Dec. 14 news release that the press was attempting to discredit their legal approach by conflating it with the “white supremacist sovereign citizen movement, which is completely absurd and has no connection to the family’s fight for Indigenous rights. This Afro-Indigenous family is reclaiming the land—invoking their right to self-determination and ancestral right to inhabit the land.
“We have an inherent right to be here, and you displaced us,” Julie Ann Metcalf Kinney said.
The Kinneys’ fundraising efforts have been extensive and successful. So far, more than 6,000 people have donated to the GoFundMe campaign organized on their behalf, some donors making contributions as high as $10,000.
The campaign has raised $315,000 so far, presumably more than enough to repurchase the home from the developer who bought it in the 2018 foreclosure auction for $260,000. The developer, Roman Ozeruga, has said he’s willing to sell the house back to the family at cost, plus taxes and legal costs, but he says he hasn’t heard from the family.
But the family may not be willing to pay that much.
“They practically put the home in shambles so buying the house back at what they paid for it, it’s like…we gotta just start the negotiations,” said one family member at a press conference Friday at which they declined to take questions from The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Presumably, the Kinneys also received the net proceeds from the 2018 foreclosure auction after subtracting their debt, late fees and any other penalties. The notice of sale in the foreclosure said the family owed a total of $112,339.
The family has also been soliciting donations on Venmo and the CashApp. It’s unclear how much money they have raised, or where it is going.
Now community organizations are joining the effort.
The People’s Food Coop in Southeast Portland, for example, planned a fundraiser from Dec. 18 through New Year’s, where shoppers can round up to the next dollar or make any donation at the register in support of “a real time fight against gentrification.”
The climate justice organization, 350PDX, has asked it supporters to “stand with the Red House and their efforts to protect the space,” either by grabbing “your protective gear and head to the location” or writing to elected officials, contributing money or donating supplies.
Michael Kinney said at the Friday news conference that the family has not yet spent the money it has raised. “Right now, it is just held in the community’s trust,” he said.
GoFundMe acknowledged that it had received complaints about the fundraiser.
“We take all complaints seriously and have reached out to the organizer for more information to ensure the funds safely reach the Kinney family,” said Jenny Perillo, a spokeswoman for the company. “This GoFundMe is not in violation of our GoFundMe terms of service.”
Those terms say, in part, that the company “cannot verify the information that users or campaigns supply, nor do we represent or guarantee that the Donations will be used in accordance with any fundraising purpose prescribed by a User or Campaign.”
Other supporters of the campaign say they’re aware of the controversy over the family’s story, but still support them.
Tanya Stere, a Portland resident who donated $325 to the campaign, says she used to work in the software field that supported the finance industry. She said “the predatory and illegal practices that major banks leverage are some of the most devious and horrendous things to come to light in the 21st century.”
Stere says she’s read some of the coverage of the Kinney’s story after making her donation, which she made after some brief research on her lunch break.
“I probably would have still donated, but a lesser value,” she said. “There’s a lot that makes it a much muddier case than what I originally found in my research. Sovereign citizen claims are definitely outside of the norm, but there was still enough going on from the banks that could cause pause and confusion for the average person that I think I would have still given in support of their cause.”
Luisa Adrianzen Guyer, a Portlander who gave $100 to the campaign, says she was also motivated by the larger issue of predatory banking practices for poor people. She learned some of the details of the story after the fact, but said that wouldn’t dissuade her.
“I like to think the $100 I gave helped the family overall,” she said. “I’d still do it again. It’s shining a light on important issues, on how incredibly brutal the financial system can be.”
— Ted Sickinger; email@example.com; 503-221-8505; @tedsickinger