Boulders Still on the Road Forward for Standing Rock

New Orleans    The headlines on the progressive websites have been big and bold and heralded that “Resistance Works” in the wake of the delay won this week in construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Oahe Reservoir, the subject of massive protests by the Standing Rock Sioux and thousands of supporters. The websites are right – protests did work.

But, it was more than simple protests. What worked was a massive and entrenched show of force in the face of a confrontation that clearly no one on either side really wanted, no matter how much some of the fire breathers from the sheriff’s office and elsewhere might have wanted to provoke conflict and violence. The prospect of violence was likely a bigger threat than any slogans on protest signs.

The scale shifted decidedly in favor of the protestors when groups mobilizing veterans to support the Standing Rock Sioux announced that they would arrive coinciding with the state’s attempt to close the park where much of the encampment was located. The million dollars raised by the veterans on GoFundMe’s website was a serious statement. They claimed that 2000 veterans had signed up, and they were disciplined and talking tough. News accounts indicated that certainly 250 actually did come for sure and likely more where there, but by that time the Army Corp of Engineers had finally blinked, likely with a huge shove from the White House and denied the permit at least for now.

The pictures of the protests and reports from the field were heroic. This all looks like a modern day Valley Forge with protestors hunkered down and flag waving the snow. The mounted horsemen are dramatic. The symbols are stark. The Indians are resolute. And, truth to tell, they all look freezing cold and miserable! Winter in North Dakota is no one’s idea of a vacation spot in December. This is serious business.

Equally sobering is the flimsy feeling of the victory, since temporary is stamped all over it. The North Dakota congressman says build, baby, build. President-elect Trump has said he’s for finishing the job. He’s even interviewing oil company executives these days for jobs like Secretary of State for goodness sakes. Environmental lawyers said they would sue over any re-issuance of the permit, and the demands for a complete environmental study looking at alternatives is still reasonable and right. The head of the tribe played the situation perfectly by saying he looked forward to having an opportunity to make the case for rerouting the pipeline to Trump when possible.

A standing party will likely maintain the encampment through the winter until spring. Better weather will offer the opportunity to revive the support, because this fight could become iconic as the delays stretch from months into potential years. Even the pipeline builders with enough time may want to reroute just to be done with the job so that they can see the oil coursing through the pipes and collect their final paychecks.

A battle may have been won, but not the war. There’s a whole lot more fighting that will have to be done before all of us can count coup on another pipeline project.

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They’re Coming After Unions at Every Level

The Great Philadelphia Textile Strike of 1903

The Great Philadelphia Textile Strike of 1903

New Orleans    There is little question that the conservatives are coming after unions, even while they make the outrageous claim that they are now the workers’ party in the wake of the recent election.

Since the Wisconsin counterrevolution when the right was successful in eliminating union shop for public employees, the drums have been beating all over the country. Most observers believe that the challenge in California to union security provisions allowing dues or servicing fees to be collected for teachers would have prevailed on appeal at the US Supreme Court level if Justice Antonin Scalia had not suddenly passed away, leaving a tie vote and saving union security for another day. With Trump likely to nominate a hard right conservative justice as soon as he sits in the Oval Office swivel chair, there will be new challenges wending their way to the Court as quickly as they can be filed, and there are likely challenges already in process.

Kentucky Republicans tried an end around by allowing local counties to adopt so-called right-to-work laws eliminating union shop provisions, since they couldn’t get it done on a statewide level. The US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal unanimously overturned a local federal court that had nixed that maneuver. Right now that means this is possible in that court’s jurisdiction where Kentucky and Ohio are still union shop states, while it is still amazing to write that Michigan is a relatively new right-to-work state and Tennessee has long had right-to-work on its books. The Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity is touting the fact that this is also the strategy for the far right Illinois governor, and should be a precedent. They don’t mention that according to research, “Decisions issued by the Sixth Circuit were reversed by the United States Supreme Court 24 out of the 25 times they were reviewed in the five annual terms starting in October 2008 and ending in June 2013 — a higher frequency than any other federal appellate court during that time period.” With the new Supreme Court maybe they don’t need to do so, but it’s not a slam dunk since the issue is whether home rule provisions within a state can preempt the ability of a state to prevent patchwork measures like this.

Reportedly, there are going to federal bills for a national right-to-work. It might not make it through the Senate of course, and perhaps despite the huge wall that Trump will build between himself and his buildings, construction unions can drop their tools until the kids figure out a way to send smoke signals or something down to DC until he gets the message.

Meanwhile this will all be Koch Brothers everywhere you look, which means bills re-introduced in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere to eliminate all payroll deductions for unions. I’m not sure the United Way and insurance companies are going to save us, and an equal protection suit could be dragged out for years while local unions starve to death.

It won’t be the end of the world for unions, but it could be the end of the world as we know it now.

***

Gil Scott-Heron and his Amnesia Express sing “Three Miles Down” from March 14, 1990 in London, UK. A song for the Coal Miners.

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Not the Doctor to Fix America’s Housing and Urban Issues

558New Orleans  It is hard to escape the feeling that the only reason that President-elect Trump is preparing to recommend Dr. Ben Carson as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is because he is an African-American, and that somehow aligns with Trump’s view of those parts of urban America where he doesn’t have any financial interests in golf courses, hotels, or casinos and are too far to be seen from any of his towers. I can almost see his gears grinding as he comes to the conclusion that urban means crime means black, so let’s tweet!

Carson might argue, as undoubtedly he will, that he’s “good to go” in this job because he lived in public housing in Detroit. If that’s a qualification for running the immensely important HUD operation, then there are several million residents of public or subsidized housing that would arguably be more able to make that case for their own candidacy than than the rich, right neurosurgeon, Ben Carson. Paul Newman was probably Trump’s first choice to run HUD, because after all he starred in a movie called “Hud,” so that probably would have been perfect in Trump-tweet-world, and he probably was disappointed when someone told him that Newman was now dead.

Carson is wrongheaded, but that is not to say that he’s not a smart man, which is why he dillydallied around for weeks after his name first surfaced, probably hoping that he would be offered something different where he wouldn’t have had to buy a clue. Bromides about bootstraps are not really a plan for fair housing or urban development. Retooling Community Development Block Grant money, specifically designed for lower income communities into some kind of pretzel-shaped monstrosity that funds real estate developments and hotels and other stuff that the boss in the White House might embrace, is hardly a fix for anything other than some developer’s profit-and-loss statement.

The only thing that emerged clearly from Carson’s campaign was his interest in increasing his book sales. Even if he cajoles every housing authority in the country into buying a copy, someone needs to tell him that most housing project residents are not going to be running over to make sure one of his volumes is in their libraries. The campaign was recent enough that most of us can recall that in the debates, Dr. Carson was pretty much lost at sea on both domestic and international issues, none of which will make anyone who cares about the desperate needs of urban America sleep better knowing that he is running the show.

The fact that Carson has no experience in running anything doesn’t matter to Trump and almost seems like nitpicking for us to point out since almost none of Trump’s other appointees have much of any experience with the content of their coming portfolios either. I would hate to pick on Carson for that, because it would seem like I was discriminating. Nonetheless, former Philadelphia Mayor Nutter may have said it best in talking to a Times reporter about the likely incoming HUD Secretary:

“I’m proud that I had seven years with President Barack Obama, who actually knew about community development because he was a community organizer,” Mr. Nutter said. “To the Philadelphia city government: Good luck dealing with the Trump administration.”

And, good luck to the rest of us and the country!

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Bottom Feeders, Home Dreamers, and Big Time Realty Schemers

foreclosureChicago     When neighborhoods are wracked by foreclosures and the abandonment that accompanied the 2008 Great Recession and financial chicanery that popped the real estate bubble, significant studies have documented the loss in value experienced not only by houses on the block, but also houses within a mile away that also lose value. Put enough abandonment together and there is a tipping point that can change the reputation and economic reality of an entire neighborhood. It’s what blockbusting, real estate speculation, federal financing restrictions, and legal segregation did to thousands of urban neighborhoods fifty years ago. It’s also what inadequate foreclosure relief and similar speculation, credit deprivation, and legal indifference has the capacity to do now in thousands of communities not only in urban areas, but also suburban and exurban developments where a lot of the foreclosure crisis was centered.

Working with former ACORN organizers in the Phoenix area in 2009 and 2010 on an anti-foreclosure strategy in close-in Phoenix neighborhoods that had been working and lower middle income, brick, one-story houses, some even with small swimming pools, the foreclosed houses at 35 miles per hour wouldn’t look much different from those that were occupied, but slowing down or walking by, we could identify one in three that were clearly somewhere in the foreclosure process or already vacant. Houses that could have been valued at $150 to $200,000 in 2006 could be had for as low as $25 to $50,000 if a family would have been able to get credit, which was increasingly difficult under the tighter lending standards that accompanied the subprime lending market. The new suburbs of $250 to $400,000 houses 20 miles and more from the city center in the farther edges of Maricopa County were even in worse shape. We had meetings on some blocks where half to two-thirds of the streets were in some process of foreclosure.

Looking at the 153,000 properties in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio on the RealtyTrac foreclosure list more closely, there were a lot of conclusions that became clearer with more attention. The Fannie Mae dump of these houses wasn’t for pennies in 2012, 2013, and 2014. These were not $1000 giveaways. Yes, many of them were likely substantially devalued from their original purchase price, and that information wasn’t available to us, but we could see that these were not giveaways for the most part, but more market-corrections that could have been achieved if banks had modified by reducing principal to market, rather than forcing foreclosure. Now, in many cases as the houses moved the ones getting to eventual resale often were returning to higher assessed valuations.

The other thing that was increasingly clear is that we were wandering in the land of hopes and perhaps shady dreams more than we were dealing with big timers. Of the 153,000 plus homes, almost 115,000 were acquired from FNMA by individuals, maybe folks hoping for a home, and maybe small timers thinking they might make a buck on the come. Another 9000 or so bought between two and five from FNMA, and they were surely small time speculators, often concentrating on one suburb or city and hoping for the market to recover so they could make a buck. About 60 outfits including the big timer, Harbour Properties, picked up 50 homes or more. It’s worrisome to believe that targeting the big boys might not be enough to catch the small fry and to sort out where the devil might be swimming in the deep blue sea on predatory contract-for-deed purchases as well.

The impacts of all of these real estate plays are somewhat off the radar now, but their impacts in communities, more of which are suburban and exurban that was imaginable decades ago, is going to be huge.

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Looking Under the Hood at the Tragic FNMA Foreclosure Dump

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-9-18-38-amChicago   Foreclosures are terrible experiences for families and neighborhoods. More than 5 million homes were lost to foreclosures in the 2007-2008 housing crisis. Even today as home prices have largely moved back up to 2006 prices nationally, there are still more than 1 million foreclosures annually. As we all know, despite the numbers touted by big banks and government, the number of mortgage modifications was minuscule compared to the desperation and need of families, despite billions of federal dollars, because the banks drove the process, stuttering and stalling all the way while leaving millions under water, where many are still swimming.

After the pickup trucks, borrowed station wagons, and occasional moving vans pulled a family out of their home, sometimes with a sheriff pushing and real estate agent pulling them at the door, many of these homes ended up unsold and piled up in a heap at Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association, the quasi-public-private guarantor of the mortgage. Finally, in the early evening, our team in Chicago, trying to get our arms around a campaign to stop the predatory practices of contract-for-deed sales, got a list of 153,000 names and addresses of foreclosed properties that FNMA had dumped onto the market when they couldn’t be sold. These were just the properties in three states with about 50,000 in Illinois, 60,000 in Michigan, and 43000 or so in Ohio.

Going through the list, name by name, was a little like walking through a graveyard and trying to read the tombstones. These are the properties FNMA couldn’t sell and ended up packaging in twos and threes to individuals, tens to real estate brokers and construction companies, and hundreds to investors, and thousands to equity hedge fund operators like Harbour out of Dallas. Looking at the list, Harbour had picked 2500 roughly of its reported 6700 in just these three states. The Detroit Land Trust ended up with a pile, as did the Wayne County Treasury Department, and a number of other city and county receptacles of last resort when even these tranche investors of foreclosed properties couldn’t off load them.

A column in the list was even more depressing in some ways because it indicated where the FNMA dump still stands smoldering like the trash fires of La Matanza outside of Buenos Aires. The columns noted whether or not the properties were owner occupied or not. Yes, meant, yes. Zero mean no. Any random grouping of 30 or so entries would find as few as 8 and as many as 10 or one-third occupied.

We are still trying to pull the information out of the data to determine where predation in the form of contract-for-deed purchases are being used to continue the pattern of destruction and exploitation. What is clear to me so far though, as my fingers walk through the columns in the foreclosures dumped by FNMA, is that this kind of FNMA garbage heap destroyed thousands of families and thousands of neighborhood, lowering values and leaving abandonment and vacant, now deteriorating homes.

No matter what campaign we outline by the end of these days of meetings, there is no escaping the human and community tragedy all around us.

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Predatory Contract-for-Deed Sales Cast a Long Shadow in Chicago

Picture featured in the December 1968 edition of the Jesuit Bulletin.

Picture featured in the December 1968 edition of the Jesuit Bulletin.

Chicago  Sometimes it felt like fifty years ago.

That’s only partially because sometimes the conversation would toggle back and forth to the work the Contract Buyers’ League did on Chicago’s West and South Sides decades ago from 1967 to 1972 or so, as strategies and tactics that would address the current, horrid, predatory comeback of contract-for-deed purchases were compared to the old campaign in a day long and continuing conversation between CBL veteran organizers and leaders, contemporary activists, and concerned community and clergy. It is also because we were literally sitting among the remaining survivors of the ghettoization and depopulation of North Lawndale and Austin as we met in beautifully paneled rooms in one rectory in Lawndale and slept in the former rooms of long reassigned priests in the empty floors of another rectory in Austin managed by one priest now, where eight had once lived.

Real estate manipulation, financial exploitation, and banking and institutional abandonment and racism built these 21st Century neighborhoods, even as we examined the great battles 50 years ago that were heroic without being a turning point and sat among the beautiful architectural and institutional ruins of that time. Contract-for-deed purchases are a way that a seller buys distressed property and then exploits a buyer, a family, almost invariably low-and-moderate income and too often minority, by flipping the property without making repairs while extracting predatory payments at huge premiums almost hoping for a default since there is no equity and a quick eviction process, since there was no actual property transfer, allowing the seller to sell again to another victim or another greedy seller, and keep the cycle going again.

The Contract Buyers League was a campaign, spearheaded by Jack Macnamara, a former Jesuit seminarian then, who sat with us today, and a steady stream of almost eighty college students who did stints in summers and school semesters off-and-on for years as volunteers to staff the research, hit the doors, and help the members put together the weekly Wednesday meetings and constant diet of pickets, actions, and events. Around the table were some of those former students, including by old friends and comrades-in-arms from ACORN, the SEIU, and AFL-CIO Mike Gallagher from Boston and Mark Splain from the Bay Area as well as Jim Devaney, a former volunteer from Cincinnati. A former Black Panther from those days and other community leaders now tried to puzzle out how, with the reemergence of contract-for-deed activity now in the wake of the foreclosure crisis and home lending desert for lower income and working families, we might be able to refashion a Contract Buyers campaign that could work and win now.

It goes without saying that today is different than 50 years ago. Rather than being concentrated in neighborhoods like Lawndale and Austin in Chicago and other cities with large minority populations then, today the victims are spread throughout the metropolitan area. We looked at a sample list of contract buyers acquired by two vulture hedge fund operators and there were few in Chicago itself compared to working class suburbs and developments like Homewood, Hoffman Estates, and Orland Hills. How would we get the density that put hundreds in a room on a weekly basis 50 years ago? Estimates are as high as 7 million families who are under contract-for-deed agreements now nationally, but putting them together wouldn’t be easy. We were all veteran door knockers, but we talked about how to use data files, voter lists, robo-dialers, social media, and other tools to flush out the victims and leverage the public policy and political space to create change.

There’s more work to be done in coming days, but two things kept returning us to the task of today. One was hearing our new friends from these communities where we were meeting talking about how their father’s and grandmothers had bought and raised their families in contract houses. Another woman speculated that the mystery of how her sister had lost her house might have been through a contract-for-deed rip-off, and she left at the end of the day to call her and finally ask. And, then there were the stories of the actions, lawsuits, and even some victories of 50 years ago to continue to remind us that we could only really lose, if we refused to fight this plague once again.

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