Property Tax Delinquency Auctions as Ghetto Creators and People Removers

Harbour Portfolio Advisers houses boarded and abandoned in suburban Atlanta

Atlanta  Two of the most heartbreaking and moving injustices we stumbled on when the ACORN Home Savers Campaign teams were doorknocking families in contract buying agreements in Detroit involved property tax delinquency auctions. It was a scam facilitated directly by the Wayne County Treasurer’s office and other government officials.

The easiest case for me to describe was on a door hit by the team I was on, though the other case was virtually identical. On our list we had the woman recorded as a contract buyer through one of the many subsidiaries of Detroit Property Exchange or DPX as locals call the company. When she answered the door she told us she was now the full owner of the property and rid of DPX. It seemed she had formerly held a conventional mortgage and was paying the mortgage servicer directly. Fairly typically, she was making a bundled payment to the bank’s mortgage servicer which included her insurance and property tax payments. She had gotten a call “out of the blue” from DPX some four years previously informing her that they now owned her home because they had bought it through a tax delinquency auction for $6000 in back taxes, because her servicer had gone bankrupt with no notice to her. They were calling to evict her, but they offered her a deal. She could pay the $6000 to DPX from the auction price, and the remainder of her mortgage obligation, some $15,000 to them, in monthly payments over a period of years, and she would own the house. Miraculously, she was able to do this by taking advantage of several “matching” offers DPX had made, mostly during tax refund time, where if you made accelerated payments of $1500 or more they would apply that payment and “match” it by deducting a similar amount from your obligation. She felt her story had a happy ending. We of course were horrified that she had been scammed by both DPX and that it had been enabled by the Wayne County Treasurer!

another home abandoned to tax auction

A brilliant op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Don’t Let Detroit’s Revival Rest on an Injustice” by professor and legal researcher, Bernadette Atuahene, argues that this kind of situation is not only typical of the crimes being preformed by the Wayne County treasurer and the assessment procedures, but the tip of a deeper and longstanding illegal ripoff of home purchasers that has been a huge factor in ghettoizing Detroit. Assessments for years have routinely disregarded the legal limits set by the Michigan constitution that no assessment can be listed at more than 50% of the homes evaluation. Additionally, there are limits for lower income households which are ignored with impunity with the treasurer and assessor saying plainly that they would keep stealing the homes from people, because it was up to the victims to appeal their assessments and that if they didn’t, then it was fair for Wayne County to grab the house and auction it.

The Home Savers Campaign has asked FNMA to bar various rent-to-own property companies like Detroit Property Exchange, Harbour Portfolio, and others from its auctions, and we are working with allied organizations like Detroit Eviction Defense and Detroit Action Commonwealth to demand that such companies be barred from Wayne County tax delinquency auctions as well. Reading Atuahene makes us wonder whether they are all in cahoots, making justice even harder to win, since state laws and the Constitution seem to have given them so little pause.

unique home a Vision Property Management contract buyer is making his own

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Wall Street and Big Corporations Go Rental and It Means Trouble

ACORN Home Savers Campaign Crew in Atlanta gets organized to hit doors in metro Atlanta suburbs
l to r: Fred Brooks, Karimah Dillard, Marcus Brown, and Lou Sartor

Atlanta   Marcus Brown from North Carolina is new to the Atlanta area, and he has yet to fall in love with it. Marcus was my navigator as we teamed up to hit the doors on rent-to-own contract buyers in metro Atlanta as one of ACORN’s Home Buyers Campaign teams visiting throughout the area. I’ve hit a lot of doors in urban America and around the world. I’ve even hit a good number in rural areas on different campaigns and organizing drives. On union organizing drives I always knew we were in trouble when I drew names in the suburbs of this city or that, but I would never put my name on the top of any master list as a suburban organizer, but that may have to change. Marcus and I were in for a learning experience and some miles to drive it turned out as we plowed through our list. We were a half-hour outside of Atlanta working our way in through one small community after another, and we were in grassy yards, and cookie-cutter, aluminum siding suburbs, and never saw a white family all day. We also saw more “for rent” signs than we saw “for sale” signs, and, frankly, we didn’t see many of either in this red hot real estate market.

But, we started connecting the dots as we looked at the cases in point.

Freddie Mac announces a billion dollar fund to back up efforts to create rental housing last week. The article was scratching its head from sentence to sentence.

 

Even while we were walking up to the doors in Atlanta suburbs, I had an article I had pulled out of the Wall Street Journal in my pocket entitled “Wall Street is the New Suburban Landlord.” In the wake of the housing crisis a lot of Wall Street money and big time realty firms are specializing in renting single family homes in the suburbs. They are betting that in the wake of the Great Recession and housing implosion of 2008, the bloom is off the rose of housing ownership for many families. They estimate that more than 200,000 homes have been bought in a $40 billion spree of bottom fishing from the foreclosure crisis and flipping the homes into rental units. Where the foreclosure epidemic went viral in the South and Southwest, they fed at that trough.

In Atlanta, we were at ground zero it would seem. In a June 2017 estimate of the top markets for the largest single-family-home rental companies, Atlanta led with 24,075 homes on offer, Tampa-St. Pete had over 14,000, Phoenix, over 13,000, Miami almost 11,000, Charlotte right behind at 10, 570, Orlando over 9000, Dallas almost 9000, and Houston over 8000. You get the picture.

This also dovetails with a research report written by Elora Raymond at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank that found that the eviction rate in greater Atlanta was over 20% for rental units, and, hear the drumbeat now that will surprise no one, corporate owned rental properties evicted tenants at a significantly higher rate than privately owned landlords. She also noted that eviction rates are increasing significantly in markets all over the country.

Connecting the dots leads to some frightening conclusions where vacancy rates are low in hot markets and affordable housing is a mirage for working and lower income families. The business model depends on quick evictions and the extra cash from late payment fees as tenants try to scrounge to catch up with their landlords, who are now using the courts to pad their payments.

Just the kind of business that Wall Street would love obviously. But, just as we found on the doors, don’t think this is just an urban problem, it’s in the suburbs as well, and as gentrification has increased and rents have soared, many suburban neighborhoods are now populated with our families as well.

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Community and Organizational Responses to Flooding

Russell Lee, flood refugees at meal time, Charleston, Missouri, February 1937. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010215-D.

New Orleans Bear with me on this, because we’re going to take some twists and turns, but trust me, these things are all connected, and the water is always rising somewhere, so it matters.

Partly of course we’re closing in on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We’re still in recovery. There are still volunteers coming in from time to time to help. We’re still trying to develop the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. There’s still a fight to stop expansion of the Industrial Canal that flooded the area and ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, is still in the thick of the fight as it has been for the last dozen years. In Paris one evening during the ACORN International staff meeting we showed a clip from the upcoming documentary, The Organizer, that told the story of ACORN’s fight to rebuild New Orleans after the storm. I’m telling the truth when I share that there were some tears in the eyes of these hard bitten organizers.

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002975-M2.

I was struck reading Michael Honey’s book and oral history on John Handcox and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, Sharecroppers Troubadour, on the plane back to New Orleans from a too long 19-day trip to Hungary, France, and Italy. The STFU and Handcox had been organizing in the Bootheel section of southern Missouri which cuts into northeastern Arkansas when the Great Ohio and Mississippi River Valley Flood of 1937, “displaced 7,000 whites and 5,000 blacks, including nearly all of the STFU’s 250 paid members in nine Missouri locals.” Like Katrina the impoverishment was devastating, except if anything worse, because the country had not found an adequate response to its peoples’ disasters then either. These were farm workers whose crops were washed away, partially when the Corps of Engineers used 200 pounds of dynamite to blow up a levee to stop more flooding downriver. Like the ACORN Hurricane Katrina Survivors’ organizations in cities throughout the south and southwest footprint, as Honey notes, the STFU “organized an Official Council of the STFU Refugees, which excoriated the federal government for having caused ‘the most disastrous flood in the history of our country.’” There were too many coincidences. The little money promised came too late. The crops recovered, but the people did not. The STFU had to also be rebuilt in the area to fight again in a last gasp.

John Handcox and Michael Honey, 1986.
Smithsonian Folkways – Smithsonian Institution

There was a story recently about the National Flood Insurance Fund in one of my daily papers, which grew out of these kinds of disasters. The fund is $25 billion in the red largely because of Katrina, Sandy in the New York-New Jersey area, and continued flooding in Louisiana from massive rains. The piece claimed that 30% of the money went to repeaters, folks whose homes just keep being flooded. A family in upstate New York was interviewed who were about to raise their house 10 feet with the insurance support. They couldn’t sell the house because of the floods. They wanted to retire and move to Arizona but they couldn’t. Poignantly, they said they knew they would be hit by another flood in the future. It was hard to not wonder, why the fund didn’t just help them get a new place?

As climate change becomes a constant concern, all of this history and these simple questions are going to be harder and harder not to answer with a more constructive and humanitarian response.

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On the Espresso Trail in Torino

Torino It was a good day at the main location of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on Ponce de Leon Street in New Orleans. Largely due to the inspiration of Cafe Degas across the street from the coffeehouse the Saturday evening after Bastille Day for something of a block party celebration. We do our small part by waving French flags from the balcony and see who wants a cup of coffee before they head home. There’s good spirit, and it’s not one of the military parades that President Trump greets with such relish, since it’s much more of a family affair.

In solidarity, my companera and I walked the streets of the city from dawn until dusk in Italy in the fascinating city of Turin, as English maps call it, and Torino, as the city calls itself. In a full disclosure, I’m a Fair Grinds blend coffee-and-chicory guy. I squirrel away a pound for an over two-week trip like this and try to ratio it so that I can have one or two cups of home brew every day on the road. Mi companera though has become an espresso girl in recent years. She was a stove topper in the manner that we learned in Buenos Aires for a while. Then she went with an Italian brand made somewhere around Milan. I got her an espresso maker for her birthday last year, and recently she got it working to her satisfaction.

recycling in Torino

But, as they say, “when in Rome,” and in this case we were in Torino, and though I was hoarding Fair Grinds coffee-and-chicory, it only make sense and good company to join my companera for an espresso in a bit of field research for our coffeehouses. Howard Schultz, the billionaire behind Starbucks, famously claimed that his experience drinking espresso in Italy drove him to evangelize for coffee and propelled his chain forward. In truth Starbucks did a lot of things but not as much for coffee as it did for milk, by creating a fetish for all manner of drinks that were not simple shots of espresso.

super recycling station

I’ve had some good espressos with perfect crema, the layer of foam on top, but what has amazed me more is the wide variety in pricing. We had a near perfect cup this morning on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II for one euro a cup and I spent another euro on a delightful nut and confection bar called a “torinocino.” That might not be exactly the right name, so I’ll obviously have to go back and have another and write it down this time to see if we can get someone to make them at Fair Grinds. Darned this field research is hard work. Elsewhere it has been a euro thirty, a euro twenty, and a euro fifty. In France sometimes it was two euros. One euro seems right, since that’s more than a dollar in the States, and no matter how good, there are only a couple of sips to it.

Mi conpanera thought she should help out and wanting something cold she spotted some women at the coffee bar in the marketplace near the River Po spooning a white substance out of their glasses from a machine with Eraclea labeled on it. Turned out this was a granita, and Eraclea makes a bunch of them with different mixes. Hers had a lemon flavor, I thought, and pineapple she felt, so maybe it was both or neither.

one of many public water fountains in Torino

Of course one of the reasons she swears by espresso is that the machines require filtered water to work well, and of course that means no lead to the head. Fair Grinds uses filtered water on all of our machines, and we assume the same goes for the espresso makers of Torino.

There are worse ways to spend your time that trying to figure out the city and stand at a coffee bar and take a couple of quick sips to down an espresso shot.

park bench along the River Po

A glass espresso on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II

Eraclea granita machine

An espresso along the River Po

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Seasonal Dilemma: Piling on the Work and Building Momentum

Torino, Italy  Bastille Day is a big celebration in France. Heck, President Trump even came over for the party, because he heard there were going to be tanks, troops, and tricolors everywhere. He also reportedly wanted to practice his handshakes, and see if he could get his grip on.

In Grenoble, it was business as usual. We had seen a stage being erected in a city center park the night before, but the streets and passersby seemed the same as always. For our part we were meeting right until we had to shuffle off to catch the train to Torino, the million-person industrial city in northern Italy.

Summer in the United States for a rural membership-based organization is difficult, because farmers and ranchers are working from dawn to dusk, but for an urban organization, it’s “hot times in the city,” and an opportunity to pour it on and make things happen. Looking back on ACORN’s history, I often thought that August was the month when we pulled off some of our largest actions and won some of our biggest victories. Momentum would build throughout the summer as new organizing drives were underway, offices were swelled with staff, interns, and volunteers, and major campaigns were launched before Labor Day in early September. Days were long, so doorknocking could go past 9 PM. Weather was good. Tempers were short. We planted and reaped the organizational harvest in summer.

Planning is hard this time of year for our French affiliate. From almost the middle of July until early September, and certainly most of August, many people take vacations, including our organizing staff, so the month almost becomes an entitled holiday and the organization and its offices virtually shut down as well. That means a flurry of planning and meetings before the end of July, and then the difficult task of reestablishing consensus and rebuilding momentum for a furious September through November, before work comes almost to a stop in December in order to rekindle in January. Organizing prime time is vacation time. Leadership and organizing directors have to puzzle through how to come out of the blocks running in September as everyone drifts back from the holidays. That’s not easy!

We found ourselves in a similar flurry. Timelines had to be established so work could begin on the Organizers’ Forum the last week of September in Casablanca, if not the work would not begin before the August shutdown. The community-labor training outside of Paris at the end of November also had to be sequenced and tasked. Campaign negotiations on both sides of the Atlantic had to be factored in and scheduled. Memos organized, training sites identified for next year, and on and on. Hiring and filling in for staff leaves and transitions had to be factored.

The list seemed endless. Trump caught the fireworks. We caught the train.

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The Pleasures of Meeting with Local Leaders

Grenoble   Your average person on the street would say that sitting in a meeting for a couple of hours conducted in a foreign language with only occasional translation would be right there on the list with watching paint dry, but they would be wrong. For perhaps the fourth time in the last two years I was a guest at the local board meeting of the Alliance Citoyennne, ACORN’s affiliate in Grenoble, and, as always, it was a pleasure. As a leader said during our meetings in Paris earlier, “Grenoble is the Little Rock of France,” meaning that just as Little Rock was the founding city of ACORN, so does Grenoble have the pride of place in starting the Alliance on its successful path.

It was hot in Grenoble and though the office has small fans propped on many a desk, and none of the humidity of New Orleans, making it all still highly tolerable, meetings quickly move to the shade of the trees in front of the coop offices. A card table holds the papers, and chairs are clustered around. I enjoyed the fact that when I sat down, I knew everyone of the board members now from my last visit, so it was like seeing old friends. Even the one member who missed his train, was well known to me. Rather than stumbling through the cheek kissing greeting of France, I could appreciate the good will of greeting people again. It was cool in the shade and there was a steady breeze, so who could complain?

The agenda before the board was difficult. There had been a hard slough of conflict with mistakes made and tough lessons learned throughout the last year. Some leaders had left. There had been difficult staff transitions. The mere fact of conflict itself had been trying on everyone. I could repeat how natural and normal this was in a new organization’s life a million times, and that would not have made anyone feel any better. The board had grown though. These were now veteran leaders well used to each other and prepared to lead. The board had also completed the transition to a governance structure that was almost completely composed of members elected from the local group membership which also made a difference.

The hardest issue the board tackled was how to deal with the decision around a new head organizer for the Grenoble organization. They had a strong 3-person staff, but that almost made the process more difficult, wanting to both keep everyone on the team, but also pick a leader of the team. Any decision would set an important precedent throughout the organization about how much the leadership wanted to manage and direct the process, and once in, would there ever be a way out? There was a lot of discussion back and forth and various proposals, including individual interviews with each organizer. The added difficulty had been the fact that the staff had proposed a candidate in recent weeks, but the board had not come to consensus around the candidate. Finally, the board directed that the overall Alliance head organizer needed to meet with the staff and essentially, work it out, and come to agreement with the staff and then make a recommendation that the board could either accept or reject, while protecting its position to determine policy. It was the right decision.

Talking about the future, they planned a discussion on an exciting campaign to run their members and leaders to the government boards of all of the public housing projects where they had strength. The elections are held every four years and the next is in 2018. This is the area where leadership that has been developed in these kinds of struggles can shine. I was enthusiastic.

The meeting ended on a high note, and, this being France and Grenoble, and this great group of leaders, then we ate homemade chocolate cake with raspberries and whipping cream on top! C’est bon!

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