Technology in the Service of Social Change

Santa Cruz   I drove over the mountain, as they say in this area, and ended up on the top of a hill with a dramatic view of the valley and water, while visiting the stunning campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was there to talk to students who are part of the Everett Program there, where ACORN is new partner, along with other nonprofits. My other motivation was an effort to get a better grip on what the program was all about, as a rookie to the enterprise.

I had gained some sense of the operation over the last year through a series of Skype calls and emails. We are fortunate to have three of the Everett Program students working with our organizers in Bengaluru, India this summer to help create a CiviCRM database for ACORN’s 35,000 member hawkers union there, so this also offered the opportunity to meet the interns face-to-face and shape the effectiveness of their upcoming two months in India with us.

The background I learned from the director, Chris Benner, and veteran staffer and organizer, Katie Roper, indicated that it had been a program for several decades at UC Santa Cruz, but has recently been expanding. Every fall, they begin with about 100 students and by the end of the spring quarter they have about 30 ready to embed in various projects. Historically a lot of the efforts have been California-based, so ACORN is a beneficiary of their growth and expanding vision. Being on the ground I was able to do an early pitch for a team in 2018 to work out of New Orleans to support the tech needs of our organizing both domestically and internationally, which was a nice piece of lagniappe.

Most interestingly was the opportunity to talk to the students for a minute and more importantly to hear their questions and get a feeling for what they were thinking. Spoiler alert: they have a foreboding sense of the world and how it views change and organizers who are part of that process.

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of classes and groups of young people, but now in the Age of Trump and hyper-polarization,  I was still surprised when the first question asked me whether or not I had ever been threatened in the work and how frequently organizers were assaulted. Later in the session, another young woman asked a question that went to the heart of whether or not a young person in their early 20’s could even play a role in the work and whether or not it was worth the risk to jump into the struggle. At one level, this is encouraging. Young people are taking the temperature of the times, and learning that it’s not pretty out there with love, flowers, and constant applause. If these kinds of questions are any true sampling, they are less naive, and therefore will be better prepared, if they take the leap into the work, to weather the constant storms and flying brickbats. On the other level, it is worrisome whether in these beautiful, redwood towers, people might feel intimidated and fearful of taking the plunge to work in the hardscrabble countrysides and mean streets of the city.

We need an active army of organizers and people ready to work in the allied trades, and that was my message: there’s a role for all of you, but everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel and help to win the fight in this struggle. I hope they heard me. We need their help.

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The Confounding Contradictions of Detroit’s Land Contract Houses

Detroit   It was a rough day on the doors in Detroit. One team recorded 14 abandoned houses out of the 17 on the walk list. Remember that these were all homes according to all available records that are owned by one of the big three land contract companies operating in the city: Harbour Portfolio, Vision Property Management, and Detroit Property Exchange, the only local outfit. Another team had eight on its list, and we had six on ours. The math is unsettling and profound, meaning that more than half of the houses these companies owned were abandoned and therefore open wounds bleeding on their blocks, neighborhoods, and community.

There were three dumpsters in the driveways of the abandoned houses our team visited and a trailer at another with a couple of bags of trash on it, but no signs of workers or work being done at these locations. At one location that we marked as “not home,” because the neighbor across the street told us that there were people going in and out of there and work being done, who knows what the story might have been, but the impression from the other locations on our list, left me wondering if these were dumpster “decorations,” rather than construction sites. We were roughly, and it was often rough, in central Detroit, if there’s such a thing, while one team was on the East Side and another was on the West Side. They reported no dumpsters and signs of construction on the abandoned houses on their lists. Don’t get me wrong, the land contract houses were absolutely not the only abandoned houses, and we saw abandoned houses on our route that were not not on our list but had signs offering them for sale, if one could call it that, or auction, with come-on’s hawking $400 a month down payments and lures advertising opportunities to flip the homes or rent-to-own more cheaply that buying. Once we were back at the offices of the historic and giant Ford Motor based UAW Local 600, which had opened their doors to the Home Savers Campaign for this project, we discovered, to no one’s surprise at this point, that both of the names on the signs we saw were simply other eye-candy LLC’s that were part of Detroit Property Exchange.

rent-to-own signs from Detroit Property Exchange subsidiary

Visiting with people, the contradictions are confounding. Our first visit was a woman with had just completed a contract with DPX as locals call Detroit Property Exchange, though her house had been listed under their French Sirois subsidiary. She had been in the home for 12 years and dutifully paying off a mortgage, until two years ago. She was informed then that DPX had bought her home by purchasing a $6000 tax lien. She had being paying everything in the usual bundle to her mortgage servicer, who had gone bankrupt and not paid her taxes, so Wayne County had put her in play without any notice. DPX gave her a contract to buy back the house for $20,000 while paying $750 per month as part of a lease to live there. She was happy because she had managed to pay them off in 18-months, partially by taking advantage of two “matching” opportunities, one at income tax refund time, where they had matched her $2500, and another a month or so later when they matched her $1000. She was proud of herself for getting them off her back and saving her house, but the math still adds up to street-side robbery. She had paid DPX $16,500 on the contract plus another $13,500 in rent, or whatever you might want to call it, so they had $30,000 from her in a year-and-a-half by stealing her house from the taxman when her mortgage servicer went belly up. The day before another team had stumbled onto a similar case, so this woman’s story is, tragically, too common.

Vision Property Management lockbox on abandoned hous

All of these contracts are predatory, though and people were being ripped off right and left, but one home we visited we talked to the brother on the porch, who was apologetic that he had not gotten his act together to buy a house, while both of his sisters had just done so, though we knew this sister was on a rent-to-own contract with Vision Property Management and suspected that was the case with the other as well. Earlier in the morning, I had briefly addressed more than 50 people in the regular meeting of the Detroit Action Commonwealth at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. People there knew about land contracts, and they knew ACORN, so I was in good company. After a brief explanation of what the Home Savers Campaign was there were questions flying from the crowd. One caught me up short and has left me thinking more and more about these contradictions. A young man said he was on SSI payments of $750 per month. His question: how could he get one of these rent-to-own houses?

Detroit Action Commonwealth Meeting

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ACORN a Major Force in Voter Registration for Tenants in United Kingdom

New Orleans   Your mind just did a double take, right? ACORN and voter registration in the same sentence, that’s so 2008, right? Well, yes and no, but screw your head on tighter and focus, focus, focus, because now we’re talking about ACORN as a force for voter registration, and the setting is the United Kingdom. What’s up?

The snap election called by British Prime Minister Theresa May is coming soon, and voter registration has become more difficult in the UK. Until recently the head of a family with one swoop could register everyone in the household, now everyone must individually register. Other new rules that fit in with the global voter suppression efforts of conservatives impact potential young voters because universities, for example, are barred from registering students, largely to keep them from creating a voting block in the towns where they are located.

The other huge group that is being disenfranchised now in the UK is tenants, and ACORN’s base in England and Scotland is significantly composed of tenants, given the housing affordability and access crisis which has swept the UK. The Guardian quoting an ACORN report, noted that “ 93% of property owners are registered to vote but only 63% of renters.” Others say the number may be as low as 59%.

In a more recent article in The Guardian, the case was even clearer that ACORN is working to register and bring attention to millions of tenants being disenfranchised. The Guardian reported:

Campaigners have also warned that another high-risk group is the more than 3 million private renters in England. Generation Rent and ACORN, both pressure groups for renters’ rights, estimate that about 1.8m private renters have moved home since the 2016 referendum and must therefore register again.

Private renters are typically on tenancy agreements of no longer than 12 months and are six times more likely to move in a given year than homeowners, the groups said. A further 1.6 million private renters are estimated not to have been registered in the first place.

ACORN’s national organiser, Stuart Melvin, said renters’ rights were dependent on registering to vote. “Renters need a government that will reform the housing market to protect them from unfair evictions and rising rents, and we won’t get one unless we vote for it,” he said.

Before renters can do that, they need to make sure they’re registered, and when you are on the register it is too easy to fall off it when you move.”

Buzzfeed was even more specific on the importance of ACORN’s efforts noting that “research from Renters Vote, a campaign from renters rights groups ACORN and Generation Rent… say 1.8 million renters who are eligible to vote moved home since the EU referendum in June 2016 and will need to reregister in their new address, while a further 1.6 million renters were unregistered to start with…Renters move home six times more often than homeowners on average, due to the widespread use of 12-month assured short-hold tenancy agreements, meaning they have to register each time they move.”

This is a major issue given the upcoming election, and the clock is ticking. Despite the efforts of ACORN and our partners, a huge number of tenants will be left voiceless in this election, as ACORN’s national organizer, Stuart Melvin noted. There isn’t much doubt that that was the point of these voter suppression efforts.

One bright light for the future was included in the recommendations by a Guardian columnist of what needed to be done to fight this problem in the future, which we totally embrace:

6. Unionise

Official recognition for tenant unions, such as Acorn, Living Rent [ACORN’s affiliate] in Scotland, Tenant Voice and Generation Rent. Include them in discussions, invite them to select committees, listen to what they say.

Amen to that!

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Alternative Mortgage Lending Tiptoeing Around a Broker-based Implosion – Again!

REUTERS/Chris Helgren

New Orleans   In the 2008 Great Recession, fingers pointed wildly in all directions and in some cases in little Taliban caves around the country they are still doing so, and trying to play the blame game at the expense of the victims. One of the more troubling terms to emerge from those terrible days for borrowers trying to stay in their homes was the notion of “liar’s loans,” as the subprime industry called some of these mortgages. The haters tried to claim the borrowers were the liars, though our work repeatedly found that the culprits – the big liars in the affair – were almost invariably mortgage brokers channeling huge volumes of paper to subprime lenders and blowing up the numbers on “stated” income mortgages.

ACORN understood the value of stated income mortgages because many of our lower income families worked in contingent employment that was impossible to verify because of cash transactions without social security statements. Tipped employees were just one of the examples. As we met with subprime company after subprime company (four in one wild day in Orange County, California, the subprime ground zero!), we raised our concerns about the supervision of brokerage networks accounting for much of the loan volume in the portfolios they were assembling and the incredibly high percentage of stated loans, often approaching or exceeding 50% of the lending they were making and packaging. They would then flannel-mouth something about a risk algorithm that was protecting them and assure us they were on top of it all, when in fact as it developed, they were doing the happy dance to bankruptcy and blindsiding our members, many of them whom had no idea what numbers brokers had claimed to be their income, often without so much as a wink-and-a-nod, and were shocked to find in some cases that their social security income had now been converted to six figures.

All of ACORN’s fights against predatory practices by subprimes came roaring back to mind when ACORN Canada shared an article with me about the cash-crunch and turmoil that ousted the top officials and plummeted the share price of Home Capital Group, a leading company in what the Financial Post called the “alternative mortgage lending” space, which is just another name for subprime loans. The problem was simply described:

Home Capital’s current crisis began on April 19, when the Ontario Securities Commission accused the company and some of its officials of misleading disclosure. The OSC alleges that the company misled shareholders because it knew there was fraud in its broker channels before July 2015, when it announced the findings of its internal investigations and disclosed it had cut ties with 45 brokers as a result.

The Post commentators were aghast that regulators were investigating Home Capital for what they viewed as dated and minor problems with the company’s brokerage channels and accused the OSC of what Republicans in the US would now call “regulatory overreach.”

How quickly people forget! The Ontario Securities Commission fortunately had some memory cells left from watching the real estate American meltdown a decade ago, and recognized what US regulators have still failed to grasp in the patchwork quilt that regulates and licenses brokers in this country on a state by state basis. Broker fraud is inevitable in the mortgage supply chain whenever brokers are substantially paid by commissions based on closings, rather than standards that include buyer affordability. We always demanded, and often won, though sometimes too late, agreements that US-subprimes not allow mortgage brokers in their networks to be paid that way. Given the hammering of stock prices for all the companies in the Canadian subprime industry, smarter investors must suspect that all of them are only loosely supervising brokerage networks, and that’s scary.

Low-and-moderate income families need a subprime market so that they can access mortgages for houses and apartments, but they also have to demand that the companies not be predatory and that they work as hard to keep their acts together as families do who are busting their butts to pay their bills and their house notes. Let’s hope Canadians are coming to grips with these companies and have learned the lessons that Americans are living in denial and still trying to forget.

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All Praise the Field Campaign, Few Practice It!

New Orleans   In recent years genuflecting in the direction of the “ground war” in politics has become almost routine. Sadly, much like other religions and church attendance, a whole lot more people praise field operations as critical to winning elections, than actually walk the talk and put the program in practice. As more and more of this activist moment is focused on electoral work, it’s worth reprising lessons learned and ignored.

We’ve talked before about the uphill push that Becky Bond and Zack Exley described in their book, Rules for Revolutionaries, as they tried to get support for their field-and-phone program within the Sanders Campaign. This issue of Social Policy in the mail features a piece by Peter Haberfeld called “The Sanders Campaign: Notes from Inside Out on a Local Campaign.” He also details the tensions between campaign directors and the experienced grassroots folks in the Berkeley and Oakland area that were trying to emphasize the ground game to deliver for Sanders. They often felt the web-attention was gobbling up their strategy. Both sets of campaigns describe having to virtually go rogue in order to get the job done. Bond and Exley saw much of the millions that was spent by the Sanders Campaign the same as pouring money down a rat hole. A close look at the Clinton-Trump contest certainly shows that Trump was all-media-all-the-time, but it was also clear that Clinton could not duplicate the Obama ground game of 2008 and 2012.

All of this came rushing back at me when I opened an email from Judy Duncan, head organizer of ACORN Canada, sending a somewhat dated piece, two-and-a-half years old by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla who were then graduate students in the Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley writing in Vox. I read the piece with fresh eyes, partially because then ACORN was new to Scotland and late to the dance on the independence election, but Broockman and Kalla hit the nail on the head in pulling back the covers on the reality of the field program, where many of our leaders and organizers volunteered, and many other programs pointing out that the “arms” race to record “knocks” was obscuring the importance of non-scripted, quality conversations with voters by the doorknocking canvassers.

They cite the now famous study several decades ago by Alan Gerber and Don Green in 1998.

The professors randomly assigned voters to receive different inducements to vote: some received postcards, some received phone calls, some received a visit from a canvasser, and some received nothing. The experiment found that voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing. But canvassing was different. Just one in-person conversation had a profound effect on a voter’s likelihood to go to the polls, boosting turnout by a whopping 20 percent (or around 9 percentage points). The nearly two decades since Gerber and Green’s first experiment have consistently borne out their finding that personal conversations have special political potency. Hundreds of academics and campaigns have tested the impacts of various campaign tactics with randomized field trials. High-quality canvassing operations emerge as consistent vote-winners. On the other hand, impersonal methods have consistently failed to produce cost-effective results, no matter how you slice the data or which populations researchers examine.

Of course this is not as simple as “add water and stir.” Green points that out himself:

But facilitating that breed of genuine personal outreach isn’t what many “field” campaigns actually do. Green has seen this in practice. He has found that many canvassing operations have effects “smaller than what we obtained from our initial study or in our follow-up experiments with seasoned groups such as ACORN.” But, Green went on to say, “When I’d inquire about the details of these sub-par canvassing efforts, I would often discover that the scripts were awkward or that there was limited attention to training and supervision.”

So, yes, as Bond and Exley argue, with the right kind of volunteer base and training, it is physically possible to get past micro-targeting and “hit every door,” if that is the campaign plan, but it will still require people who have been to the rodeo and know how to ride.

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Doorknocking Home Buyer Victims of Contract Buying Scams in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh   The more we researched the revival of contract for deed land purchases in places from Memphis to Chicago, Detroit to Philly, and the rapidly spreading, predatory scam involving rent-to-own agreements, the more it became obvious that we had to get on the doors and listen to what people were saying who were living in these houses and facing the daunting odds and brutal gauntlet to home ownership. ACORN assembled a team of veteran organizers from Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn, and New Orleans to rendezvous in Pittsburgh to partner with our affiliate, ANEW, and its great leaders and staff, to begin a doorknocking blitz in three cities in an organizer’s version of a listening tour and an exploration on whether or not there was potential heat and traction for a Contract Buyers Campaign or whether or not families signing these agreements were happy campers.

Actually, camping did come up quickly in one of the first visits in the team I was with, but happy was never ever mentioned. When we got up the steps a gate blocked the porch that said “Do Not Enter,” but after I tapped on the window, a woman came out, and when I said we were talking to people who had experience with rent-to-own purchase agreements, she waved us all into the living room, sent the children scurrying so we could sit, and she had her partner start the conversation saying they had had nothing but trouble in buying the house, and then proceeded to detail years of trials and tribulations with Vision Properties, based in South Carolina and this scheme. From the day they signed the agreement and even before moving in, they discovered someone had kicked in the back door and stripped the electrical wiring and the plumbing. They called Vision, asking them to take responsibility, and Vision said they were on a triple net lease, and it was all on them, so in their words the first six months they “were camping in the house.”

That was four years ago so the situation has improved, but their relationship with Vision remains poisonous. They had paid $1000 down payment for a house Vision said they were selling on this basis for $20,000. The first five years though their monthly payments would be $300 per month with 30% supposedly going towards what they described as an additional down payment, which would add another $6000 to their down payment. They weren’t able to put their hands on the agreement to show us, but supposedly only then would they start really purchasing the house from their understanding. We didn’t bother them with the math, not wanting to be bad news bears, but the numbers were already shocking. In another year, they would have paid $7000 on something Vision was calling a down payment and another $12000 in rent to Vision, which clearly despite having an ostensible rent-to-own agreement was not adding up to any payments on the principal, even though at the end of their first lease term they would have paid $19,000 against the value of a $20,000 house. They had put another $5000 into the place, not counting their countless hours of labor, and felt fortunate that the borough inspector was working with them on a problem with the sewer line in the other half of their house which everyone involved knew was going to cost thousands to repair. Without any of us saying it, they knew and we knew, that Vision was likely going to be telling them after five years to keep paying this so-called rent with only a piece of it going towards a deed at the end of their rainbow. Oh, and don’t think for a second that Vision is smiling yet as they giggle while walking to the bank. While changing jobs as a housekeeper in a Pittsburgh motel this last December, they were late on one payment and Vision gave them a 7-day eviction notice which they only avoided with a phone shouting match and a double rent payment of $600.

When I asked if they were ready to come to a meeting in a couple of weeks, there was a quick yes from both of them. Were they prepared to bang on the table and shout their protests? Hell, yes, was the response. They had tried to post warnings to others on Facebook about these scams. They had been talking about running for the borough council to make them listen.

This was just one story from the doors.

It wasn’t exceptional though. It was typical. There was resignation and understanding from every family that they were caught in a scam, but in the common conflict of predatory transactions, all of them had been desperate for affordable housing and some way to make something their own, took the gamble with their eyes open, hoping for some good faith, and now were reaping the whirlwind with anger and frustration and looking for justice and ready to embrace and take action with an organization willing to allow them to fight.

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