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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Cities Trying to Fight Back Against Home Exploitation Scams

housing inspector in Toledo

New Orleans     Perhaps against their will, some Ohio communities have become ground zero in trying to throw roadblocks in the path of companies exploiting the desperate need of lower income and working families for affordable housing and, just maybe, the hopes of traversing the credit desert to home ownership.

The best local ordinance that seems to have emerged in this effort is in Toledo. Chapter 1765, entitled Conditions for Conveyance of Property by Land Installment Contract, passed in 2015, tries its best to grab this bull by the horns. Toledo does so by first making the issue of responsibility very, very clear. It’s not just the seller or owner of the property that has to follow the ordinance but “any agent” of the owner and any entity defined as the owner.

The critical issue that ACORN’s teams confronted repeatedly in recent visits to Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Akron was the fact that families were finding themselves in land contracts which met no conceivable standards of habitability. Toledo’s ordinance goes out of its way to do two things that are essential in protecting families from abuse in these contracts. On one hand the city insists that all contracts have to be recorded with the city. Most of these companies are playing whack-a-mole in this regard. Vision Property Management for example listed only five properties in Pittsburgh, though we found more than twenty on a quick search of property ownership records, and suspect that the real number is many times more. Secondly, and even more importantly, Toledo requires a certificate of occupancy before a family can reside in a house under a land installment contract and only after the city has inspected the property and its major systems and found that they are satisfactory.

The language in the ordinance is mandatory and unambiguous:

(a) No vendor shall convey any interest in a residential property through land installment contract unless a Certificate of Property
Code Compliance or Temporary Certificate of Property Code Compliance has been issued, pursuant to this section.
(b) No vendor shall fail to deliver to the vendee a copy of the current Certificate of Property Code Compliance or Temporary
Certificate of Property Code Compliance prior to the execution of the land installment contract.
(c) No vendor shall fail to record, as provided in R.C. 5301.25, the land installment with the county recorder and deliver a copy to
the county auditor within twenty days of the execution of a land installment contract.
(d) In a conveyance of any interest of a residential property through land installment contract sale, no vendor shall knowingly
require a vendee, as a condition of the sale, to sign a “quit claim” deed, deeding the property in question to the vendor in the event of a
default by the vendee.

The penalties are perhaps weaker than they should be, beginning at $250 for the first offense and moving to $1000 for the third within a two-year period, and judging the offenses to be a misdemeanor if recurring, which may not be sufficient to intimidate these fly-by-night outfits. Furthermore, the devil is in the details, when it comes to how aggressive Toledo has been in forcing the hand of these predatory operators, which we have yet to determine.

The City of Lorain in Ohio passed an ordinance in 2014 also requiring certificates of inspection and occupancy clearly also trying to get their arms around this crisis in their community, but sadly a close reading of the requirements pulls them up short. Lorain’s measure tries to impose the burden “at the point of sale.” Part of the entire business model of these companies and the core of this predatory scam is keeping the family from ever getting to the point of sale and forcing them to live in often dangerous structures with limited resources holding on to little more than their hope of ownership.

Similarly, Youngstown, Ohio, path breaking ordinance creating a “foreclosure bond,” forces refundable payments after foreclosures, forcing responsible upkeep of the property by corporate and individual owners, and has worked spectacularly in managing the overall condition of communities from what we could see, but doesn’t cover evictions, at least not yet, or specifically rent-to-own or land purchase contracts, and of course is better at locking the barn door after the fact, rather than on the front end like Toledo.

Regardless, Ohio cities confronted with this grassroots crisis are responding, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist or looking the other way like most communities, oblivious to the way that low to moderate income families are being exploited by these schemes and forced to live in abominable conditions.

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Harbour Portfolio Contract Purchase “Buyers” Are Either Mad or Scared

Akron   They may spell Harbour with a “u” in a head fake to make you think this is a high-class operation from London or something, but when you are dealing with Harbour Portfolio, it’s just a Dallas-based private equity operation with Wall Street roots, that leaped down into vulture financing to buy thousands of FNMA foreclosed houses. What makes them different though is that they have flaunted the fact that they were going to try to make their bucks by off-loading the homes using contract for deed land purchase agreements, which most people in Ohio and Pennsylvania just call rent-to-own, though they are a bit of a different animal.

The ACORN teams on a doorknocking blitz this week starting in Pittsburgh, then Youngstown, Ohio, finished with two teams hitting forty doors in a cumulative ten-hour sprint in Akron. Over the three days, we may have put the flesh to the wood on close to 100 homes. We wanted to listen carefully to what people were saying to understand how their experience with these high-risk and often blatantly predatory home purchase schemes were working out for them. We learned a barrel full and met some great people, and the week was invaluable in allowing us to finally get our arms around this campaign after surrounding it with almost four months of researching property records, looking at agreements, and getting a sense of the field and its cast of characters.

With few exceptions, people wanted to talk to us because they were as confused and uncertain about the fine print on their contracts and agreements as we were. They knew they wanted to buy a house and for the most part thought this was the only way they had a chance, so dove in and hoped they would never hit bottom.

One of our teams though talked about part of their conversation as the “angel of death” piece of their rap where they felt like they were giving people the news that they very likely would never going to own the house. My team was more gingerly, and as my doorknocking partner said to one Harbour Portfolio contract buyer with four years into the deal that we would like to go over the contract with them to make sure they would own the home at the end of their agreement, she looked us in the eye, and said that she also was scared that the contract would really never end up with a deed.

On one of our visit Harbour Portfolio visits in Akron, we started after identifying ourselves and asking the confirmation question about whether the man had a contract with Harbour. He quickly came to the steps saying, “You mean Harbour Portfolio!” He was mad about every part of his experience with Harbour. A bathroom ceiling had fallen down on his sister causing $1400 in repairs, and, worse, hurting her so badly she wasn’t able to work. On our first Harbour visit in Pittsburgh, we had been ushered into the living room to talk to the owner who was confined to the couch, recovering from surgery on a fused disc in her neck. Later in the conversation it turned out faulty steps in the house had caused the fall. To say some of these homes are unsafe for their new contract buyers is not speculation, but a statement of fact.

There was confusion about the contracts from start to finish. One owner noted that somehow they had allowed his sister to sign, rather than him, confusing the family and the potential ownership. Another was sure she had a mortgage despite the fact that she was paying National Assets, one of Harbour’s servicers, had only paid $1500 as a down payment on what she knew as a double-digit rate of interest and thought would cost her $100,000 before it was over on a home she knew Harbour had bought for $13,000. She finally agreed it was not a mortgage, when she recognized the term “contract for deed” was on her agreement after we mentioned that kind of instrument. Another had gone through three servicers already. None of the terms matched. One was paying insurance directly and having problems with Harbour telling her they were also paying for the insurance through them, and had been unable to stop the double payments.

None of this was “let the buyer beware,” so much as all of it was “make the buyer scared!” Every Harbour buyer we met was holding their breath that they would own these homes on a hope and a prayer without any real grip on their contracts and even a scintilla of belief that Harbour was dealing with them in good faith.

Several of our team were veterans of ACORN’s many anti-predatory lending campaigns so for some of them it seemed like déjà vu all over again. The only exception was that these contract purchase and rent-to-own schemes were so much worse. In those deals, most of the theft was on the level of the interest, points, and fees. Here it’s everyday pocket pinch on homes built on hopes and often crumbling around them.

Please enjoy Willie Nelson’s He Won’t Ever Be Gone.

Thanks to KABF.

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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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Museums for the People, Rather than the Elites

Street Art Museum in Amsterdam

New Orleans   Ok, maybe it’s not the very highest thing on everyone’s list, but that doesn’t mean it is not important. Recently, we talked about the efforts to rid books like Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States from school libraries and classrooms. We all know that’s wrong, but how about the constant efforts to erase peoples’ history, by just not telling it at all? Or, not making it accessible? Or, the constant elite cultural and political bias reflected in most museums of any kind? Well, it’s not a tidal wave, but there is at least a slow dripping of resistance and activism that is trying to imagine and implement a different kind of museum.

A recent article in the New York Times reported on a unique museum in London called the Museum of Homelessness, which not surprisingly does not have a physical building or location, which given the subject matter seems appropriate. The organizers see their museum as being “about doing something special, about creating events where you’re taken on a journey.” Their venues are often open spaces, including on the streets themselves, or in theaters, shelters, or temporary showings from friendly cultural institutions.

The Street Art Museum in a neighborhood of Amsterdam is another experiment along these lines. This novelty consists of 90 commissioned works in a 1.5 mile square area which are linked through a walking tour conducted by the museum. Another effort is the Museum of Joy in San Francisco which does pop-up operas at mass transit stations and hides happy experiences in gold colored Easter eggs in a dozen branches of the city public library. There’s also the touring Empathy Museum in a shipping container that looks like a shoe box and displays shoes, urging people to imagine themselves walking in the path of those lives.

These efforts have a common theme of bringing museums to people rather than waiting for people to come to them. There are other efforts, some of which we have discussed before, like photographic museums of city life on web and Facebook sites, including the ACORN Museum. There may not be a thousand flowers blooming, but there are definitely some sprouting up around the world.

This is all exciting stuff, but fragile, and perhaps unsustainable. Grants that might support such experiments are largely hogged by huge institutions and on the chopping block with the gutting of the Endowment for the Arts proposed in the current Administration budget. Giving large institutions their due, there are certainly curators who knock on the door of social change with some exhibits and programs, though that does eliminate the questions of access and audience along with cost, all of which are central in considering the collection and distribution of peoples’ history.

A lot of us aren’t throwing away any artifacts or remnants of the silent history of uncommon common people, but there’s still a long gap in knowing where to put them before they end up, like so many other things, in the dustbin of history.

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Membership Proves the Value of Strong Links

New Orleans   In this moment of social network ascendancy we are being bombarded by the presumed power of even the flimsiest connections. We are asked to click a “like,” retweet a comment, get linked to various networks, hit a button for a petition, and forward an email to someone or another.  Buy something on a site, and you’re asked to trumpet it on social media presumably so your purchase for whatever reason might act as a shiny lure attracting someone you know well or marginally in their own life stream.  Meanwhile all of these actions, large or small, are packaged and sold by sundry companies trying to chart the path of our digital footprints from all of these transactions.

Decades ago my friend and colleague, Joel Rogers, professor of almost everything at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, introduced me to the political theory that focused on the strength of weak links.  I had been marveling at the way the almost tiny central body of the AFL-CIO in the smallish Plains and Panhandle city of Amarillo, Texas, was still able to speak for the working class there while commanding some capacity and political voice despite their small membership and distance, if not estrangement, from the rest of organized labor in the state and nation.  They had weak links indeed, but as the active and legitimized voice of labor, they also had strength.

The strength of weak links has always been my touchstone in understanding the influence and perhaps the power of social networks.  In the absence and alienation of other ties, these links, no matter how fragile, perform with some level of strength.

When it comes to organization though we are now more often mobilized rather than organized.  The meaning of membership even begins to be increasingly diluted in many organizations as variable donations distort the meaning of membership dues in the eyes of some organizers and activists.

All of this came to mind as I quickly flipped through the local newspaper.  While breezing through the final pages of the first section without even reading the obituaries that now find their home there, something caught my eye, long trained in an almost Pavlovian way to see  the word, “ACORN,” whenever it crops up. I stopped and focused, and, sure enough, there it was in the obit of Lemealue Lewis Robinson, celebrating her long life and mourning her passing, her family, her many activities, her church, and then in a separate paragraph saying,

“Mrs. Robinson was also a member of Louisiana ACORN (Association of  Community Organizations for Reform Now), and a helpful neighbor, seeking to encourage and assist anyone who wanted to better their situation.”

This isn’t unusual either. It shows up on my Google alerts regularly, and a month doesn’t pass by in my hometown without such a mention.  All of this serves as a reminder of the importance of ACORN in the lives of our members and more significantly the immense value of their membership to them personally as part of the highlight reel of their lives. What few understand, or perhaps resist, is coming to grips with the unique strength that an organization forges with strong ties, rather than weak ones. Maybe some leaders and organizers are intimidated about building this level of loyalty and the accountability and stewardship it demands, when the attachment and dedicated of the members goes from shallow to substantive and profound? I don’t know? I do know it’s hard to build, but I also know once those links are welded like steel, the strength those ties create surpass pushing back to allow us all to forge forward.

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