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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USA Election: A Movement Can Always Beat A Machine

socmvmtcollage1New Orleans   The election was over early, just not the way many had expected. I had always argued that regardless of the polls and pundits the election was going to be close, but I had also argued that I thought Clinton would win. Now, I will have to substitute the word “thought” for “hoped.” I had always argued that I hoped Trump would be the Republican nominee because he might be the only candidate Clinton could beat. I now may have to rethink that and revise my analysis, because Trump and his unique campaign may have been the only candidate that Clinton could NOT beat.

The bottom line is pretty clear: a real movement can always beat a machine. When you have almost vastly unpopular candidates in the contest, making everything relatively equal in that regard, a genuine movement can always beat even the best financed and well-oiled machine.

As progressives, we have to understand the simple facts. With courage, this could have been us. In fact given the closeness of the contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, it almost was us.

As organizers, we have to give Trump credit for his willingness to unabashedly embrace a movement and his place in it. He argued a case for the abandoned and left behind by the economy. He railed against the adverse impacts of trade and globalization. He argued for jobs for the jobless. He made a better case against Wall Street and the Washington establishment. These are all our issues. A populist is someone who puts the people first, and as unlikely as Trump was as the bearer of that message, this was our message.

The contest in coming months on the right and throughout the establishment will be to see who can best capture Trump’s heart and soul to make him fit the usual mold better. We actually need to push him on the claims he has made to deliver change to our constituency, if we want to reclaim it. We need to push the demands of huge blocks of those who will feel suddenly disenfranchised by this counterattack by the white and rural and too much of the working class: women, Latinos, and African-Americans. These are also our constituencies and Trump is vulnerable to all of them in trying to convert his movement to governance.

We know these problems and their fragility, because we have faced it repeatedly. We saw how rapidly the movement behind Obama dissipated. Trump may be a horse less easily broken to the bit, and in that space the effort is being made to corral him, we have huge opportunities, if we are able to seize them. Make no mistake this new world order in America will hurt millions if allowed to settle and concretize or be usurped by the far right, so we really don’t have much choice. This is ride-or-die time.

Disruption forces realignments. Chaos provides opportunities, but only to those moving hard and fast to take them and create change out of the turmoil. We have to engage the struggle where we find it, and Trump has now created the new conditions for engagement, and we now have to adapt quickly and organize the alternative paths for new movements to take hold and win, before the door closes and the opportunities are once again lost.

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Get Out the Vote!

get_out_the_vote_2016_logoNew Orleans   Election Day, finally! Only one more thing that everyone needs to do and should have already done: get out and vote.

Yes, your vote may have been suppressed, but get out and vote.

Yes, you may be depressed at the choices and grossed out by the campaign, but you really don’t have a choice, but to get out and vote.

Polls opened in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana at 6:00 AM. They keep trying to push the times around here in our red tomato state, but one of the remaining vestiges of the Huey Long populist days in the state is we have looooong voting periods.

I vote in what used to be a high school. The school’s all-purpose field for recess, football, and whatever is across the street from my house. This is now one of the KIPP charter schools and part of the charter invasion that has swamped New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. After walking and feeding Lucha, my Australian sheep dog, I waited a couple of minutes for my companera to walk the block and a half to the school cafeteria where a half-dozen precincts in our 9th Ward have their voting machines. At 6:10 I was the third voter in my precinct. There was no line for us at the 9th Ward, Precinct 11 (yes, 9/11, easy to remember!), but there were lines more than 10 deep at many of the other polling stations. A good sign.

It takes us a big longer to vote. I sort of speed through, despite six or seven poorly written amendments and almost forgetting who I was supporting for School Board in solidarity with the local teachers’ union. My companera takes a bit longer. They are ready for her now in a way that they were not a couple of years ago. As part of a long standing ACORN campaign against voter ID’s, she always refuses to show an ID and makes them go through the process of having her sign an affidavit to make sure they know the proper procedures. Many elections ago this used to be contentious and involve a lot of hootenanny and calling downtown and so forth. The kids wouldn’t go with us because it was so conflicted and time consuming, but, counting small victories, they now see her coming, have the envelopes ready, and away we go.

Of course it takes a couple of more minutes for us. We usually run into some members. This time she ran into a veteran of her Upper 9th Ward group, so he got a hug and a push to come to the meeting on Thursday. Some folks were complaining in the papers about the fact that 45 million early voters were taking away the “community” of voting. Yes, there’s a bit of that, but voting is more important than the 5 minutes of community feeling. Go to your local neighborhood group for that. Vote anyway you can, as early as you want, but vote.

Some would say our votes don’t really matter. We’re not a battleground state. Like too many of the southern states, we’re lumped into the base that the Republicans take for granted and the Democrats concede from the day the campaigning starts. In New Orleans, like most big cities, we are dark, dark blue with a likely 80 to 85% vote for Hillary. We have to turn back David Duke one more time though and see if we can pull off a miracle and flip a Senate seat, though that is unlikely.

Regardless, we fought hard for the right to vote and too many are fighting hard to keep us from voting, so Election Day is a time to put aside the whining and the wishing and strike our little blows and remember the close calls like Gore against Bush and why it still matters if the majority votes one way, regardless of where we live on the electoral college map. This is part of the struggle, and to not be part of it is just plain wrong.

***

Please enjoy Beyonce’s performance with the Dixie Chicks of Daddy Lessons the other day at the CMAs. (This video no longer works all the way through with headphones).

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Hillary, Lifeline, ACORN, and Me

ACORN Leaders of the early-mid 1970s: Elena Hanggi, Bill Whipple, and Willard Johnson

ACORN Leaders of the early-mid 1970s: Elena Hanggi, Bill Whipple, and Willard Johnson

New Orleans  Everybody has their own reasons for being excited that this election is almost over. Mine are much the same with one difference: I’m tired of telling the story of Hillary Clinton’s role in opposing ACORN’s initiative election victory establishing “lifeline” electricity rates in Little Rock in 1976. Every time Hillary runs for national office it’s just a matter of time before some enterprising reporter, large or small, tracks me down hoping for the real skinny or some trash talking or whatever.

I’ll admit having her as part of the legal team for Arkansas’ First Electric Cooperative was not a happy moment, and is something that sticks in my craw despite the advancing years. She and the white shoe, corporate Rose Law Firm, where she worked, were fronting for the united Little Rock business community in opposing our proposed cap on the cost of 400 kilowatt hours of electricity in order to assure seniors and low-income families juice and put an end to the large, wasteful giveaway user block pricing, encouraging them to use more and stopping many of the poor from having any. The co-op had a dozen or so customers in a small slice of the Little Rock city limits and they argued the co-op was damaged because there was no offset for the newly imposed cap on their rates since they didn’t have any large users where they could balance the adjustment. For the sake of those few, the many lost, and the will of the vast majority of voters was thwarted. So, why would any ACORN member or me, for that matter, ever be happy about such a sad situation?

In 2008, an enterprising young reporter from a New Hampshire paper tracked me down and got me to talk about it before their primary election because she was the daughter of a former ACORN organizer and comrade. How could I say no? And, she did a fair job on it, so enough said.

Eight years passed until now Hillary becomes clearly a big-time favorite and once again there are knocks on my door. A political writer for The Nation calls during the 2016 primaries on a piece about how “the left” looks at Clinton. By this time I had sanded the story down to a smoother sheen, and was using more of a two-handed approach to it all. Yes, our members in Arkansas were livid and unforgiving, but when Clinton was a US Senator from New York, we had no better friend and our members loved Hillary there enough to force three votes of the national board before Obama was endorsed by ACORN in 2008.

Hillary becomes the nominee and the real big leaguers get into the seek-and-find on Clinton’s past. I get a couple of calls from Laura Meckler, a senior reporter at The Wall Street Journal. She’s on the story like a dog on a bone. She even goes to Arkansas and though pursuing other angles even persuades the clerk’s office to pull the old trial records from the warehouse for her to read. Months later, Amy Chozick with The New York Times reaches out also looking at Clinton’s time as a lawyer of sorts in Arkansas.

The Times’ piece came out a week or so before the election. The Journal piece was about a week before that. The Times’ article was sort of puffy by that point in the campaign. I got away with a bland ending quote on the article, saying essentially that we didn’t like seeing her at the table of the opposing counsel on the Lifeline trial. I did learn that Hillary wrote the brief in the case, which is at least of passing interest, though I’ll admit I still find it galling.

Meckler’s piece was more substantial and less fangirl. She managed to sniff out some controversy inside the firm around how seriously Clinton had taken her work there and how much rain she had produced. She scored her service on Walmart and Tyson boards as an income producer since her billable hours were fewer. More interestingly to me, the Journal story started with the lifeline trial and produced a revelatory quote from the lead counsel, Webb Hubbell, now a former Little Rock mayor and Clinton White House staffer with a billing scandal behind him, but telling Meckler point blank that here they were on her first case finding themselves opposing poor people. Straight up, I liked that a bit, because at least it was an admission of some guilt and foreboding on their part. Maybe Hubble and Clinton had lost a couple of hours of sleep and spent some times with their worry beads. Meckler came back to the lifeline story at the end of the article and quoted me as saying essentially “we didn’t win that one.” True that.

At least I didn’t put my foot in my mouth, and forty years had subdued my rage enough to the point that I seemed mature about it or at least calloused. The fights that overturn the will of the people and where justice never feels quite done can’t be forgotten, but there’s also little to forgive. We were on different sides then, but we go on to the next fight.

On that one we were opponents. On this one, Election Day, we are absolutely on the same side.

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The Activists of Paris Are Ready for a Movement Now

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a workshop for activists at the labor union hall

Paris   On the bus to our meetings in Paris we were clogged up in a huge traffic circle where the Bastille, the infamous prison of the French Revolution was located. On that site now is a quite grand appearing Opera House. My colleague had earlier reprised stories of Charles De Gaulle and his comeback after the worst defeat of the French Army “in 2000 years,” as he called it. We met members of several local political parties in the afternoon at a café, where even I could translate the original sign saying this was the Café of the Unions. Down the street we met that evening in the a vast building constructed by the unions after the mid-1800’s Paris Commune, when workers concluded that they had insufficient space in Paris to meet, discuss, plan, and take action. In the room where we met a score of local activists, a translation of the sign on the door was that this was the room “of the little strike.” History seemed everywhere around us, but even surrounded by history, this is where things start.

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In Grenoble, our leaders were focused on the hard problems at the basics of organization. How to build their local groups and keep the members active? How to balance growing the organization with maintaining the existing pace? How to navigate their role as leaders between the staff and membership? In Paris, our colleagues had vast political experience in the labor movement, student unions, mobilizations, political parties, and more, but they were looking past the grassroots specifics to the grander vision, and they were hungry to ignite the movement that would bring back the good times and create the big changes of our dreams. They knew the work of our affiliates and partners, Alliance Citoyenne and ReAct, and the idea of ACORN excited them about the possibilities they could see in the future.

Answering Questions

Answering Questions

The questions probed recruitment, campaigns, and of course politics and how ACORN handled these issues around the world and historically in the United States. Ironically, where with the leaders I had tried to gently pull them towards looking at the bigger picture of their opportunities, with this crowd of seasoned activists I found myself pushing them to the concrete realities of the work and what it took to realize those dreams.

For example, one great question spoke of the decline of the workers’ movement in France and Europe and seemed to ask if ACORN could be the modern vehicle to revive those times of sweeping change. The question took my breath away with its excitement, but the enormity of the project and our place in it, forced an answer that must have disappointed many, when I argued that we would simply be one force of many and that we in fact couldn’t make it all happen without a wider array of organizations, especially labor, moving in the same direction. I had to remind my new friends that despite the growth and success of ACORN in the USA over its years, there was still galloping and growing inequity, the end of welfare, stagnant wages, declining incomes for many of our families, and abandonment of support for much of the urban America where ACORN members struggled and fought.

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN's affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

Nonetheless, this was a hopeful crowd ready to do the work, and that was exciting in itself, and challenges us to do more in Paris and across France and Europe. It was refreshing finally to answer questions that came from one of our leaders in attendance from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb on the brass tacks of negotiations, something I could handle more confidently. I even got a question on whether dues should be lower for a 23-year old member where with relief I could simply answer, “No.”

As we left in good spirits together after several hours of dialogue, we passed the door to the giant auditorium on the main floor. A peek inside saw people lined along the walls of the great expanse. They were singing, and we left the building to a joyous noise.

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

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Worrying with the Leaders of a New Organization

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the Grenoble chair brings people together to review

Grenoble   We had gotten a lot done in Grenoble during my visit. I had arrived on a weekend before a “bank holiday” for All Saints Day, meaning that many also took off what they call the “bridge” day here, the day before the holiday, leaving the office pretty much to our teams, the phones a little less busy, and fewer items on the list that had to be taken care of that minute. The highlight was going to be a workshop the leadership had requested on ACORN so they were clearer about both ACORN and their own work in building community organizations in Grenoble, Paris, and potentially all around France.

The workshop was the workshop I’ve often given. It consists of the highlight reel: the founding, the expansion, some victories, and now the work internationally. What is always interesting, especially with emerging leadership is the questions they ask and the answers they want. Every country is different of course, but many of the questions are the same with a tinge of local color, culture, and history.

leaders break to get organized after leadership's ACORN workshop

leaders break to get organized after leadership’s ACORN workshop

One of the first questions among this highly politically aware leadership was whether or not ACORN groups found the need to ally closely and identify with a political party. The fact that membership-based community organizations are political, but at the same time are nonpartisan is often a wide river to cross in the beginning. ACORN’s work in the United States on basic democratic practice like voter registration, get-out-the-vote, initiatives and referenda are not duplicated in many countries that have automatic registration of all citizens and multi-party politics forcing the organizations to walk tightropes through many political waters.

There rarely is a leadership meeting with an outsider where some leaders don’t take advantage of the opportunity to try and probe whether their situations are usual or abnormal. Are their local groups getting enough servicing by staff organizers? What is the true role of the organizers as opposed to the leadership? The questions sometimes run the gamut, between why do we need them, to how can we live without them? With a membership dues organization like ACORN and its affiliates it also includes where staff fits into the exchange of dues being paid to the organization versus work being done by the members. All of these questions came up in one way or another in Grenoble as well.

in small groups the exercise will be how to "present" the Alliance

in small groups the exercise will be how to “present” the Alliance

Even in another language it was easy to follow both the curiosity and the passion of many of the questions. It was even easier to take the temperature of the leadership’s struggle to come to consensus when various leaders would catch me to the side and lobby me.

One man wanted to gauge how much he should be concerned about the expansion of the organization to Paris as they tried to build and stabilize their base in Grenoble. I wasn’t sure whether I assuaged his fears or exacerbated them when I raised whether an expansion to Lyon, the huge, neighboring would be more comfortable. A woman wanted to lobby me about tactics. She was a veteran of struggles from the last century and she was frustrated by the tenor of neighborhood campaign tactics and wanted to know essentially when the actions would involve more pepper and less sugar. I assured her it was all bound to come, but it depended on the targets and the campaigns, but once the campaigns became citywide, “people get ready.” One woman showed me an article in English in a plastic encased, yellowed newspaper from Binghamton, New York with a picture of her father that wrote about how he and her brother had been killed in the Resistance. My English was inadequate to adequately express the right emotions to her for sharing something I will never forget.

one small group with Solene

one small group with Solene

It went like that. They broke into smaller groups after our two hours to discuss how best they wanted to present their organization to potential recruits. When they finished there was little doubt that we were in France. We then sat down to talk and, of course, ate cake.

in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!

in ACORN we work first, and then we have cake!

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