Left Dancing at Labour Comeback in UK

Little Rock   After the shocking slap-in-the-face beat down shocks of the Trump victory in the United States and the Brexit election in the United Kingdom to depart the European Union, nothing seemed certain, and little seemed to be going our way. The Netherlands and French elections turned back populists certainly, but more by way of damming up the dikes, than giving real hope to progressives, since largely only the middle held.

Last night was different though. I got to the trailer after 8 PM on an impossibly long day that had begun before dawn and ended with a radio station board meeting and a run down to the Darragh room of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) to celebrate KABF board member and longtime ally, comrade, and friend Paul Kelly’s retirement from Arkansas Advocates for Children. Turning on the computer, my Facebook was blowing up! My friends and ACORN organizers were joyous at the early projections of election results in the snap election called by Prime Minister Theresa May in her attempt to bolster her Conservative Party majority numbers in order to get a freer hand in negotiations with the EU over Britain’s defection. One post after post after another literally shouted in capital letters that they weren’t going to bed yet. 8pm for me was already 2am for them, and I would wager many were still glued to the telly a 4AM to see where the last seats might fall.

If many had felt sure that Hillary Clinton would have a cakewalk victory last November, weeks ago people were even more sure that Theresa May would lap the field in the election. The more serious speculation and concern was less about how large a majority she might win, but whether the fabled Labour Party would even survive what was expected to be a crushing defeat.

Instead in a potential election lesson for us all, Jeremy Corbyn, the much maligned leader of the Labour Party, constantly derided even within his party as being too hard left, has emerged as the clear winner along with a resuscitated Labour Party. Labour picked up 31 seats, while the Conservatives lost 12 seats it appears, putting them below any majority, much less a mandate, and forcing May to scramble for a partner to try and maintain any semblance of her government. The Scottish National Party also lost 19 seats, while the Liberal Dems just held there own and UKIP blanked. So, yes, with 318 Conservative seats to 262 Labour seats, the Conservatives won by some measures, but losing their majority, their bargaining position, and potentially their government is a Pyrrhic victory of historic propositions.

The other message not just in Britain but to the world, if they are listening, is that a campaign that is avowedly directed to the young, to workers, to immigrants, and others outside of the elites, can be powerfully effective. One post said “Blairism is dead,” referring to New Labour which much like Clintonian democrats was a move towards the middle that muddled the clarity of positions in an expediency that confuses and alienates voters. There are so many lessons here!

ACORN in the United Kingdom is also celebrating because we bet big on voter registration, especially among our expanding base of renters. Registration was up 2% and the voting numbers followed along, as they often do with the enthusiasm of newly registered voters, and ACORN was smack dab in the middle of that.

Listen and learn. Pay attention in class to class now!

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Please enjoy Steve Early’s Lookin for a Woman. Thanks to KABF.

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Hammer and Tong Fights Over Rent Control – Look at Santa Rosa and Scotland

New Orleans   With rents soaring and evictions rising in cities all over the US and the world, the real estate interests are finally facing their worst boogeyman: rent control! Rather than responding to the affordable housing crisis worldwide with new and innovative plans to provide additional housing, they are mainly digging in their heels and going deep in their pockets to fight even the most moderate proposals for market regulation or modifications.

Cases in point pop up everywhere. In Scotland, ACORN affiliate Living Rent, took advantage of devolution to win some introductory steps toward controlling spiraling rents, as the number of private tenants soars in a landscape that used to be heavily invested in public housing schemes. As an introductory step, there are now a series of thresholds that trigger the creation of “rent pressure zones,” which could cap rent increases in areas of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. An extremely modest proposal to mandate inclusionary zoning for new housing developments in the City of New Orleans narrowly avoided overturn with state legislators tried to pull the rug on it.

All of these high pressure affordable housing contests are knife fights, and right now the sharpest blades drawing the most blood are in Santa Rosa, the smallish 175,000 county seat of Sonoma County, legendary mainly for being the heart of California wine country and northern suburbs of San Francisco. There is an election scheduled for June 6th on whether to implement a rent control ordinance approved narrowly on a 4-3 vote by the city council earlier in the year. Real estate interests quickly mobilized petition signatures, many claim under dubious conditions, sufficient to force the issue to the ballot. Veteran political professionals all agree on only one thing – this is the most expensive election of any kind in Santa Rosa, totally almost $1 million on both sides.

On one side the Chicago-based National Board of Realtors recently dropped over $300,000 into the fight as part of the more than $800,000 raised by the ordinance opponents. On the “yes” side one of the key players is the Gamaliel network affiliated community organization, the North Bay Organizing Project, a well-regarded dynamic and effective coalition of 22 faith, labor, and immigrant organizations. I got to know Davin Cardenas, the lead organizer, on the Organizers’ Forum Dialogue in Bolivia, where his work and contribution created a fan club of me and our entire delegation.

The election is too close to call, but the irony again is how moderate the proposal really is, especially in the face of the apocalyptic arguments of the realtors. The city has an estimated 11,076 apartments that would be affected, or about 18 percent of the city’s 67,000 housing units. With an average household size of 2.6 residents, that’s about 26,400 people. The provision excludes single family houses, duplexes, triplexes that are owner occupied, and condominiums. The ordinance only takes rents back to January 1, 2016 which was at the tail end of a 5-year surge that pushed rents up 50% with a vacancy rate of 1% in the city. There are also a number of exceptions that allow rents to be increased, including a virtual communistic guarantee of profits for the landlords. This ordinance is decidedly not the revolution.

Perhaps the real stickler is that the ordinance is not solely about rent regulation, but also establishes in this growing wave of tenant evictions nationally, that separation can only be for “just cause.” And, if established that there was no just cause, there is a real penalty: landlords would have to pay for the tenant’s relocation! That actually sounds fair, but the numbers on average rents in Santa Rosa mean it could cost the landlord $6000 on the average. Winning the vote might not do everything needed to curb rents sufficiently, but the fact that it might seriously reduce the number of evictions may be the real battle cry being shouted around the country by the realtors once the doors are closed.

This is one local election worth following closely, because winning might be the ripple that could start a tidal wave.

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Building a Fighting Force to Stop Evictions and Win Affordable Rents

ACORN Bristol

New Orleans    Tenancy is rising, and it’s expensive. People are being pressed up against the walls. The old rule of thumb that rent and housing costs should not be more than 30% of income, similar to the old Brooke Amendment named after the legendary African-American Senator from Connecticut, has long been in ruins.

This is a global issue.

ACORN affiliates in Scotland amassed to fight evictions in both Glasgow and Edinburgh in recent weeks. ACORN in Bristol is currently involved in a rent strike and has beaten back numerous evictions.

When we were recently in Detroit, we met with a very active and effective organization there called the Detroit Eviction Defense. The group meets weekly and was diversely populated with younger activists, retired union professionals, lawyers, former journalists, professors, and of course tenants. The actions and victories on their website is impressive.

Evictions are a growing issue.

Researchers, Joshua Akers and Eric Seymour in Detroit shared with us soon to be published data on evictions which were eyeopening to us. In a data set they had accumulated over the decade between 2005 and 2015, these University of Michigan whizzes had separated the nearly 7500 contract “purchases” from the total of 80,000 total acquisitions involving tax delinquency or foreclosure auctions. Although we had thought a primary part of the business model for contract pushers was evictions and indeed they generate more, but it was a matter of degree at 1 out 3 compared to 1 out of 4, between the two, with both at outrageous levels.

A paper by the researchers connected to the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, led by Flora Raymond (and shared with us by our wolverine comrades) notes that Atlanta is out of the box compared with other cities and no small part of this issue is driven by the increased corporate ownership of rental units and businesses that make evictions and the collection of late fees a fundamental part of their business model, similar to the recent news reports of the Kushner operation’s methods in the Baltimore area. The paper notes that,

In Fulton County, an average of 107 eviction notices are filed each day, for a yearly total equal to 22 percent of all rental households. In Milwaukee … 16 percent of all rental families are evicted. A similar rate occurs in Fulton County, where 15 percent of all rental households are evicted. Eviction rates are highest among multifamily rentals, but they are also prevalent in single-family rentals. We find that large corporate owners in the single-family rental business are more likely than small landlords to evict tenants, even after controlling for parcel level and neighborhood-level factors.

Our Home Savers Campaign is finding that our members are frequently entering the predatory land installment contracts not because they are wide-eyed about becoming home owners, but even more frequently because they are desperate for affordable housing regardless of condition, if they think they can manage the lower monthly payments, regardless of the predatory scam.   Something is happening here, Mr. Jones!

It’s been widely reported and at the grassroots level, painfully realized, but Raymond and her co-authors state it plainly,

The number of renters with high housing cost burdens has reached record levels in the United States. Over 21 million households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent; 11 million of those spend more than 50 percent, which is considered severely cost burdened. Much of the increase in households reporting housing insecurity can be attributed to soaring rents as demand for rental housing climbs (Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2016).

Add it up and the numbers are staggering. About 27,000 evictions in Atlanta’s Fulton County every year, and eviction rates in Milwaukee at 16%, Chicago 7%, Cleveland 11%, and the beat goes on and the family and community tragedy it represents increases. Take 21 million paying more than 30% of income on rent and another 6 million contract buyers, and millions of renters facing the street over and under these figures who are facing eviction, multiply them by all members of their households, and we have a huge constituency that would seem to be ripe for both organization and action.

Like the old buffalo hunters, I’ve got my ear to the ground to see if I can hear a movement coming.

Please enjoy Blackleg Miner by Offa Rex (The Decemberists & Olivia Chaney).

Thanks to KABF.

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Vivian Lewis’ Proposal: Rebuild ACORN Using Social Media

New Orleans   With the rise of social media, Facebook estimates that everyone in the world is linked and now connected through less than three people, half of the six degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon. In the same curious way, I met Kenya Lewis when she and several radio aficionados popped into the KABF studios in Little Rock for a quick visit on the their way to an alternative radio conference last year in Hot Springs. Fast forward to recent weeks and a post appears on my Facebook page, highlighted by Kenya, mentioning that her aunt, Vivian, had written a book and one of the main takeaways was her advocacy of the need to rebuild ACORN and to do so using social media. This I had to see, and now, thanks again to Kenya, I’ve had the chance to read the book and get a better sense of what Vivian Lewis is recommending as a path forward.

Let me step back a minute though. Vivian Lewis’ book has a mouthful of a title, My Perspective: How the Urban and Rural Black American Can Beat the Odds with the Help of the Black Middle Class and Social Media. As the title says, this is Lewis perspective on dealing with an array of issues from education to health to jobs and criminal justice that face our communities, especially black communities. She explains that she wrote the book as a Californian with Texas roots who ended up in Virginia, and didn’t like the cold there, so in a head fake to the reader, she decided to shut the doors tightly and write this book. Reading her monogram, it is inescapable that her perspective on a host of critical issues had been developing for quite a time making winter an excuse to step forward. The issues may be standard fare, but Lewis parses them uniquely from her point of view and determinedly focuses, as her title makes abundantly clear, on how to move black Americans forward.

Those chapters are worth the read, but it was the last chapter on “Where Do We Go From Here?”, that caught my attention, because that was where her plan to revive ACORN came front-and-center. Lewis is neither a romantic not nostalgic for ACORN’s golden years. She argues flatly:

Because ACORN is no longer with us, let’s talk about a replacement. Today, with no money for such an organization, the only hope that I see is creating something that resembles ACORN by using social media to get the word out. Social media is cheap and easy and young Black people use social media more than any group, so let’s put it to work for us.”

She then advocates what she says are “goals that were once ACORN’s: registering voters…legal advice; financial advice; mentoring parents, and more.” She’s realistic about the cost of the effort once again underlining that, “Our organizers/volunteers must be willing to work for little or no salary but for the good of the community.” This is where she hopes to get the middle class to step up. She tackles membership in the new enterprise as well, arguing that “We will register all those who would like to become members…[who] will come from the community that we will serve, that is, those that are classified as on or near poverty level and live in a particular community.” In Lewis organizing plan, the primary communication is social media. Training and leadership development will be on YouTube, podcasts, or visual/audit easily available to one and all through the internet. If I were talking to Vivian Lewis, rather than writing about her book, I would mention that ACORN in the United Kingdom is conducting many experiments with social media and different membership thresholds, much like she is advocating.

Her perspective and her book also speak to the huge hole in American public life at the community grassroots level where ACORN was so present and powerful, that still has not been filled. Lewis has an idea about where to start in the process to rebuild and replicate ACORN, and it’s a good one.

I’ll continue to do my part for sure, but I am encouraged by Vivian Lewis to hope that a thousand more flowers will bloom so that we can walk this path with purpose and power again.

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Project Vote Pulling the Plug When Its Work is So Badly Needed

New Orleans  Mike Slater, the executive director of Project Vote since about 2008, announced that the voter registration and voter accountability organization was going to close its doors on May 31st, largely because of a lack of financial support. He thanked longtime donors and supporters, but indicated there just was enough in the bank to keep fueling the machinery for voting participation and accountability. There is likely more to it than that, but I haven’t been close to Project Vote since 2008, so all I know is what the announcement says, but I do know enough to write in their obituary that it’s a tragedy.

In these days of voter suppression by one legislature after another, increasingly overseen by the chief suppressor now in the Attorney General’s office as well as one court case after another ending in clear judgments citing racism in restraining the vote, the history and experience of Project Vote is sorely needed. In the future, we will be on the field with one star player absent. Amazing to me, while reading of voter registration efforts right now in Georgia on a key Congressional race and hearing the news that millions have been raised to support the Center for Popular Democracy voter registration and other voting efforts that the space shrank so sharply that Project Vote couldn’t survive.

Project Vote was founded in 1982 by DC-based, activist lawyer, Sandy Newman. Virtually from its beginning Project Vote and ACORN worked closely together, welded in common purpose by our commitments to register voters in lower income and minority communities. Project Vote was nonpartisan and tax exempt, and the registration efforts were the same. Sandy was creative and managed to fund the operation largely through a network of private donors he cultivated assiduously who developed deep commitments to registration efforts during his service. By the early 1990s, Sandy wanted to spend his time on other interests and turn over the reins to a more diverse leadership who would continue to deepen its stewardship of this issue in communities. Zach Polett, ACORN’s political director, had developed a close working relationship with Sandy through our partnerships, so when it came time for a transition, there were two organizations who seemed ready and able to take Project Vote under their wings, the Industrial Areas Foundation, particularly Baltimore-based, Arnie Graf, and ACORN. There may be more to this story than I know as well, but Arnie was having issues with his back that led him to withdraw the IAF’s interest, while ACORN’s commitment remained enthusiastic, so it was there that Project Vote found a home.

There were several directors of Project Vote’s DC operation with different titles over the years, including Jehmu Greene, now a television commentator and advocate, but the real driver of the program within the ACORN family, regardless of title, continued to be Polett, who virtually commuted between Little Rock and Washington for fourteen years as the joint efforts between Project Vote and ACORN grew exponentially to the point where we were registering over one-million voters in 2008. And, then in the firefight that was the Obama-McCain contest, Project Vote and ACORN were both caught in the crossfire. Mike Slater, a longtime ACORN organizer, largely in Minnesota, was elevated to director in the aftermath and building more firewalls, managed to sustain the organization past ACORN’s reorganization in 2010.

To Project Vote’s credit, its website in the mid-aughts was clear about the ACORN connection. Slater acknowledged his time, the general counsel was a longtime ACORN veteran, and most importantly the organization had stood firm by Amy Busefink, an ACORN veteran who ran a big part of our 2004 statewide minimum wage fight in Florida and picked up her mail at our St. Pete office when we were working on the Walmart drives. Amy had been targeted by the right for her work in Vegas during the campaign in a drama of ridiculousness, and the organization never abandoned her, which showed good character.

Project Vote’s website has now been scoured of its ACORN ties, which leads me to believe that between the lines, they are the latest victim of the right wing attack on the organization and the left wing’s lack of backbone and tradition of struggle. It’s surprising that Mike couldn’t find a home for Project Vote in the way that Sandy had done so many years before. Is this more ACORN shaming, almost a decade later? Look at the internet. The right never forgets, even while the left too often shuns, waiting for donor handouts and fleeing any whisper of controversy, no matter how unjust.

Nonetheless, 35 years of work in registering voters and protecting their rights to the ballot, is a legacy drenched in accomplishment and pride. RIP to Project Vote, but let’s celebrate its work and life, because it made a huge difference, and it will be greatly missed.

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FNMA Opens a Crack in the Predatory Land Contracts Wall

New Orleans   Fresh off our meeting and work in Detroit, the Home Savers Campaign got a break. In response to Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings complaints about Vision Property Management, the national rent-to-own operation’s lack of cooperation with him and his committee, symbolized by the lead poisoning of children living in one of their contracted properties, FNMA banned VPM from participating in further purchases of foreclosed properties in REO auctions. Vision of course cried foul, but there was finally a crack in the wall that Vision and hundreds of other companies have built through impunity and predatory practices.

What was less clear about FNMA’s response was whether they were just trying to get the Congressman off of their backs or whether this is a real change of heart. Although in their announcement they indicated to the New York Times that they had investigated the various claims, the nature of their investigations and the standards they used to bar VPM were not disclosed. It was also unclear that they were looking past VPM to the other companies that are bleeding lower income and working families in the same way. Furthermore, while Fannie Mae has stepped up, Freddie Mac is still cowering in silence even though they were also asked by the Congressman to ban Vision.

The Home Savers Campaign is drafting a letter to demand that FNMA bar any company from their auctions that relies on “as is” contracts for contract land sales or rent-to-own agreements. In Pittsburgh, Akron, Youngstown, Detroit, Memphis, Philadelphia, and other cities, we have found that this “as is” language is a license by not only Vision, but all of the companies in this sector to push properties into the hands of families desperate for affordable housing on any terms. Many times the companies are relying on the gray area of whether they are contracting with families who can claim to be tenants and access some rights available to them as tenants, depending on the city or state, or whether the families are now putative “owners-to-be” and allowing them to escape the strictures of local and state regulations.

The Toledo, Ohio ordinance makes it clear that such families in any manner of contract land purchases have to have a warrant of habitability before any contract can be validly signed and the family allowed to move in. The devil is in the details though when it comes to enforcement. Lawyers and tenant advocates told the campaign in Detroit that there is also a similar warrant of habitability required in that city, but there is no enforcement so it’s a dead letter.

The Home Savers Campaign intends to demand that any company operating with “as is” language in their agreements should be barred from accessing any property through auctions or sales foreclosed or delinquent homes in order to dam the flow of properties upstream to these predators. Enforcement or no, that will ensure in the future that companies have to ensure at least that minimum standards have been met in these homes, before desperate families are allowed to live in them. Additionally, any work done by the families before they receive the deeds should be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses directly or be discounted in the sales price.

Families desperate for housing cannot be the ATM for predatory housing schemes and the companies, big or small, that are running these scams.

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