Property Tax Delinquency Auctions as Ghetto Creators and People Removers

Harbour Portfolio Advisers houses boarded and abandoned in suburban Atlanta

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

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

another home abandoned to tax auction

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

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

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

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Wall Street and Big Corporations Go Rental and It Means Trouble

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Seasonal Dilemma: Piling on the Work and Building Momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Pleasures of Meeting with Local Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Congolese Diaspora

Meeting with representatives of the Congolese community in Paris

Paris   Several times in the meeting of the ACORN International staff and leadership in Paris, Mathieu Ilunga Kankonde, a member of the national board of the ACORN/Alliance Citoyenne in France and locally in Grenoble, had raised the question of how we might expand to help develop organizing in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We had always answered briefly about the level of resources required and the long term commitment necessary, but mainly we had postponed the question until we attended a meeting he was organizing with leaders of the Congolese community in Paris before we were to leave the city.

The meeting took a while to come together, but before it was over, there were ten men who came to hear about ACORN and discuss their issues and interests for work both in the Congo as well as efforts to connect Congolese in what they called diaspora. I was interested in these connections. Recently, I had met several of our members from Ottawa at the ACORN Canada convention who were from the Congo as well as Gabon, on the western coast of Africa. They had been willing to tape videos for our members and leaders in France and Cameroon of their great experiences with ACORN Canada. Even before the meeting began, Mathieu texted a close friend who was now in Chicago for additional ACORN information. A quick Google search indicated there were over 200,000 Congolese in France now.

Mathieu Kandonde, an ACORN/Alliance leader from Grenoble prepares to start the meetiing

Several of the men had come by at various times during the weekend meeting for several hours to listen and get a better idea of ACORN. Others were interested in learning more for the first time. After Mathieu gave an opening introduction based on his experience over recent years, and I briefly outlined where we worked and some intersections of interest to the diaspora, like our campaign to lower the cost of remittances or money transfers, I solicited questions and comments from the group.

There were a range of opinions. Some were concerned about the political situation in the Congo and erosion of what they saw as democratic principles, including the fact that the President was still in office though his term had ended. Many were bothered by the level of self-interest and corruption in public life that had alienated so many people from participation. Some thought there needed to be new political parties or that existing parties needed to be reformed. I wondered if these men saw themselves as Lenins at the Finland Station at this room on top of a cafe along a Paris boulevard.

pictures at the end of the meeting

Others commented with anger over the exploitation by transnational companies from the France, Britain, and the United States of the Congo’s wealth and natural resources. They felt there was a trail of blood and bodies on their history that also clouded their future. They seemed more desperate to find a megaphone that could channel their voices and speak to their grievances than an organization that could empower them, but the dialogue was frank and open.

No decisions were made, and none were expected. There are probably a lot of names for conversations like this, but in organizing, we have always called it “testing.” These meetings open some doors, and close others, but under any circumstances they are necessary, and they point directions to the future, even if not taken.

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Hot Topics for International Organizers

Paris   Ok, perhaps the very first question on your list was not, “What do community organizers working around the world talk about when they first get together?” Too, bad, because it is actually a wild run of issues snatched from here to there.

First on the list was the demonstrations by tens of thousands in Hamburg, Germany who organized a greeting party for the G-20 meeting there called “Welcome to Hell.” Knowing, as we all do, the long meetings and back-and-forth correspondence that accompany the art of “titling” any big demonstration, we all had to admire how clear and specific the Germans made their intentions known for their demonstrations. Hamburg has a vibrant progressive movement and long tradition and clearly took the whole siting of the G-20 meeting as almost a personal affront. The footage shared around the table made the whole affair appear like a barely contained mini-riot, and the reports of arrests and police cars burning had a certain “hellish” flavor. The Times had mentioned that President Trump tried to establish some of rapport with Chancellor Merkel by sympathizing with her about the demonstrations, something he has learned about firsthand in the early days of this presidency with the flourish of the resistance.

And, then as our ACORN Kenya organizers call it, comes “sharing.”

There was a lot of interest in the work in the United Kingdom in reaction to the Grenfell fire massacre in London, and ACORN’s work in trying to make sure similar buildings are identified and tenants protected elsewhere in the country. Others reported that French organizers, in contact with British organizers working with McDonalds workers, were complimentary of the ACORN delegation representing well in a recent London march around these issues. One world, indeed, as the message was shared that plans for a strike at McDonalds in September sought ACORN’s support in the effort.

There will be much more of this when the full meeting convenes as other organizers arrive from Canada, France and elsewhere. One major topic of interest on the agenda was a discussion of what UK ACORN head organizer, Stuart Melvin, had referred to as the “political break” movements of the recent year, Trump, Sanders, Corbin, and Macron, and how they would impact these countries, and of course, our own work and planning. Lieke Smits from the Netherlands will be joining us for that conversation as well, which will be exciting for everyone.

There were catch-ups and reports of organizers not able to make it to this year’s meeting. Eloise Maulet is still in Cameron working with the organizers to launch our ACORN-Alliance organization in Douala. Their first action last week at been exciting to see, and as we were meeting word was coming in that they had won a commitment that potable water will be coming to their neighborhood. A chapter meeting had just concluded in Aubervilliers, where we are organizing in Paris and they were celebrating news that they had won a reduction in water rates after their campaign.

The work is hard, but everyone was excited to hear that they were making progress, and it was good to come together.

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