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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

CBO Again Says No-Go on Senate Healthcare Bill, Deductibles Soar!

New Orleans   The nonprofit Congressional Budget Office had a more leisurely schedule in costing out the latest, zombie Republican Senate effort to replace Obamacare with something, almost anything more draconian. The numbers were the usual at one level: 22 million would lose coverage by 2026, 15 million of them immediately. Medicaid would be hammered with a 26% cut over the next decade. Like I said, the usual.

There were a couple of new twists though that caught my eye.

The CBO number also took a look at the impact of going all-Trump on a repeal now and punt down the field until some later date. 32 million Americans would lose coverage on that less than brilliant, but certainly spiteful, bitter pill strategy. That’s 10 million more than under the original Senate slice. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pressing for a vote on something, in fact just about anything, next week so that he can count the bodies and move on or move home. That’s going to be a hard bill to force feed.

The other factoid that caught my eye went to my long term grievance: no cap on deductibles.

Just to reprise my constant complaint. In bargaining union contracts for lower waged service employees, all of the companies had compliant plans under the Affordable Care Act, but they also included deductibles that ranged from $4000 to $6000 on top of the 9% monthly payments for coverage. The result for lower waged workers making less than $20,000 per year is that there was almost zero participation, but they were also excluded from any of the subsidies or cost-sharing of Obamacare, even though they could participate in the marketplace and pay full price, because they technically had coverage under their employers miserable plans. We found ourselves having to advocate nonparticipation and paying the fine.

The CBO noted that under Obamacare the average deductible for single person coverage was in fact $5000. Under the Republican Senate bill they estimated that the average deductible would soar to $13,000 per person on individual coverage. Remember that’s a deductible, meaning the individual would shell out $13,000 before getting any benefits from the so-called health insurance and after paying a monthly premium. Who is going to buy that pig in a poke? Eliminating the mandatory requirement means that’s an easy guess with the answer being: nobody!

Face the facts. At this level of deductible, this is nothing more than catastrophic care. Why would anyone sign up if they felt kind of healthy, and kind of lucky, unless they were suddenly feeling a little woozy, or a fortune teller told them to look out.

Meanwhile what we have, warts and all, is becoming more popular, up to 60% support, and the Trump Administration is debating outright sabotage, as distinguished from Congressional sabotage, I guess.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Community and Organizational Responses to Flooding

Russell Lee, flood refugees at meal time, Charleston, Missouri, February 1937. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010215-D.

New Orleans Bear with me on this, because we’re going to take some twists and turns, but trust me, these things are all connected, and the water is always rising somewhere, so it matters.

Partly of course we’re closing in on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We’re still in recovery. There are still volunteers coming in from time to time to help. We’re still trying to develop the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. There’s still a fight to stop expansion of the Industrial Canal that flooded the area and ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, is still in the thick of the fight as it has been for the last dozen years. In Paris one evening during the ACORN International staff meeting we showed a clip from the upcoming documentary, The Organizer, that told the story of ACORN’s fight to rebuild New Orleans after the storm. I’m telling the truth when I share that there were some tears in the eyes of these hard bitten organizers.

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002975-M2.

I was struck reading Michael Honey’s book and oral history on John Handcox and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, Sharecroppers Troubadour, on the plane back to New Orleans from a too long 19-day trip to Hungary, France, and Italy. The STFU and Handcox had been organizing in the Bootheel section of southern Missouri which cuts into northeastern Arkansas when the Great Ohio and Mississippi River Valley Flood of 1937, “displaced 7,000 whites and 5,000 blacks, including nearly all of the STFU’s 250 paid members in nine Missouri locals.” Like Katrina the impoverishment was devastating, except if anything worse, because the country had not found an adequate response to its peoples’ disasters then either. These were farm workers whose crops were washed away, partially when the Corps of Engineers used 200 pounds of dynamite to blow up a levee to stop more flooding downriver. Like the ACORN Hurricane Katrina Survivors’ organizations in cities throughout the south and southwest footprint, as Honey notes, the STFU “organized an Official Council of the STFU Refugees, which excoriated the federal government for having caused ‘the most disastrous flood in the history of our country.’” There were too many coincidences. The little money promised came too late. The crops recovered, but the people did not. The STFU had to also be rebuilt in the area to fight again in a last gasp.

John Handcox and Michael Honey, 1986.
Smithsonian Folkways – Smithsonian Institution

There was a story recently about the National Flood Insurance Fund in one of my daily papers, which grew out of these kinds of disasters. The fund is $25 billion in the red largely because of Katrina, Sandy in the New York-New Jersey area, and continued flooding in Louisiana from massive rains. The piece claimed that 30% of the money went to repeaters, folks whose homes just keep being flooded. A family in upstate New York was interviewed who were about to raise their house 10 feet with the insurance support. They couldn’t sell the house because of the floods. They wanted to retire and move to Arizona but they couldn’t. Poignantly, they said they knew they would be hit by another flood in the future. It was hard to not wonder, why the fund didn’t just help them get a new place?

As climate change becomes a constant concern, all of this history and these simple questions are going to be harder and harder not to answer with a more constructive and humanitarian response.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Musicians are Permanent and Precarious Gig Workers

Grenoble  We have spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there are effective ways to organize informal and precarious workers. This was a front line topic for our organizers from around the world when we gathered in Paris recently. A pilot is making progress with hotel housekeepers and cleaners in Lyon, France. In the UK, our ACORN tenants’ union is increasingly getting questions about whether we can be their union on the job as well. Certainly in the United States this is part of our daily work, and we are soon launching a project in New Orleans among itinerant and precarious hospitality workers. Certainly we have experience in this area in organizing home-based workers in childcare and home health, as well as street vendors and waste pickers in India and elsewhere.

The constant publicity and attention given to the gig economy and its economic challenges questions whether or not there is any consensus that such an economy can produce wage security. A unique plan under discussion by ACORN’s New Orleans affiliate revolves around whether or not people can save their homes and livelihoods by adding additional, affordable housing units on their existing home lots in a different kind of in-fill development. Others are even trying AirBnb, if they can master the confusing local regulations. Uber, under pressure, seems to be adding a way for drivers to collect tips and calculating refunds where it scammed drivers on taxes.

I’m skeptical both philosophically and practically. At home or on the road, email is still everywhere, and as the manager of both radio stations like KABF and WAMF and performance venues like Fair Grinds Coffeehouses, I am constantly, and creatively, being solicited by aspiring musicians to play their music or allow them space on the calendar, despite the fact that the stations are noncommercial and playing the coffeehouse means busking for tips. I’m sympathetic to both their dreams and ambitions, as well as their plight, which sometimes includes where they can get cheap housing or free food, even though, as nonprofits and social enterprises, we are too strapped to be helpful without robbing Peter to pay Paul ourselves,.

All of which pushed me to read How Music Works by former frontman of Talking Heads and longtime musician and artist, David Byrne. This is a love letter to music and a Cook’s tour of his career, but the book is also an invaluable primer on the business of music, and there’s no sugar in that coffee. Byrne makes a case for how important “event” spaces and venues are in creating and supporting a music scene. I wish we could provide that, but we fall short on his standards. It is hard for us to supply food and drink to traveling musicians when that means taking food and drink out of the hands of organizers and our members around the world, but I hope he would understand that.

Byrne is clear about his situation. He’s successful and makes a good living, but he certainly didn’t get crazy Rolling Stones rich from his music or other songwriting. When he goes through the various business models on record deals, the old ACORN chant of “predatory lender, criminal offender” was ringing through my ears. On my blog we try to feature a song sent to KABF from time to time to help out the artist. Recently, I got a note from one of the musicians about whether I could link to streaming or something too complicated for me to follow so that maybe he could pick up some iTunes purchases. In a similar way, a friend recently posted on Facebook how she pledges to radio stations to fight the notion that good music and entertainment can be provided for free.

If musicians are a good example of the gig economy, then the verdict is already in, and if music does NOT pay, even when musicians are doing the work, and their work is generally valued and respected more than other precarious workers like cab drivers, cleaners, and hospitality workers, then we’re simply watching the creation of a permanent underclass, not a tech-miracle. Spin that record differently the next time you hear it.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Workers’ Hours and Productivity in US, UK, and France

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/economicoutputandproductivity/productivitymeasures/bulletins/internationalcomparisonsofproductivityfinalestimates/2014

Grenoble  There was an interesting aside to the conversation about political “break” movements in Europe and the United States at the ACORN International meeting. When the discussion turned to what the election of Macron as President of France would mean to the renewed efforts to dilute the famous French labor code, Antoine Gonthier, one of the senior organizers for ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble, pointed out what he saw as ironic that for all of the corporate bashing of the labor code in France, French workers were more productive than those of other countries including the United States and United Kingdom. I replied that I had also seen numbers that indicated that the US workforce was more productive, but it was a minor point, and we moved on with the discussion. Nonetheless, it seemed important, so it kept nagging at me until I could look it all up.

It turns out that Antoine and I were both right, but even where we were wrong it illustrates the point, and, unfortunately, why the corporatist movement is gaining ground in France. A fairly recent report on the latest 2014 statistics by the Office for National Statistics in Great Britain comparing productivity across several measures for the G-7, the most highly industrialized countries in the world, went through the numbers pretty closely.

So, the ledge Antoine was gripping firmly for the French working class was productivity per hour worked. There German workers kicked everyone’s south side hard with a significant lead. French and American workers were pretty much what-and-what, but the French were very narrowly ahead, making Antoine and I more in agreement than either one of us might have realized at the time. Luckily our Canadian and British organizers had stayed out of the conversation because they took up the rearguard on these issues with Japan getting the worst mark, then Britain and then Canada with even the much maligned Italian workers more productive per hour.

When the GDP or Gross Domestic Product was measured, the American workers were more than one-third higher per worker than the French, and the French led other G7 countries in 2nd place with Italy right behind them and Germany farther back. Once again Canada was only ahead of the UK and Japan.

But where it really got dicey was looking at the hours worked per week over the 20-year period between 1993 and 2014. In 1993, workers in the G7 were relatively close together. The average was slightly over 33 per week with the US at a tad over 35 hours per week and Japan over 36 with France close to 32 hours per week and Germany just below 30 hours per week. Sweat forward 20 years and France’s hours worked per week per worker was down a full 5 hours, while the US worker had only dropped a smidgen to a little under 35 hours per week. Italy, Japan, the UK, and Canada were all around 33 hours, and Germany was around 26 hours per week and France was around 28 hours per week. These may not reflect victories that French grandfathers won, as much as what their fathers delivered.

The weaknesses of the US labor movement and the strength of US business and their political allies have forced American workers to continue to keep their shoulders to the wheel. Take the lack of family and sick leave in the US as a prime example of this. French corporations pushing for labor law reform and perhaps even UK interests trying to keep British workers farther away from European standards, clearly have their hearts set on holding the line on productivity, increasing automation, and fighting hammer and tong to get more hours worked every week, and are committed to chaining Macron to that wheel until he delivers.

***

Please enjoy these new releases, Thanks to KABF.

Emily Saliers – Long Haul

Billy Bragg – The Sleep of Reason

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail