The Delta Foundation Says, Creating Jobs is Not Easy, but Possible

New Orleans   We hear a lot of big talk these about creating jobs, especially manufacturing jobs, and their disappearance, including going south to Mexico. The President-elect has been going wild with his Tweeter-finger about a Steelworkers’ local union president having the gall to correct his claims on how many jobs he and his team saved at the Indiana Carrier air-conditioner plant by reminding the Trumpster that 300 jobs he claimed were never slated to go. Trump may not have learned a lesson about his standard operating exaggeration, but he may have learned that that $7 million in tax incentives might save 700 jobs, but I don’t want to get side-tracked. My point is less about his bully-boy fibbing than how hard it is to create and save jobs.

On KABF’s Wade’s World, I discussed this with Spencer Nash, the head of the Delta Foundation, headquartered in Greenville, Mississippi. The foundation was created in 1969 by fourteen community-based organizations in and around the southern Mississippi, where new jobs were desperately needed given the automation in these rural areas dominated by cotton and soybeans. Their strategy was to acquire small manufacturing plants and expand their businesses and employment.

Nash said their biggest and most successful operation was an electronics company in Canton, Mississippi, most famous for the huge Nissan auto plant located in the same town. Delta Enterprises, the for profit subsidiary created by the foundation, manufactures electric switches for various customers, including Cummins Engine and others, as well as various types of tubing. Their biggest customer may be the Department of Defense, so sales go up with Republican administrations when military spending increases, and down with the Democrats. I remembered at one point they had a window fan factory in Memphis. Nash also told the story of a plant Delta owned in Little Rock that made attic staircases. They had to sellout in recent years because they could not compete with Mexico. The company that bought them, moved the equipment south of the border, so those jobs were lost. The impact of NAFTA can be counted in the scores of jobs as well as the hundreds, but the pain is the same.

So what is the future for jobs in places like the rural South or anywhere else? Nash made some interesting points.

Delta is watching closely a recent job training success they ran where 18 of 20 enrolled in a program to create construction skills in electricity, plumbing, and so forth all successfully found higher-waged, stable employment. He sees improving housing stock and building new, affordable units as a huge job opportunity, if there is support in the housing sector, citing Greenville, which lost a quarter of its population between the 2000 and 2010 Census, as an example where there is tremendous need. He surprised me by pointing out that only about 35 miles up the road in a town so near where my grandparents lived and died and where my mother and uncles were raised, that I had been through it more times than I can count, Cleveland, Mississippi was a success story in growth and job creation. Training and skill-education programs had attracted industry and jobs, supported by the city and Delta State University.

Spencer Nash and the Delta Foundation face the new administration with trepidation, but maintain their mission of creating jobs in the delta with hope, if there are resources to train and teach the skills needed to work in small manufacturing and construction, and, importantly, if there is support for new housing development for low-and-moderate income families. When we discussed the nomination of Dr. Ben Carson to lead HUD, the hope was tempered by skepticism, but it is encouraging to hear that there are at least some paths to progress being paved on very hard ground.


They’re Coming After Unions at Every Level

The Great Philadelphia Textile Strike of 1903

The Great Philadelphia Textile Strike of 1903

New Orleans    There is little question that the conservatives are coming after unions, even while they make the outrageous claim that they are now the workers’ party in the wake of the recent election.

Since the Wisconsin counterrevolution when the right was successful in eliminating union shop for public employees, the drums have been beating all over the country. Most observers believe that the challenge in California to union security provisions allowing dues or servicing fees to be collected for teachers would have prevailed on appeal at the US Supreme Court level if Justice Antonin Scalia had not suddenly passed away, leaving a tie vote and saving union security for another day. With Trump likely to nominate a hard right conservative justice as soon as he sits in the Oval Office swivel chair, there will be new challenges wending their way to the Court as quickly as they can be filed, and there are likely challenges already in process.

Kentucky Republicans tried an end around by allowing local counties to adopt so-called right-to-work laws eliminating union shop provisions, since they couldn’t get it done on a statewide level. The US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal unanimously overturned a local federal court that had nixed that maneuver. Right now that means this is possible in that court’s jurisdiction where Kentucky and Ohio are still union shop states, while it is still amazing to write that Michigan is a relatively new right-to-work state and Tennessee has long had right-to-work on its books. The Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity is touting the fact that this is also the strategy for the far right Illinois governor, and should be a precedent. They don’t mention that according to research, “Decisions issued by the Sixth Circuit were reversed by the United States Supreme Court 24 out of the 25 times they were reviewed in the five annual terms starting in October 2008 and ending in June 2013 — a higher frequency than any other federal appellate court during that time period.” With the new Supreme Court maybe they don’t need to do so, but it’s not a slam dunk since the issue is whether home rule provisions within a state can preempt the ability of a state to prevent patchwork measures like this.

Reportedly, there are going to federal bills for a national right-to-work. It might not make it through the Senate of course, and perhaps despite the huge wall that Trump will build between himself and his buildings, construction unions can drop their tools until the kids figure out a way to send smoke signals or something down to DC until he gets the message.

Meanwhile this will all be Koch Brothers everywhere you look, which means bills re-introduced in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere to eliminate all payroll deductions for unions. I’m not sure the United Way and insurance companies are going to save us, and an equal protection suit could be dragged out for years while local unions starve to death.

It won’t be the end of the world for unions, but it could be the end of the world as we know it now.


Gil Scott-Heron and his Amnesia Express sing “Three Miles Down” from March 14, 1990 in London, UK. A song for the Coal Miners.


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.


Looking Under the Hood at the Tragic FNMA Foreclosure Dump

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-9-18-38-amChicago   Foreclosures are terrible experiences for families and neighborhoods. More than 5 million homes were lost to foreclosures in the 2007-2008 housing crisis. Even today as home prices have largely moved back up to 2006 prices nationally, there are still more than 1 million foreclosures annually. As we all know, despite the numbers touted by big banks and government, the number of mortgage modifications was minuscule compared to the desperation and need of families, despite billions of federal dollars, because the banks drove the process, stuttering and stalling all the way while leaving millions under water, where many are still swimming.

After the pickup trucks, borrowed station wagons, and occasional moving vans pulled a family out of their home, sometimes with a sheriff pushing and real estate agent pulling them at the door, many of these homes ended up unsold and piled up in a heap at Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association, the quasi-public-private guarantor of the mortgage. Finally, in the early evening, our team in Chicago, trying to get our arms around a campaign to stop the predatory practices of contract-for-deed sales, got a list of 153,000 names and addresses of foreclosed properties that FNMA had dumped onto the market when they couldn’t be sold. These were just the properties in three states with about 50,000 in Illinois, 60,000 in Michigan, and 43000 or so in Ohio.

Going through the list, name by name, was a little like walking through a graveyard and trying to read the tombstones. These are the properties FNMA couldn’t sell and ended up packaging in twos and threes to individuals, tens to real estate brokers and construction companies, and hundreds to investors, and thousands to equity hedge fund operators like Harbour out of Dallas. Looking at the list, Harbour had picked 2500 roughly of its reported 6700 in just these three states. The Detroit Land Trust ended up with a pile, as did the Wayne County Treasury Department, and a number of other city and county receptacles of last resort when even these tranche investors of foreclosed properties couldn’t off load them.

A column in the list was even more depressing in some ways because it indicated where the FNMA dump still stands smoldering like the trash fires of La Matanza outside of Buenos Aires. The columns noted whether or not the properties were owner occupied or not. Yes, meant, yes. Zero mean no. Any random grouping of 30 or so entries would find as few as 8 and as many as 10 or one-third occupied.

We are still trying to pull the information out of the data to determine where predation in the form of contract-for-deed purchases are being used to continue the pattern of destruction and exploitation. What is clear to me so far though, as my fingers walk through the columns in the foreclosures dumped by FNMA, is that this kind of FNMA garbage heap destroyed thousands of families and thousands of neighborhood, lowering values and leaving abandonment and vacant, now deteriorating homes.

No matter what campaign we outline by the end of these days of meetings, there is no escaping the human and community tragedy all around us.


Predatory Contract-for-Deed Sales Cast a Long Shadow in Chicago

Picture featured in the December 1968 edition of the Jesuit Bulletin.

Picture featured in the December 1968 edition of the Jesuit Bulletin.

Chicago  Sometimes it felt like fifty years ago.

That’s only partially because sometimes the conversation would toggle back and forth to the work the Contract Buyers’ League did on Chicago’s West and South Sides decades ago from 1967 to 1972 or so, as strategies and tactics that would address the current, horrid, predatory comeback of contract-for-deed purchases were compared to the old campaign in a day long and continuing conversation between CBL veteran organizers and leaders, contemporary activists, and concerned community and clergy. It is also because we were literally sitting among the remaining survivors of the ghettoization and depopulation of North Lawndale and Austin as we met in beautifully paneled rooms in one rectory in Lawndale and slept in the former rooms of long reassigned priests in the empty floors of another rectory in Austin managed by one priest now, where eight had once lived.

Real estate manipulation, financial exploitation, and banking and institutional abandonment and racism built these 21st Century neighborhoods, even as we examined the great battles 50 years ago that were heroic without being a turning point and sat among the beautiful architectural and institutional ruins of that time. Contract-for-deed purchases are a way that a seller buys distressed property and then exploits a buyer, a family, almost invariably low-and-moderate income and too often minority, by flipping the property without making repairs while extracting predatory payments at huge premiums almost hoping for a default since there is no equity and a quick eviction process, since there was no actual property transfer, allowing the seller to sell again to another victim or another greedy seller, and keep the cycle going again.

The Contract Buyers League was a campaign, spearheaded by Jack Macnamara, a former Jesuit seminarian then, who sat with us today, and a steady stream of almost eighty college students who did stints in summers and school semesters off-and-on for years as volunteers to staff the research, hit the doors, and help the members put together the weekly Wednesday meetings and constant diet of pickets, actions, and events. Around the table were some of those former students, including by old friends and comrades-in-arms from ACORN, the SEIU, and AFL-CIO Mike Gallagher from Boston and Mark Splain from the Bay Area as well as Jim Devaney, a former volunteer from Cincinnati. A former Black Panther from those days and other community leaders now tried to puzzle out how, with the reemergence of contract-for-deed activity now in the wake of the foreclosure crisis and home lending desert for lower income and working families, we might be able to refashion a Contract Buyers campaign that could work and win now.

It goes without saying that today is different than 50 years ago. Rather than being concentrated in neighborhoods like Lawndale and Austin in Chicago and other cities with large minority populations then, today the victims are spread throughout the metropolitan area. We looked at a sample list of contract buyers acquired by two vulture hedge fund operators and there were few in Chicago itself compared to working class suburbs and developments like Homewood, Hoffman Estates, and Orland Hills. How would we get the density that put hundreds in a room on a weekly basis 50 years ago? Estimates are as high as 7 million families who are under contract-for-deed agreements now nationally, but putting them together wouldn’t be easy. We were all veteran door knockers, but we talked about how to use data files, voter lists, robo-dialers, social media, and other tools to flush out the victims and leverage the public policy and political space to create change.

There’s more work to be done in coming days, but two things kept returning us to the task of today. One was hearing our new friends from these communities where we were meeting talking about how their father’s and grandmothers had bought and raised their families in contract houses. Another woman speculated that the mystery of how her sister had lost her house might have been through a contract-for-deed rip-off, and she left at the end of the day to call her and finally ask. And, then there were the stories of the actions, lawsuits, and even some victories of 50 years ago to continue to remind us that we could only really lose, if we refused to fight this plague once again.


Time to Stand with Standing Rock


Oklahoma National Guard soldier Chris Turley is walking through Kansas to draw attention to the Dakota Access pipeline protest and veterans’ concerns after they come back from war. graphic.

New Orleans There’s no question that among the most serious struggles in the country today is the one being waged by the Standing Rock Sioux and countless others over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the threat it poses to water, land, and sacred sites. There’s also no question that as winter is coming everyone, particularly in the North Dakota state government and the county sheriff’s office, is trying to muscle up on the protestors. It is crystal clear that the authorities are looking for a fight.

Some reports indicated that as many as 20,000 people spent some part of Thanksgiving in camp with the protestors. Though thinly reported by the mainstream media, real social media sources also gave indications of protests during the week of all kinds of shapes and sizes around the country in support of the pipeline protestors.

The governor of North Dakota seems to be trying to cut the supply line of food and material to the camp, claiming that a six-inch snowfall put the camp in danger. In North Dakota six inches of snow is so little that it is hardly noticed by the locals, so his announcement must have been intended to startle some folks in the South or something.

Meanwhile I happened to catch a live radio report from the camp indicating that their supply lines were still robust. The speaker mentioned having made a stop to pick up an arctic tent earlier in the day and others that were being donated by individuals that were coming in regularly, along with other supplies.

He and the interviewers were discussing in a calm and tentative fashion their belief that communications are being blocked around the camp for cell and internet service. One example from Thanksgiving week occurred when a woman tried to broadcast on Facebook Live from the camp and was shut off as soon as she typed in her location as Standing Rock, but when she went to up under a Happy Thanksgiving tag, Facebook Live streamed right through. They noted that a Cessna that had been flying continually over the camp was not in the air during the snowstorm, and the fact that without the plane, cell and internet improved remarkably. This line of discussion centered on why there was not more coverage of the Standing Rock protests. They were careful to say they had no hard evidence, but the coincidences were remarkable.

One thing that is getting coverage is the fact that 2000 veterans, part of Veterans Standing with Standing Rock are planning to come into camp over the next week and act as “human shields” for the protestors or “water protectors,” as one woman vet described them. Listening to one of their spokespeople, they seemed to be all brass and no bluff. In fact they have raised close to a half-million dollars on GoFundMe to support veterans standing with Standing Rock. Although the campground is scheduled to be closed as part of the state government’s get tough talk, one of the vet leaders was quoted as saying he would love to see some county cop try to arrest any of the veterans for trespass. This was a guy who understands that 2000 veterans are an 800-pound gorilla that is not to be messed with. The local authorities were quoted as saying that as long as people were peaceful, there would be no problems. The tribe said they were committed to peace.

Talk is good but as the water protectors and the veterans are proving once again, action speaks louder. This is all serious stuff now, as it has been throughout. We all need to be prepared to stand with Standing Rock now. This is when we are needed.