A Worrying Cycle of Housing Exploitation

New Orleans   I can’t exactly prove this yet, but the pattern is pretty gross already, and if I were a bettor, I would lay odds on the outcome. This is about housing and how things slide downhill when no one is watching and no one really cares. This sad story starts with the foreclosure crisis triggered by sloppy, scandalous, and speculative banking practices and may end in even more exploitation when some of these same houses end up almost a decade later deteriorating neighborhoods and in even more exploitative contract for deed “sales” in the credit desert for lower income communities still lingering in the wake of the Great Recession.

Ok, everyone knows that millions of homes ended up in foreclosure when the residential real estate market crashed in 2007-2008. Banks were over-leveraged in securitized loans heavily populated with mortgages that unsupervised brokers had patched together, often in a mixture of fact, fantasy, and falsehood. The government bailed out banks to the tune hundreds of billions, including taking over quasi-public FNMA and other government insurers of these mortgages. The homeowner, trying to hang on, got precious little help because the government allowed banks to administer the modification and forbearance programs, giving financial institutions little incentive to write down the mortgages to post-recession market prices which would have allowed some buyers to hang on, but would have weakened the balance sheets of the banks.

Although there is still outrage that none of the top dog bankers were really held accountable, the Justice Department and other agencies and some states have won multi-billion dollar settlements from the banks for their irresponsibility. Most of the settlements required them to pay fines to the government, but also required them to modify mortgages more extensively. Critics of the settlement terms always raised the fact that allowing the banks to use some of their penalty money to write down mortgages, essentially was giving them permission to move money from one pocket of their pants to another, which counts as a reward, rather than a punishment.

It is now clearer in reporting done by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that another big loophole, especially for big Wall Street financial titans like Goldman Sachs, allows them to satisfy the terms of the settlements by purchasing foreclosed properties from FNMA and flipping them for a profit. Goldman successfully scooped up two-thirds of a recent FNMA auction which translated into 8000 homes with unpaid balances of $1.4 billion costing Goldman $5.7 billion. The settlement requires they provide $1.8 billion in relief so by their reckoning this transaction could get them close.

Overall the Journal reports that Goldman has acquired 26,000 homes from Fannie and more from Freddie, private sellers and others. Rather than modify or repair, many end up in another foreclosure and are sold off in bulk as well through a subsidiary, MTGLQ Investors LP. I would bet a bunch of this inventory is also being off loaded to other bottom fishers, hedge funds, and shady operators to then be recycled through predatory contract for deed and rent-to-own arrangements at high interest and no equity to continue the vicious cycle of exploitation and neighborhood destruction. The surest bet is that none of these financial institutions are offering standard mortgage loans in these low-and-moderate income communities given the higher credit scores and other lower loan levels required.

I’d like to be proven wrong, but this is where the trail is leading, and none of the paths are pretty.

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Security and Whistleblowing with Signal and Moxie Marlinspike

Signal

New Orleans   Not long ago in the Edinburgh office of ACORN, I got a crash course in some simple things about basic email and text protection from spying and other weirdness thanks to one of our leader/organizers, Jon Black, who has done a deep dive on some of this stuff, so now that everyone is looking over our shoulders, maybe it’s time to share some tips.

I had fooled Black and masked my basic techno-peasantness because I knew about the legendary Moxie Marlinspike who is seen by many as the world’s expert on encryption. Of course I only really knew about Marlinspike because I had read a number of articles by him, thought the name was fantastic, and liked the fact that he was not your standard issue Silicon Valley greed grubber. Jon has actually read all of the terms and conditions so he was able to explain to me exactly why Moxie’s Signal was better than WhatsApp, which Marlinspike also developed and is now owned by Facebook. There was an important difference involving setting specific controls on WhatsApp for the user to be notified if someone was creeping up on their account, which are automatic for Signal. At least I think that’s what he told me.

But, anyway, Signal is actually owned and run by Marlinspike, so that should just be enough. Importantly, when WikiLeaks dropped the dime on the CIA at first I shouted out for Jon that they had managed to break through the encryption at Signal, but that was wrong. I heard the Moxie-man on the radio and he made it very clear, and it’s been confirmed elsewhere since, that they cracked the smartphones, not the apps. Of course one thing is still important to remember. To really encrypt your phone calls, video calls, and texts on Signal, the other party also needs to be on Signal. It’s an easy switch, and I’d recommend it as a “why not be safe rather than sorry” move.

Another recommendation for moving in this direction were some tips I saw recently in the magazine, “Wired,” for being a leaker or whistleblower and hoping to protect your anonymity. When it came to doing so with a phone they made the following suggestions, which many would have known form any close viewing of the great HBO series, “The Wire:”

“Buy a burner – a cheap, prepaid Android phone – with cash from a nonchain store in an area you’ve never been to before. Don’t carry your regular phone and the burner at the same time, and never turn on the burner at home or work. Create a Gmail and Google Play account from the burner, then install the encrypted calling and texting app Signal. When you’re done, destroy the burner and ditch its corpse far from home.”

They never say the words GPS, cell tower triangulation, or Stringer Bell, but almost all of these cautions underscore the fact that when you’re rolling with your phone – especially if it’s switched on – anyone and everyone can track you anywhere and anytime. Regardless, I would call those instructions a huge product endorsement for Signal as top of the line, best in class now especially for the price. Heck, it’s free, so you get more security for nothing. What’s to lose?

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Book Banning and the Fight to Stop It

Montreal    Representative Kim Hendren had an idea and in the Age of Trump no one probably told him to just take a deep breath or think twice, so he probably thought it was a dandy idea to introduce a bill in the Arkansas legislature to ban Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States and pretty much anything that Zinn had ever written, believing all of the late Boston University historian’s work was a threat to the country itself. He’s probably right in a weird way. Zinn’s history definitely tells stories of people and events left out of most books, yet still a vital fabric of the American experience regardless of the efforts of Rep. Hendren and others to whitewash the past to fit their own ideologies.

Hendren clearly didn’t realize that when it comes to book banning that he was kicking the hornets’ nest, but talking to Deborah Menkart, the executive director of Teaching for Change and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project, it was clear to me that he has met his match, no matter what happens to his little hater bill. Menkart and the Zinn Education Project responded to news of the bill by offering to make available copies of Zinn’s book and related teaching materials without cost to any Arkansas teacher or librarian that was interested. In the first blush they were overwhelmed with requests within days for 300 books, virtually depleting their entire stock. In the subsequent weeks the requests for copies has now crossed 700 volumes by the time I was interviewing her on Wade’s World. Thanks to Hendren the book has now gained a wider audience, something he clearly did not realize was going to happen.

Teaching for Change is no neophyte when it comes to insuring that the whole story gets told. They have been in business for twenty-five years and provide tools for teachers and students that are going to be even more valuable in this time when the US Department of Education is facing a leadership crisis at the top of their structure trying to go to war against public schools altogether. Menkart detailed a program that makes deep contributions in Latin American studies and a special project in Mississippi that has focused on allowing people in McComb in the southern part of that state to relearn the important role that courageous neighbors and community residents played, working largely with SNCC organizers, during the civil rights movement. Menkart’s points were telling. Fast forward three or four decades and the story becomes Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, Martin Luther King, and a few others rather than the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of small, but earth shattering, roles played by regular people saying “Yes” and saying “No,” in ways that were different and profound.

More than Howard Zinn’s book, the real fear that Representative Hendren and so many hundreds of legislators around the country have now is that they might have unleashed a level of people power that they can no longer contain. And, supporting Teaching for Change and the Zinn Education Project may be part of way loosens the bounds and allows for harder questions and a new way of thinking.

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Temporary Employment Agency Workers are Organizing in Montreal

Conchita Poonin and her co-workers strike for a $15 starting salary. Thousands of Quebec nursing home workers have walked off the job in their first-ever series of coordinated strikes. Photo: Immigrant Workers Centre

Montreal   While in Quebec with the ACORN Canada head organizers, several of us stopped by to meet with our friends and partners at the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal. We talked to Eric Shragge, president of the board, and longtime activist and academic as well as other long time staffers. In addition to the work and campaigns that they have been pushing consistently during the fifteen years since their founding, we caught up with several exciting and important new initiatives that are central in Center’s current focus and work, especially because it is critical to understand that the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal is not a job training and placement or social service center, so common in the United States and even Canada, but is better understood as an organizing center for immigrant workers.

Most intriguing to me was the activity of the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA). Many of the issues this association is targeting are the common complaints of most workers employed through such placement agencies, but foreign and immigrant workers are obviously even more vulnerable and precarious with fewer resources and protections on these jobs. It also goes without saying that many jobs they find working through the agencies are dangerous and low paying.

All of this resonated deeply with me, remembering that in 1971, as ACORN was expanding our work in Arkansas past housing project tenant issues and welfare rights issues, we started two additional, area-wide rights-based affiliated organizations, the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC). The central issue for the UWOC quickly became their lack of rights and exploitation by temporary employment agencies or buy-a-job shops, as we called them. We ended up winning some legislative reforms guaranteeing rights for temporary workers as well as better guarantees for employers picking up the fees and making some jobs permanent. Nevertheless in the way that labor has been squeezed and union strength has diminished over the last 45 years, the growth of non-contract, unprotected temporary work has ballooned making some companies the largest US private sector employers after Walmart, handling jobs at all skill positions.

In Quebec all fees are paid by the employers, but most of the rest of the issues are the same, except worse, as we learned from the Immigrant Workers’ Center. They had won a campaign recently with a group of workers from Mauritius who had been trapped in bad workplace conditions when immigration laws changed in Canada no longer guaranteeing permanent residence after four years of employment and won their residency despite the regulation.

The TAWA key demands are easy to support. They want a living wage for their work, and have joined the campaign for $15 per hour that has been a signature effort of the Immigrant Worker Center over the last several years. They want to shut down the fly-by-night operators, which are little more than labor contractors involved in bait-and-switch exploitation of workers. Importantly, they want to win some co-employer guarantees between the contracting employer and the agency hiring the workers to prevent the efforts to bypass provincial labor standards.

We need to follow the work of TAWA and the IWC in Montreal. They could break a new path for precarious and informally employed workers that all of us should follow.

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Many Lessons from the Dutch Election

Dutch Freedom Party leader (Partij Voor De Vrijheid, PVV) Geert Wilders (L) holds a banner reading “Get out! This is our land” during a protest in front of the Turkish embassy at The Hague on March 8, 2017. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty)

Montreal   As I tried to make my way through the snowageddon between the US and Canada, I kept trying to get updates on the election results in the Netherlands. In some ways my interest was less about the populist hoopla revolving around the party-of-one for Wilders, the Trumpish anti-immigrant, hate spewing rightwing candidate, than the fate of the other parties on the list. Waking up, the headlines heralded that the right-center party and the current prime minister had out polled Wilders, but there were many, perhaps more important stories hidden beneath those headlines.

My interest was more than casual. I had visited the Netherlands for several weeks in the fall discussing strategies around a campaign to restore national health insurance in the country and advising on various field, phone, and GOTV programs with the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, so I was very interested in how my friends and colleagues there had fared against the populist surge. The short answer, somewhat reassuring in these troubled times, though perhaps disappointing when compared to our hopes, was that they essentially held their own. Where they had 15 seats in the Parliament or 10% of the total, they polled enough to hold onto 14 seats. The Prime Minister’s party, while outpolling Wilders, still lost 8 seats or 20% of its total, while he added a third more seats or 5 to his total. There are 28 or so different parties in the Netherlands vying for their share of the national vote to apportion out accordingly the 150 total seats between each party, making it all something of a multi-party mess when it comes to governing.

The real loser was the center-left Labor Party, which was decimated in the election falling from the number two party with 38 seats to the Prime Minister’s party with 41 seats, in this election to only 9 seats, losing more than three-quarters of their seats. And, why? Because they had agreed to help form the governing coalition, and their members saw it as a sellout as the center-right governing party pushed more conservative programs and policies. The lesson for many parties was clear. Not only would they not be willing to join a government with Wilders and the populist rightwing, but they might also be committing political suicide by following Labor’s move and being whipsawed on program.

The SP/N base may not have grown, but the work and campaigns held country-strong for the most part giving them clear paths to build their future. The math seems to indicate that seventeen of Labor’s number might have gone to the Green Left Party which went up ten seats from four to fourteen, now tying SP/N, and the centrist party, Democrats 66, which went from twelve seats to nineteen. This is obviously a very fluid situation as parties try to construct a permanent home to house their new seats and to attract the almost dozen seats Labor lost that dissipated among parties both right and left.

The overriding problem might be how does Netherlands govern with so many fractions? The Prime Minister’s party won in some ways by going right to block Wilders, but that’s not a governing strategy, and that may leave it harder pressed to find a coalition with constructive values and policies that can construct a vision. Meanwhile the center and left parties have the opportunity to construct an alternate program and vision, and the SP/N’s work on healthcare reform may be a template worth modeling in the Netherlands and elsewhere, but it’s likely going to be an unsettling time for a while before bridges can be built towards the future.

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The Long Tail of Payback on Harvard’s Investment in Coal Fired Electricity Production

Students from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House at the ACORN Farm

New Orleans   What goes around, comes around, even if forty-five years later. Hearing that food activists from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House were interested in volunteering in New Orleans, triggered an immediate invitation from ACORN International for them to visit and help at the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. Seven showed up on a cool morning to weed, mow, and help in any way possible, having only arrived the night before, barely escaping the heralded snow-ageddon northeaster hitting their area.

But, before work began, the circle had to be closed with additional thanks for the help of Philip Brooks House years ago when ACORN embarked on our first campaign to gain national attention. Middle South Utilities, now Entergy, the parent of Arkansas Power & Light had announced that it wanted to build the world’s largest coal-fired plant at White Bluff near the town of Redfield on the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The coal was going to come from the Fort Union deposit under the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, parts of Montana, and North Dakota. Their proposal to move the coal to the plant was to build a slurry line where water from the arid west would flush the coal all the way down to Arkansas.

ACORN had been fighting both gas and electric utilities over exorbitant rate increases and saw the plant as driving rates even higher, so on that score our members were already agitated. Quick research found that there increasing reports, particularly from Europe, on the adverse impact of sulfur pollution, especially on agriculture. ACORN dispatched an organizer to put together groups of farmers and others on both sides of the river, who were worried about diminishing crop yields, while the company was claiming it would lower their costs. There were actions a plenty in Arkansas to try and stop the plant, and I joined our farmers on a company-paid private plane flight to Kentucky to see the TVA’s Paradise plant, which we blew up in their faces with reports of pollution warnings caused by the plant.

All of that moved the needle forward, but the major paper at the time, The Arkansas Gazette, still saw ACORN and our efforts as rag-tag. As a public company, ACORN was able to determine its major investors were the pride of the Ivy League, with Harvard first and Princeton and Yale right behind. We reached out for an organizer we knew in the area, and he started making contacts at Harvard, launching a petition, getting students to join us in demanding the Board of Harvard join us in opposing the plant unless there were scrubbers to stop the pollution and other modifications. The Harvard Crimson did a piece by Nicholas Lemann, from New Orleans, and now with The New Yorker and other posts, all of which triggered the Gazette to run ACORN’s campaign on the front page for the first time in our young history.

We eventually won a good deal of that campaign when the company had to cut the size of the plant in half, drop the slurry line, also opposed by our allies in the Northern Plains Resource Council, and made pollution adjustments. Where did we get the most support at Harvard: the Philip Brooks House, where I also spoke and did recruitment, but that’s another story.

We thanked the Harvard students again as they worked with us in a different way, and gave them an ACORN flag from our Latin American affiliates to bring home to hang in the House, reviving the tale, and closing the circle once again.

PS. The researcher was Steve Kest, the organizer was John Beam, and the campus organizer was Bill Kitchen!

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