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.

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Realtors and Redlining Destroyed Neighborhoods – Was Alinsky a No-Show?

redliningNew Orleans   Looking into the rising return of the family crushing and neighborhood killing predation involved in contract-for-deed property transactions being revived by Wall Street veterans and facilitated by weak regulations and federal off-loading of foreclosure inventory from the real estate bubble of 2008, I stumbled onto an interesting book, Family Properties:  Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter.  Published in 2009, Satter is not only a historian and chairperson of that department at Rutgers University, but has skin-in-the-game, since she was driven to the subject to understand the conflicting family story of her own father who died when she was a child and whether he was a crusading civil rights lawyer and advocate in Chicago or a slumlord himself.  

            Being only half through the book so far, I can’t definitively answer her question, nor have I arrived in my reading to the sections on the Contract Buyers’ League, which was central to my motivation in uploading the book to my Kindle.  On the other hand, I’m knee deep in an excellent, well-written, and researched history that puts race and real estate speculation squarely at the heart of urban neighborhood deterioration from the post-war decades until our current times.  In Little Rock, where I first ran into contract-for-deed exploitation, it was always clear that if there was a power structure anywhere in the city it was centered in the real estate interests, and from our 1972 campaign to “Save the City” forward, including forcibly confronting blockbusting in the Oak Forest neighborhood, they were our main opponents.  In that sense, Family Properties was a deep affirmation and an extension of the argument and those experiences across the urban battlefield of America.

            Somewhat unexpectedly though, I’ve found nothing subtle in Satter’s critique, and condemnation of Saul Alinsky and his community organizing in Chicago during those years.  She bells him repeatedly, beginning with his antipathy for organizing the poor, who were most exploited by all of these practices, and for his inability to strategically and tactically embrace the reality of race in his organizing and the practices of the organizations they built in Chicago.  She doesn’t argue so much that the problem was direct racism, as more fundamentally a weakness in the Alinsky organizing model itself, saying that

“…ineffectiveness of the OSC [Organization of the Southwest] and TWO [The Woodlawn Organization] highlighted the two major flaws of Alinsky’s model of organizing:  his insistence that organizing efforts be fully funded before they could be launched, which left him vulnerable to pressure by the wealthy donors, and perhaps more serious, his belief that they should tackle only issues that were ‘winnable.’”

Sharpening her point she argues that, “Unfortunately, Alinsky’s insistence on fighting only for winnable ends guaranteed that his organizations would never truly confront the powerful forces devastating racially changing and black neighborhoods.”  Ouch!

            She piles on evidence to the extent that her arguments are almost irresistible, include his scolding of his lieutenant, Nicholas von Hoffman and others, for getting too involved in real estate issues when he was in Europe, that he thought were jeopardizing organizational funding, his opposition to fighting black displacement in Hyde Park, and his view that fighting “racial discrimination that lay at the root of community decay…was ‘too complicated.’”  Satter adds that,

“Alinsky often cast urban renewal as an ‘unwinnable’ issue to be avoided.  TWO’s attitude toward housing was similarly confused.  The group apparently felt that the redlining policies that forced black Woodlawners to buy on contract were too complex for effective community mobilization.”

Satter even cites Alinsky’s own biographer in the claim that killing the Square Deal campaign was done on a totally transactional basis,

“According to Alinsky’s biographer, the Square Deal campaign was ‘intentionally terminated by Alinsky and von Hoffman’ because TWO wanted the financial support of merchants when it turned to ‘larger issues such as urban renewal.” 

Twisting the knife, she adds,

“The net result was that, instead of blazing a new path for community activism, TWO became yet another demonstration of the perils of reformers’ financial dependence on the very people they needed to challenge.”

            Adding insult to injury she argues that the creation of the West Side Organization and its achievements were “an overt challenge to Alinsky, who had warned him against organizing the very poor – an action that Alinsky believed would divide the larger community.”   During the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King effort to take the civil rights movement north, she includes an assessment from one of the movement’s legendary organizers that was equally devastating, quoting…

“…James Bevell, a charismatic Mississippi-born African American who had participated in virtually all of the major Southern civil rights crusades.  In Bevel’s view, too, Alinsky ‘simply taught how to, within the context of power, grab and struggle to get your share.’”


            None of this is definitive, but it’s a critique that has weight and can’t be ignored.  Having organized and fought redlining, realtors, and neighborhood deterioration for decades, as organizers we may have to confront whether or not Saul Alinsky, as a primary architect of community organization, was not only a no-show when it mattered in Chicago, but abetted the problem by skirting the battlefields that counted, by not using issues to build power for the bigger fights, but instead running from the fights themselves.  If that’s the case, the legacy of that shadow could still be crippling the work that needs to be done in addition to the way the work is done.

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Waking up the Sleeping Giant and Building a Renters’ Voting Block

us-hr-ageBuckhorn, Ontario  It is hard to escape the feeling, country to country, that low-and-moderate income families, and, just possibly, even families with more money, are rapidly consolidating into a permanent class of renters. Certainly in some cities around the world like New York City, Toronto, London, and elsewhere, this has long been the case. In the United States though it is a bumpier transition because the dominant narrative in the vast expanse of the land is that the American dream includes home ownership. Increasingly that dream comes with a disclosure now that you better be ready to move to smaller towns, cities, and rural areas if you want to live that dream.

In the US, the number of renters, and therefore potential renter’s votes, are rising. Renter votes increased 49% between 1996 and 2012, while owner votes only increased 23%, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data. According to data reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Nonetheless, just 22% of votes cast in the 2012 election were by renters, according to the analysis. But as the renter population grows, Apartment List [a rental leasing website] estimates that one-third of eligible voters in this election could be renters. Based on historical voting patterns, renters would likely cast about one-quarter of the votes—a small but meaningful increase from the last election.

This sleeping giant traditionally has not stirred much around Election Day. Renters are often seen as more transient, though some data interestingly finds that voting rates are as low for stable tenants as they are for frequent movers. They are also young, and poorer, none of which are huge vote movers. Furthermore, owners vote more consistently than renters. Another statistic in the Journal piece points to a potential game changer as anger over cost and affordability continues to rise.

The number of cost-burdened renters—those who spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent—has risen by 3.6 million since 2008, to a historic high of 21.3 million in 2014, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the meantime, the number of cost-burdened owners has declined by 4.4 million since 2008 to 18.5 million.

The Presidential campaign is silent on the issue of renters and rising rents and housing prices are at the heart of the entire Trump business model, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Either way, if any of them have a plan, it’s a secret.

There’s a way to change this though and wake the sleeping giant: put issues directly on the ballot in cities and states wherever possible that allow the people to step in with solutions where politicians fear to tread on campaign contributions from developers. Just as ACORN did earlier in place after place on living wages, we need to start crafting initiatives from our renters’ bill of rights from rent control to dedicated spending for public and subsidized affordable housing. Organizationally, we need to craft proposals that meet the crisis and the interest of tenants and bring them out to polls in force to alter this landscape.

We need to make sure there are consequences as well. As campaign discussions wound down on the prospects of winning a comprehensive and enforceable landlord licensing ordinance or bylaw in Toronto, ACORN’s head organizer there, John Anderson, noted flatly that either the Council passed the measure this fall or they would likely see the issue as the largest issue in the next election. As the votes of renters are triggered in just that way everywhere the issue is rising, that’s not a threat or a promise, but virtually a take-it-to-the-bank prediction.

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Renters’ Rising

banner_fb-page001Buckhorn, Ontario   It is starting to feel like we’re getting real traction in what has become a global fight for tenants’ rights. Not only has ACORN built an effective organization for tenants to resist the arbitrary, capricious, and sometimes dangerous and unhealthy practices of landlords in an often uncertain legal environment, but as importantly we are developing real programs for real protections from government and policy makers. As I was crossing the Atlantic to attend an ACORN head organizers and staff training session in Ontario, there was evidence of this kind of progress for tenants on both sides of the ocean.

In Bristol, in a conference attended by hundreds, ACORN organized a wide-ranging discussion on steps that needed to be taken to shore up and advance tenants’ rights not only in Bristol but throughout England. Launching a new campaign, Renters’ Rising, with actions and events throughout England, ACORN is calling for a country-wide Renters’ Union. Similar steps are being taken by ACORN Scotland on the wake of their parliamentary victories on security of tenure and rent control.

The crisis in affordable housing in the United Kingdom touches through virtually every city. London is now world famous for the breadth of the issue, but ACORN chapters in Newcastle, Reading, Birmingham, and of course Bristol and London have organized meeting after meeting where members are demanding solutions and are determined to take action. The collapse of social housing and the dramatic increase of private landlord tenancy has created an environment where protective rules and policies for tenants has not caught up, giving too many landlords the upper hand which they are exploiting. ACORN Bristol’s promotion of an ethical letting charter and its support by the Bristol Council as well as several letting agencies themselves has given momentum to these campaigns.

On the other side of the water the progress in Toronto in winning a landlord licensing regime with real teeth in enforcement after a campaign with ups and downs over more than a decade is finally at the finish line. ACORN has already won initial support by the full council but the devil is in the details and is now rounding up council support in anticipation of the staff report and final votes on implementation. Organizers reported real progress pretty much across the board with strong support from various council allies who are essentially telling us, “We got this!” Nonetheless, members are involved at every step along the way and will be present in large numbers at every opportunity. ACORN Canada President Marva Burnett was realistic in a recent interview on what the approval of landlord licensing would mean. She noted both her disappointment at the Toronto Council’s rejection of the proposal in 2008, as well as her expectations and hope for the final vote on the plan this fall.

Burnett’s points are inescapable. None of this is easy and, given the power of landlords, these fights are won through persistence. But the factor on ACORN’s side on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that politicians cannot ignore reality forever. The rental market is out of control and that demands effective regulation. The other point that is equally inescapable whether Canada or the United Kingdom is that tenants can neither fight nor win without effective, mass organization and that’s what they have built in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada and that ACORN is now building with is Renters’ Union in England.

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Activist Cooperatives are Building in Hamburg

Sight of Squatting Campaign

Sight of Squatting Campaign

Hamburg   It had rained all night and most of the morning in this large, northern port city in Germany where I was scheduled to talk to activists and organizers later in the evening. More depressingly, I had spent the morning finishing the second report on rural electric cooperatives in the South where the data seemed to establish a connection between financial self-interest of the directors and their resistance to democracy and diversity in their cooperatives, when Christoph Twickel, a local journalist and activist, showed up to give me a walking tour around the St. Pauli neighborhood of the work accomplished by activist campaigns and, thankfully, cooperatives of different shapes and sizes.

Not far away and close by the River Elbe and the port, we came upon a colorful array of buildings that had been the site of a multi-year squatting campaign commemorated by a giant mural. After a long struggle to evict, the city finally retreated, and the units are still affordable to a largely migrant population. Several blocks away we met Christoph Schaffer, a local artist and activist, who had been a central part of the community fight to preserve a small park along the river opposite the port to prevent city-supported developers from taking over the waterfront for high income housing and condominiums. This has been a three-year struggle more than a decade ago. Schaffer pulled out his key to a small shed along the park which he called the archives, and inside in a silver case marked “action kit,” were some of the old drawings of the park used to get input from other residents along with an old Polaroid camera, and other tools. A steady stream of people were walking by during this break in the clouds. Young people, he told us, are starting to call the park “plastic palm” after some of the colorful plastic palm trees along the walkways. Sure enough, Twickel pointed out a modern, sweeping gray building across the street by Twickel as the most expensive housing in Hamburg.

park won by community in fight against developers along river and port

park won by community in fight against developers along river and port

Christoph Schaeffer and Christoph Twickel talking about the community benefit campaign - Plan Buda -- at the Esso Hausen

Christoph Schaeffer and Christoph Twickel talking about the community benefit campaign – Plan Buda — at the Esso Hausen

We then walked over to the container box for Planbude, which Schaffer had referred to as a “reckless” project a cooperative of eight people had spearheaded along Reeperbahn, the main avenue of St. Pauli. An Esso gas station had been sold to a developer consortium along the street and it had looked like 6000 square meters of affordable housing and shops were going to be lost to high-end development and gentrification. Planbude was an effort over several years to force the developer and leverage the city into a community benefit agreement to push the space in different directions. If perhaps a 1000 people had had input on the park, this effort involved more than 2500 complete with sketches, architectural competitions, and constant agitation. The results will include a hotel to make the developers happy, but three times the housing space, including some social and affordable housing, room for artists and others, a skate park, small business area and more. While we were looking, a passerby saw the door ajar and poked his head in for an update. By 2020, the full project should be complete.

Esso to come

Esso to come

 Armory building being converted to community space by the cooperative

Armory building being converted to community space by the cooperative

Twickel and I then walked over to look at the last mega-project being undertaken by a cooperative of 200 people. They had bought an old armory that had also been a former jail, police station, and SS operation on multiple floors with over 10,000 square meters of space. They had bought it from the city for 1.5 million euros. Walking with Twickel from floor to floor was a tour through their field of dreams. To keep their eyes on the prize there were pictures on some floors of what had been there, so a visitor could see the progress. Guest housing for up to thirty was rushing to completion, a dance space, work space after work space, and on and on, including the meeting space where I would talk later. The financing is complex involving various city requirements since the space is historical, as well as what we would call “tax credit” financing in some parts. Some of the building construction is contracted and some is sweat equity by coop members.

Cooperative slogan

Cooperative slogan

Walking through the space I couldn’t help imagining where an ACORN office might fit nicely in some of the rooms, and where we might hold and house a future meeting of all of our ACORN Europe organizers, but like all of this building that’s something to contemplate for the future. This was my first trip to Hamburg to lay the foundation for a different kind of building, organization building, so who knew where that path might wander.

bunks coming

bunks coming

offices

offices

ready to talk about ACORN to Hamburg organizers and activists

ready to talk about ACORN to Hamburg organizers and activists

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Gentrification Assault, Oakland Housing Market Out of Control

DARWIN BONDGRAHAM - Martin and activists outside of Community Realty's offices in April after delivering a letter requesting a meeting with Marr.

DARWIN BONDGRAHAM – Mr. Martin and activists outside of Community Realty’s offices in April after delivering a letter requesting a meeting with Marr.

Vicksburg, Mississippi   It was hard to believe a friend’s claim that Oakland, California has now become one of the three most expensive cities in the country in no small part because the housing market has gone berserk. He said that Oakland now only followed New York City and San Francisco, and had bypassed Seattle, San Jose, and other famously, exorbitant cities. What happened here? Oakland used to be where people moved for affordable housing who couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco, famous for its port, industry, and blue collar grit, and Jack London. The city where Gertrude Stein famously stated, “there’s no there, there.”

But, now they are all coming there. Suddenly, it is also one of the most diverse cities in the country with the population almost evenly split between Latino, African-Americans, whites, and Asian-Americans, so much so that one controversy, when I recently visited, had to do with racial profiling of neighbors in the Nextdoor.com application that is used by one-third of this highly connected city, exposing the well-known, little discussed racism that stalks almost all of these sites with their constant alerts of anyone with a hoody and a tan.

Not without a fight though. Visiting the weekly paper, the East Bay Express, I picked up a recent issue featuring a cover story on one of Oakland’s biggest landlords, Michael Marr, who had specialized in vulture investing of foreclosed properties after the 2008 real estate crash, ending up with 333 houses and apartment buildings in the city with 1300 rental units under management. Now he’s in federal court though for what the FBI characterized as a conspiracy to “rig foreclosure auctions” along with eleven other East Bay real-estate investors who “made a pact not to compete with one another at foreclosure auctions.”

Marr is letting his lawyers handle that mess and meanwhile is trying to jack rents in some cases by more than $1000 per month. Rent controls in Oakland only cap increases for homes built before 1983, as the impact of such increase would cause massive displacement of many long term residents. It was good to see that standing in the way and organizing the tenants was the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, known as ACCE, and formerly California ACORN. The tenants and the organization have demanded a rent freeze while the court case is pending, a sale of Marr’s ill-gotten properties to the Oakland Land Trust, and action on lingering issues with mold, bedbugs and other problems. ACCE is not only fighting these issues in Oakland either. Fighting a foreclosure with a late night rally at a vulture investor’s house in Los Angeles has found them defending their free speech and association rights in Los Angeles as well.

ACORN has recently won rent controls in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland with the Living Rent Campaign, and more landlord accountability in Toronto and Bristol, but there is little in any of our arsenals to prevent sweeping gentrification without a public and governmental commitment to diversity and affordability in a city. Oakland could become the battleground where we have a chance.

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