Cold Weather and Warm Hearts in Michigan

Detroit       I saw the picture of the woman who won the Boston Marathon in what was described as epically horrible conditions.  Normally in the embrace of a New Orleans spring I would simply shake my head and say, “why?”  Not this year, because I felt like I had lived my own version as I broke ice off of the windshield and drove to Lansing, Michigan after a meeting in downtown Detroit on midday Sunday to support the showing of “The Organizer” at the Capital City Film Festival there.  Ice was slushing along the shoulders of the highway as I drove through fog and pouring rain in both directions going and coming to be met with snow and freezing temperatures in Lansing, and, like the marathon winner, I kept asking myself, “was I crazy to continue.”  I got there in time to try and find a cup of coffee even paying almost four dollars at the Blue Owl coffeehouse there and walked in wondering whether we had all lost our minds being out in this weather at all.

Quite the contrary.  I stopped whining when minutes after I arrived John Freeman, an ACORN veteran came through the door, having driven over from Detroit as well without whining at all.  John caught me up on a statewide initiative that he was directing that would have huge impact on the environment and climate change.

 

The film was introduced by one of the coordinators of the film festival who surprised me – and probably everyone there – saying he had worked for ACORN briefly in Lansing as a canvasser on some campaign in the early 1990s.  After the film one viewer mentioned that the ACORN office in Lansing had been on the same street farther down.  He remembered visiting there when they were partnering with an organization that he served for a decade including a stint in the same location where ACORN had its office.

Several people asked about their work and how they could connect with ACORN now, and that was encouraging.  The most interesting question provoked by the film though was from a photographer who wanted to know how ACORN communicated internally as we had grown so large in the 21st century.

From a current viewer’s perspective, ten years distance is a high-speed car compared to a horse-and-buggy in the communication world that is hard to explain.  Certainly, ACORN had an effective and powerful website, but no more than half of our board had email addresses when I left in 2008.  Facebook was not ubiquitous, Twitter was virtually unknown, Slack didn’t exist.  We were right up to date for then, but it’s very old school compared to now.

There’s also no way to compare scale.  One commentator in the film talks about “building the team” and compares the time of 2008 to the seventies, eighties, and nineties.  In the 21st century we were filling out 10 to 20000 w2s for each tax season for people employed by the organization in various capacities for various lengths of time.  The community organizing staff was close to 400 organizers.  The labor staff was over 100.  The housing team was larger than that.  The ful-ltime staff was over 1000.  Could we have done better?  Absolutely!  But, comparing ACORN 21st century with previous decades was less about building a team than field a small army under different banners.  It was apples and oranges, and it was happening in a culture that that still valued the role of staff as behind-the-scenes, invisible hands, rather than leaders of the band.

In the relative vacuum of mass-based organizations at this scale today, it’s hard for people to even imagine the ACORN that frightened the right and moved the nation a decade ago.  It’s a gift to be able to share the experience and see eyes light up at the possibility of such organizations in the future.  That’s enough to bring the warmth of spring to the coldest winter day.

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And, if You Make it Through the Mortgage Maze, then There’s Insurance

Indianapolis  Saving money on the ticket I was flying out of Indianapolis and that meant joining the truck drivers and precious few others on the interstates and US highways in the middle of the night linking Detroit and Indianapolis, so I could beat the rain and make the plane.

In one of our last meetings we had met with the directors of Detroit Action Commonwealth at their offices to discuss some collaborations on our organizing programs and staffing to move the ACORN Home Savers Campaign forward along with their anti-eviction and housing work. I got an email adding another mountain to climb for families trying to rebuild their neighborhoods and achieve home ownership in Detroit: insurance.

The message started out as a success story for one of their members being able to buy their house in Detroit, but then it turned dark. When they had to get insurance in order to maintain the mortgage, which is a fairly standard requirement, the only companies that would touch them wanted to charge an annual premium that would be equal to one-sixth of the total value of the property. On a home worth even as little as $30,000, that would mean paying $5000 annually for insurance. The math is fairly simple to follow. If worth, $60,000, insurance would be $1000 per month or $12,000 per year. At $100,000 it would be $16,666.67, although I would bet that at that point it starts to go down, because this predatory pricing to rip off lower income families likely doesn’t extend her up the income scale. Ridiculous! What risk is the insurance supposed to be covering?

Of course if car insurance routinely costs $400 or $500 a month, maybe this all looks like some ol’, same ol’ to both the embattled people in the neighborhood and something that the insurance folks think they can defend, and the big banks can hide behind with their precious few mortgages in the city. Here’s my question. Given the disaster in the Detroit neighborhoods, why aren’t homeowners able to avail themselves of the same governmental insurance pools that are available to cover people in Louisiana and Florida where insurers are unwilling to stand against the risks of hurricanes and flooding? Deindustrialization is a disaster in these neighborhoods, too! Sure, it’s not cheap and, given the federal government’s willful refusal to ignore the consequences of climate change, it’s also somewhat precarious, but since I pay it myself along with most people in live in New Orleans, I can guarantee you its not one-sixth of a home’s appraisal. It’s more in the 3% range. That’s not cheap, but it’s more of a low rise hill to climb, than a Mount Everest of a mountain to scale for homeowners.

But, I understood the message from our colleagues at DAC, no matter what a real solution might be, it would involve the powers that be actually caring about urban America and in the case of Detroit, not walking out of the room every time the city and the problems of its people come up for discussion. Detroiters can’t afford insurance, and it seems they can’t buy a break either.

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