Fair Housing Assessment Should be an Organizing Handle – Is it?

fhNew Orleans   The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is trying to do something about the continuing polarization of our communities by race, class, and ethnicity, so let’s give them some credit for that. In a new rule last year they tried to put some teeth in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, by requiring all cities that get federal housing money to submit detailed plans on how they are actually going about reducing neighborhood segregation and increasing “access to opportunities” for everyone. No Congressional action was required or I wouldn’t even be writing this. HUD as part of the Obama Administration was simply promulgating rules to try to add some teeth to the original act.

The requirement coming into full force now is the 2016 Assessment of Fair Housing. All cities in the United States receiving federal housing funds are mandated to do the assessment. This includes not only cities with public housing authorities, but also cities getting HOME monies for housing development and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds among others. “Access to opportunities” is not just rhetoric either, because this language includes jobs, transportation, and even access to quality schools. Frankly, this is anti-apartheid language.

Reading old local newspapers from a stack accumulated during my two weeks of meetings in Europe, while jet-lagged at 3 AM in the morning, an item had caught my eye from the rough draft of the New Orleans report comparing a working / middle income neighborhood in New Orleans called Gentilly, that is majority African-American with an upper-middle class, largely white neighborhood called Lakeview. In the majority-black neighborhood, the life expectancy found by the assessment was a little more than 54 years old, while in the overwhelmingly white area the life expectancy was 80, a quarter of a century more. Is that an eye opener or what?

Almost everyone this side of Donald Trump buttressed by scores of research studies understands that if we had full residential integration the gap in education and job networks would be drastically reduced. When we talk about equality and narrowing the every widening gap in America today, forcing cities to have real 5-year plans with annual updates on how they are actually going achieving real diversity across the board would seem to be a huge organizing handle. Real plans that force city and housing authority to justify any reduction of affordable and low income housing should be huge win. And, wow, a real plan that stopped CDBG funds that are supposed to be spent only in ways that upgrade lower income families and their communities rather than being used as a slush fund for local developers and mayoral cronies would be almost a revolutionary reform.

Public hearings are now being held on such assessments in cities all over the country. This would have been ACORN’s moment for local groups in all 600 organized communities to make their demands in more than 100 cities about what really needed to be done. These assessments should be a big handle for a major campaign wherever there is the capacity to launch one.

Yet, talking to some organizers here and there, they were skeptical. The early experience in recent years with this planning process before the new rule has been disappointing. How sharp are the teeth being implanted in the Fair Housing Act? Is a Democratic administration really going to withhold CDBG funds from urban mayors who are overwhelmingly Democratic as well to prod them to do better at achieving diversity in their cities or is this just window dressing?

A real campaign to make this tool a hammer rather than a paintbrush would let us see what might be possible.

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Wells Fargo Caught Again in Predatory Lending Scheme

WellsFargocolorFLYERLittle Rock       We need to get rid of the three strikes program for people and institute it for banks, whose criminal conduct continues to rage unabated. Wells Fargo, the West Coast based banking center, is a serial abuser of mortgage borrowers using predatory practices. Cook County, home of Chicago, and 5 million good people, has sued the bank under the Fair Housing Act for racially discriminatory practices targeting African-American and Latino families from the point of origination past the point of payment and even foreclosure to make sure they always get theirs in a practice Cook County called equity stripping.

According to Bloomberg News,

“Equity stripping is an abusive form of ‘asset based lending’ that maximizes lender profits based on the value of the underlying asset and onerous loan terms, while in disregard for a borrower’s ability to repay,” according to the complaint. Aimed also at minority women, the bank’s fee structure and its practice of bundling mortgages to sell as securities allowed the lender to make money off loans even in the event of a foreclosure, the county said.

Who is surprised anymore?

Cook County is asking for $300 million in relief from Wells Fargo. The bank of course denies everything, but they can’t possibly have any credibility left with anyone. As always, they were obnoxious and combative in their response, having a spokesman say that it would be better if Cook County kept wasting its time trying to work with them rather than getting justice for their citizens.

Cook County is not the first metro area to push forward to protect its citizens these days with a Fair Housing claim. Earlier similar suits have been filed in Miami and Los Angeles against banks for similar practices. Miami’s suit was dismissed as untimely and is on appeal, but attempts to throw out the California claim have been unsuccessful.

Banks have been paying billions to settle mortgage abuse suits in record fines, yet little seems to have led them to stop such predatory practices. Suits have also been brought recently in other cities under the Community Reinvestment Act for direct discrimination in lending.

The New York Times and others continue to argue that the only proven path to citizen wealth is home ownership, and there is some merit to the claim, but with prices outstripping any possibility of ownership in many cities, and banks, like Wells Fargo, arguably targeting the very working people trying to create income security through home ownership, there seems to be a giant “L” for loser on the foreheads of low-and-moderate income families throughout the country. Recently Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren announced her refusal to vote for approval of an undersecretary in the Treasury Department saying that the President and others needed to get the message that Wall Street should no longer be allowed to set the economic policy for the United States.

As long as banking and its allies play “throw the rock and hide the hand” in a persistent criminal conspiracy, working families can’t build wealth, and Warren and Cook County are right that we need more protection from these crooks.

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Too Much Data in Too Many Hands for Both Good and Evil

Word Cloud "Big Data"New Orleans      An observation decades ago always stuck with me. It was a comparison of Americans and people who live elsewhere. The point made by the author, whose name fittingly has long ago left me, is that we have too much information at hand and too little ability to process it. Ironically, that was then, and the observer would have been dumbstruck by the exponential increase of information now available to us and just about everyone else on the other end of hands pounding the keyboards, but some people have the ability to process it. What’s out there and who has the capacity to understand it though, still might leave us at the same point as a generation ago without the ability to use the tools effectively. Too many of us are at the Stone Age, while a few others are flying to the moon.

A case in point can be found with the new data on doctors and their paymasters, including and especially drug companies and others who would interfere with good judgment. Part of the Obamacare reforms are already tracking what various hospitals now charge for specific procedures, and starting in September, we will all have this information if we have access to a website. Excellent news! How many will be able to effectively access that data to make the choices that it promises and within the ACA, how many of the doctors a patient might want to avoid will be in or out of the network allowing the power of such information to give rise to voice and the threat of exit? Well, that’s a whole different question entirely, but today it’s safe to say, the information is more powerful as a selective threat from the government than a promise useful to many people.

More disturbingly is the availability of what some called “hyper-specific” community data. As the Times posed the question, if you…”Want to find a ‘family-friendly’ community within 20 miles of Boston with a high Asian population, a low poverty rate and a median home value of $400,000…” then there’s a bunch of websites for you! With some simple key strokes and a semi-passive real estate database and an agent steering you into its use, then you can effectively violate the Fair Housing Act and racially discriminate all day long. It’s not so much “redlining” anymore but it is a kind of data-mining discrimination that eviscerates Fair Housing, the CRA, and a host of other public policies.

We have police looking at broken windows in our cities as a deterrent, but no one should be able to look at personal computer screens due to privacy restrictions. Well not exactly, since a federal appeals judge just allowed federal prosecutors access to email and data records for a customer whose info was held at a Microsoft data farm in Ireland. We already knew there were no boundaries for the NSA, and it appears there are no foreign borders either.

It seems clear that the level of data now on everyone and everything and the ability of some, but not all, to access and process that data has outstripped our ability to regulate, legislate, protect privacy, establish and maintain rights and entitlements, and of course hold us safe and sound. We may not all be planning a trip to the moon, but we’re living on a planet and in an age that none of us truly understands anymore.

Just saying.

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