Launching the ACORN Home Savers Campaign in Memphis

Briefing the University of Memphis teams before doorknocking (Wade with organizer Teresa Jones and UM professors Maria Elena Delavega and Laura Saija)

Memphis   After several days in Arkansas working with Vision Property Management owner-occupants from Jacksonville to West Memphis, the ACORN Home Savers Campaign was preparing to dive into Memphis. Of course, we wanted to follow up with Vision owner-occupants there, but we were also interested in some of the other large rent-to-own and contract purchase companies in the Memphis market. Rents had soared an estimated 20% in the last three years in Memphis and eviction rates were among the highest for any city in the country at 5.5% according to recent studies. Furthermore, the entry of huge, Wall Street hedge fund operations like Apollo in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, who had also adopted this model and established large footprints in the market, made Memphis a city that was very important to the campaign and its ability to create change in business models and real estate markets.

Putting the list together was a tense, last minute affair as the numbers of potential volunteer canvassers seemed to be increasing instead of experiencing the usual drop-off, requiring constant toggling between the Shelby County Recorder’s records and the Assessor and tax records while beating a path through the maze of LLCs and corporate faces of these companies. We ended up focusing on three different companies as well as following up on our Vision agreement: Harbour Porfolio, the Dallas hedge fund, Apollo, the New York fund, and a large local player, APM or Affordable Property Management. Overall, we had more than 700 address to target over the weekend.


ACORN Home Savers Campaign organizer Dine’ Butler explaining the property mapping before the canvassing.

We had help from colleagues and friends connected to various departments at the University of Memphis, particularly Professor Maria Elena Delavega in the School of Social Work and Professor Laura Saija and Jessica Buttermore in the Planning department. Nonetheless, in the middle of the annual St. Jude Marathon and a much touted football game between ranked teams with Central Florida facing the home team from the University, we had more than forty (40) students and other volunteers ready to hit the doors, almost all of them for the first time.

This was a brand of controlled chaos that seems a footnote to so much of organizing. None of this work is old school with clipboards, pen and paper. The lists are all generated from hours on internet accessible websites and organized into Excel files. These files then populate either a BatchGeo mapping program, like we used in Detroit and Indianapolis, or go straight into Google Maps, which we debuted in Memphis. We used a survey tool developed by Dine’ Butler as an aid for the students to use since they were inexperienced on home visits, but would allow us, if successful, to collect the information so that the organizers could follow up in putting together the ACORN Memphis Home Savers Campaign Committee after the first of the year.

University of Memphis students and volunteers assembling to prepare to hit the field.

The surveys went on-line too, so at the end of the day we could see exactly how many visits had been completed successfully. None of that will substitute for the next day’s briefing, the pictures of families, or the stories, both encouraging and heartbreaking, that we will hear on the doors, or the new things we will learn from listening to people from these companies about their contracts.

There is also no substitute for an exciting – and dramatic — launch of the campaign in a new city. It’s no longer, “Memphis here we come!,” it’s now, “Hello, Memphis, here we are!”


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.