Disappearance of Third Spaces

New Orleans        Third spaces received a fair amount of attention not so long ago.  These were the places between work and play where community could be built.   How will they survive the pandemic?

Libraries are a good example.  In recent years their mission has adapted and evolved.  No longer simply a place for books on shelves, they are now hubs for internet and computer access for those lacking such facilities.  E-books can be checked out along with CDs, videos, and any manner of other things. They were places where people could hang out, read a paper, flip through a book, do homework, or whatever.  In most cases, they have not reopened and seem still navigating the new world.

Coffeehouses are another.  Certainly, their popularity has soared in recent decades, but as community alternative spaces for business, pleasure, social interactions, and cultural development they have been mainstays for hundreds of years.  Coffeehouses are hubs for students, teleworkers, artists, musicians, and generally something closer to community centers and fundamental meeting places.  At Fair Grinds Coffeehouse where we host visiting musicians, busking and building an audience, we have no idea when will be open in the evenings again.  The dozen twelve-step groups that met in our common space have largely adapted to Zoom meetings, but they want the fellow-feeling again that meetings bring.  A coffeehouse that is just takeout, where people run in and out, is important, but there’s a difference between a fueling station and community hub.  We had a group that had met every morning for more than a dozen years to read the papers, discuss events, drink coffee, and be together.  What happens to them?  Can they comeback?  Can we?  We wonder.  We’re not sure.

Bars and some neighborhood cafes are also third spaces for many people and part of how they build communities.  There are hundreds of towns all over America where a local café is a meeting place early in the morning for a wide range of workers, business-people, and others eating breakfast or having a cup of coffee, but more critically building social capital, keeping up with the community.  What coffee doesn’t fuel, sometimes libations provide.  Watering holes like many in our neighborhoods succeed in becoming community spaces as well.  Rules that only allow tables, and few of them, and no one sitting at the bar, make this hard, as do capacity limits of 25 or 50%.

Many of these small businesses that provide the layered infrastructure of neighborhoods and create unique communities are not going to be able to make it through this pandemic, as it continues to spool out longer and longer.  Will anything replace them, if the new normal insists on permanent social spacing?  Hard to imagine.


Trump Team Greenlights Predatory Payday Lending

New Orleans      We can count the days until we pray that’s it is over, but until then the drumbeat of woe is bound to continue.  The gutted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proved that it really might need a name change as it announced the shelving of Obama-era reforms to payday lending which will exploit lower income consumers rather than protect them.

The Obama rule wasn’t perfect, but it was progress.  Nothing had been done about the usurious interest rates for example, but it had taken positive steps.

There were limits proposed on the number of loans borrowers could take sequentially.  Such limits are critical in blocking the predatory nature of payday lending.  They require loans to be on a common database so that desperate low-income borrowers are not robbing Peter to pay Paul for example.  A study ACORN commissioned by academics in Canada where regulating payday lending has been a major campaign of ours for the last seventeen years found that borrowers were caught in a debt trap cycle for eighteen months or more to resolve the first loan as interests, fees, and penalties pyramided throughout the period.

The second key advance of the Obama rules required an affordability test before the loans were made.  Whether payday lending, subprime lending, basic mortgages or whatever the product, the baseline for any loan to be fair to the consumer has to include an assessment of affordability.

The Trump team eviscerated both of these reforms to greenlight the industry in its continued efforts to exploit low-and-moderate income families.  All this despite CFPB whistleblowers that had documented a stacked house research effort that had been fabricated to a predetermined aim of gutting the Obama regulations.

The industry reportedly collects $30 billion in fees from this predation, making it easy for them to drop $12 million in campaign contributions to Republican lawmakers to grease the wheels.  The Community Financial Services Association of America, their trade association, is doing the happy dance because its rip-offs of lower income borrowers will be able to continue unabated.

Their only claim is that they supply last ditch credit at exorbitant prices to desperate families.  Everyone not on the take from the industry, knows that there are many better ways to provide credit that don’t trap families in permanent poverty.