Project Vote Pulling the Plug When Its Work is So Badly Needed

New Orleans  Mike Slater, the executive director of Project Vote since about 2008, announced that the voter registration and voter accountability organization was going to close its doors on May 31st, largely because of a lack of financial support. He thanked longtime donors and supporters, but indicated there just was enough in the bank to keep fueling the machinery for voting participation and accountability. There is likely more to it than that, but I haven’t been close to Project Vote since 2008, so all I know is what the announcement says, but I do know enough to write in their obituary that it’s a tragedy.

In these days of voter suppression by one legislature after another, increasingly overseen by the chief suppressor now in the Attorney General’s office as well as one court case after another ending in clear judgments citing racism in restraining the vote, the history and experience of Project Vote is sorely needed. In the future, we will be on the field with one star player absent. Amazing to me, while reading of voter registration efforts right now in Georgia on a key Congressional race and hearing the news that millions have been raised to support the Center for Popular Democracy voter registration and other voting efforts that the space shrank so sharply that Project Vote couldn’t survive.

Project Vote was founded in 1982 by DC-based, activist lawyer, Sandy Newman. Virtually from its beginning Project Vote and ACORN worked closely together, welded in common purpose by our commitments to register voters in lower income and minority communities. Project Vote was nonpartisan and tax exempt, and the registration efforts were the same. Sandy was creative and managed to fund the operation largely through a network of private donors he cultivated assiduously who developed deep commitments to registration efforts during his service. By the early 1990s, Sandy wanted to spend his time on other interests and turn over the reins to a more diverse leadership who would continue to deepen its stewardship of this issue in communities. Zach Polett, ACORN’s political director, had developed a close working relationship with Sandy through our partnerships, so when it came time for a transition, there were two organizations who seemed ready and able to take Project Vote under their wings, the Industrial Areas Foundation, particularly Baltimore-based, Arnie Graf, and ACORN. There may be more to this story than I know as well, but Arnie was having issues with his back that led him to withdraw the IAF’s interest, while ACORN’s commitment remained enthusiastic, so it was there that Project Vote found a home.

There were several directors of Project Vote’s DC operation with different titles over the years, including Jehmu Greene, now a television commentator and advocate, but the real driver of the program within the ACORN family, regardless of title, continued to be Polett, who virtually commuted between Little Rock and Washington for fourteen years as the joint efforts between Project Vote and ACORN grew exponentially to the point where we were registering over one-million voters in 2008. And, then in the firefight that was the Obama-McCain contest, Project Vote and ACORN were both caught in the crossfire. Mike Slater, a longtime ACORN organizer, largely in Minnesota, was elevated to director in the aftermath and building more firewalls, managed to sustain the organization past ACORN’s reorganization in 2010.

To Project Vote’s credit, its website in the mid-aughts was clear about the ACORN connection. Slater acknowledged his time, the general counsel was a longtime ACORN veteran, and most importantly the organization had stood firm by Amy Busefink, an ACORN veteran who ran a big part of our 2004 statewide minimum wage fight in Florida and picked up her mail at our St. Pete office when we were working on the Walmart drives. Amy had been targeted by the right for her work in Vegas during the campaign in a drama of ridiculousness, and the organization never abandoned her, which showed good character.

Project Vote’s website has now been scoured of its ACORN ties, which leads me to believe that between the lines, they are the latest victim of the right wing attack on the organization and the left wing’s lack of backbone and tradition of struggle. It’s surprising that Mike couldn’t find a home for Project Vote in the way that Sandy had done so many years before. Is this more ACORN shaming, almost a decade later? Look at the internet. The right never forgets, even while the left too often shuns, waiting for donor handouts and fleeing any whisper of controversy, no matter how unjust.

Nonetheless, 35 years of work in registering voters and protecting their rights to the ballot, is a legacy drenched in accomplishment and pride. RIP to Project Vote, but let’s celebrate its work and life, because it made a huge difference, and it will be greatly missed.

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PriceCheck Tools Can Save Big Money on Health Costs

New Orleans   Recently I read a disturbing and powerful indictment of the cost and provision of health care, An American Sickness: How Health Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back by former New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal. In devastating detail, she documented the wide variety of prices for basic and specialized medical procedures and drugs between hospitals in different cities, different countries, and within the same communities. Finishing the book, I couldn’t help but think about whether her work was citizen empowering or would simply be too complex and confusing for regular folks to sort out for themselves, especially when sick and fearful in the face of medical issues.

I am finding some comfort in reading that some local newspapers, including one of my own in New Orleans, The Times-Picayune, have gotten their arms around this problem in a very helpful way, that needs to be replicated everywhere. Working with Clear Health Costs, a new journalism enterprise based in New York City, they developed a tool they call PriceCheck. In a partnership, which also included the local Fox station, they launched with 700 prices from area outfits obtained in an initial survey. Subsequently, readers have crowd sourced another 700 prices from their own inquires and experience. All of that triggered, or perhaps shamed, providers into submitting another 2000 prices for common procedures

Obviously the news sources are heavily promoting their project, as rightly they should, and from the stories they report, it is having an impact.

Powerfully, they are collecting great first-person stories from people who have resisted predatory pricing from their own provider, gone to the online PriceCheck tool at www.NOLA.com/health or www.Fox8live.com/health and done their own comparison shopping to great advantage. One woman faced with an estimate for an MRI that was over $4000 used the tool to cancel that appointment and visit a local clinic for the same examination and only paid $672, saving thousands obviously. She was in good company as others were trying to also hold their providers accountable.

I found it interesting, and disturbing, that almost all of the reporters found almost all of the patients unwilling to reveal their names. Between the line that speaks to a fear of retaliation from medical facilities and professionals or of being black-balled for needed health care. Whatever happened to the dictate of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors to “do no harm?”

Not surprisingly, many institutions were resisting transparency and refusing to share pricing information with either their patients or the public. The privately operated Tulane Medical Center, an HCA facility, which at least used to stand for Hospital Corporation of America, in partnership with Tulane University, was militantly opposed and resisting. The Times-Picayunealso noted that the insurer Blue Cross/ Blue Shield was also resisting.

This is going to be a door-to-door dogfight, and as long as its each family facing off by itself against these huge institutions, the immediate odds are against them, no matter how many stories are in the news. Nonetheless these kinds of tools put bullets in a consumer’s gun, so let’s hope a thousand similar flowers bloom, so that consumers can vote with their feet and force prices to leave the stratosphere and come back to eye level.

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FNMA Opens a Crack in the Predatory Land Contracts Wall

New Orleans   Fresh off our meeting and work in Detroit, the Home Savers Campaign got a break. In response to Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings complaints about Vision Property Management, the national rent-to-own operation’s lack of cooperation with him and his committee, symbolized by the lead poisoning of children living in one of their contracted properties, FNMA banned VPM from participating in further purchases of foreclosed properties in REO auctions. Vision of course cried foul, but there was finally a crack in the wall that Vision and hundreds of other companies have built through impunity and predatory practices.

What was less clear about FNMA’s response was whether they were just trying to get the Congressman off of their backs or whether this is a real change of heart. Although in their announcement they indicated to the New York Times that they had investigated the various claims, the nature of their investigations and the standards they used to bar VPM were not disclosed. It was also unclear that they were looking past VPM to the other companies that are bleeding lower income and working families in the same way. Furthermore, while Fannie Mae has stepped up, Freddie Mac is still cowering in silence even though they were also asked by the Congressman to ban Vision.

The Home Savers Campaign is drafting a letter to demand that FNMA bar any company from their auctions that relies on “as is” contracts for contract land sales or rent-to-own agreements. In Pittsburgh, Akron, Youngstown, Detroit, Memphis, Philadelphia, and other cities, we have found that this “as is” language is a license by not only Vision, but all of the companies in this sector to push properties into the hands of families desperate for affordable housing on any terms. Many times the companies are relying on the gray area of whether they are contracting with families who can claim to be tenants and access some rights available to them as tenants, depending on the city or state, or whether the families are now putative “owners-to-be” and allowing them to escape the strictures of local and state regulations.

The Toledo, Ohio ordinance makes it clear that such families in any manner of contract land purchases have to have a warrant of habitability before any contract can be validly signed and the family allowed to move in. The devil is in the details though when it comes to enforcement. Lawyers and tenant advocates told the campaign in Detroit that there is also a similar warrant of habitability required in that city, but there is no enforcement so it’s a dead letter.

The Home Savers Campaign intends to demand that any company operating with “as is” language in their agreements should be barred from accessing any property through auctions or sales foreclosed or delinquent homes in order to dam the flow of properties upstream to these predators. Enforcement or no, that will ensure in the future that companies have to ensure at least that minimum standards have been met in these homes, before desperate families are allowed to live in them. Additionally, any work done by the families before they receive the deeds should be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses directly or be discounted in the sales price.

Families desperate for housing cannot be the ATM for predatory housing schemes and the companies, big or small, that are running these scams.

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Congressional Budget Office Scores House Health Bill with an “F”

Oakland    The Congressional Budget Office finished its nonpartisan, objective evaluation of the costs and impacts of their recently passed bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, and channeling Gertrude Stein found that there was “no there, there,” at least if any of us were looking for health insurance, especially when we have health problems.

Begin with the fact that they estimate that 23 million Americans will lose health insurance. I say “begin,” because there is no way to get an accurate view on how high that number could rise. The Republican bill, as written, gives states the ability to ask for waivers from an anti-healthcare Department of Human Services, which would rubber stamp the ability of states to eviscerate care for the individuals with preexisting conditions, women’s health needs, and allow skinnier and skinnier requirements from the plans, thereby eliminating the minimum health provisions of Obamacare for everyone on the program. Analysts report that the CBO usually consults with states in making its estimates, so the 23 million may include some, but this number would likely swell in the red states with “red” now not referring to the color of a map on election night, but instead standing for the blood draining out of these states’ dying people.

Furthermore in the CBO score, they reject the argument that Republicans have made that such miserly benefits will bring happy days with lower premiums and therefore more participation. The CBO flatly argues that the Republican House plan will end up with higher prices, especially because of the Medicaid cuts, and will collapse insurance markets because of the reduction of subsidies. Young people will get cheaper insurance though that will only be good news in the flower of youth, because if, and when, faced with any healthcare needs, young people will be as screwed as everyone else.

The CBO also totally dismissed the Republicans’ argument that “risk pools” would cover take care of Americans with preexisting conditions. If you read between the lines the CBO believes they will pretty much die as soon as they run out of money, and it won’t take long. The “risk pools” are inadequately funded in their view, and they have never worked. The dustbin of history is calling, but the House Republicans are determined to sell the scam. At least they are if they can keep their tempers when asked to defend their votes in favor of this trash, which wasn’t the case for the Montana Republican Congressional candidate facing a tough contest, who decided to body slam a British reporter for the nerve of asking him about his vote.

Some Senate Republicans might notice that one of the groups being slammed the hardest is older people. The New York Times analysis noted that “The cost of insurance for a 64-year-old earning about $27,000 would increase to more than $13,000, from $1,700 under the Affordable Care Act, even for states that pared back insurance rules.” Bad news, these folks actually vote and even with diminishing basic math skills, all of them will figure out that their bill would be almost half of their income.

There are some winners though, but in the Republican plan that’s the folks with the fatter wallets, especially if they are neither old nor poor. The Times reports, that “The bill makes big cuts to taxes on payroll and investment income for those earning more than $200,000, and provides more subsidies to buy insurance for people earning between about $50,000 and $150,000.”

There is no irony here, though their could be. Fewer subsidies for the poor, but more for wealthier families? How can anyone rationalize that? There’s a clue to their thinking though. Perhaps they are channeling HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and want us all to believe that health insurance is like poverty, “just a state of mind.”

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Technology in the Service of Social Change

Santa Cruz   I drove over the mountain, as they say in this area, and ended up on the top of a hill with a dramatic view of the valley and water, while visiting the stunning campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was there to talk to students who are part of the Everett Program there, where ACORN is new partner, along with other nonprofits. My other motivation was an effort to get a better grip on what the program was all about, as a rookie to the enterprise.

I had gained some sense of the operation over the last year through a series of Skype calls and emails. We are fortunate to have three of the Everett Program students working with our organizers in Bengaluru, India this summer to help create a CiviCRM database for ACORN’s 35,000 member hawkers union there, so this also offered the opportunity to meet the interns face-to-face and shape the effectiveness of their upcoming two months in India with us.

The background I learned from the director, Chris Benner, and veteran staffer and organizer, Katie Roper, indicated that it had been a program for several decades at UC Santa Cruz, but has recently been expanding. Every fall, they begin with about 100 students and by the end of the spring quarter they have about 30 ready to embed in various projects. Historically a lot of the efforts have been California-based, so ACORN is a beneficiary of their growth and expanding vision. Being on the ground I was able to do an early pitch for a team in 2018 to work out of New Orleans to support the tech needs of our organizing both domestically and internationally, which was a nice piece of lagniappe.

Most interestingly was the opportunity to talk to the students for a minute and more importantly to hear their questions and get a feeling for what they were thinking. Spoiler alert: they have a foreboding sense of the world and how it views change and organizers who are part of that process.

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of classes and groups of young people, but now in the Age of Trump and hyper-polarization,  I was still surprised when the first question asked me whether or not I had ever been threatened in the work and how frequently organizers were assaulted. Later in the session, another young woman asked a question that went to the heart of whether or not a young person in their early 20’s could even play a role in the work and whether or not it was worth the risk to jump into the struggle. At one level, this is encouraging. Young people are taking the temperature of the times, and learning that it’s not pretty out there with love, flowers, and constant applause. If these kinds of questions are any true sampling, they are less naive, and therefore will be better prepared, if they take the leap into the work, to weather the constant storms and flying brickbats. On the other level, it is worrisome whether in these beautiful, redwood towers, people might feel intimidated and fearful of taking the plunge to work in the hardscrabble countrysides and mean streets of the city.

We need an active army of organizers and people ready to work in the allied trades, and that was my message: there’s a role for all of you, but everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel and help to win the fight in this struggle. I hope they heard me. We need their help.

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Vision Rent-to-Own “Buyers” Meet and Find Out Every Deal is Different

San Francisco  The first organizing meeting in Detroit of the Home Savers Campaign had spirited discussion when families discovered that they only had one thing in common in the contracts they had signed with Vision Property Management or its subsidiaries: the contract itself. When it came to the terms, to everyone’s shock and anger, everyone had a different deal!

The differences were not simply where we might expect to find them in the price of the houses they were hoping to buy or the number of years to term. In fact the prices were all very close to each other. As the campaign has come to expect from visiting so many families in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Akron, Youngstown, and now Detroit, some families attending the meeting were still shocked to find out that in seven years they would not own the home as they expected, but simply face wrenching choices between balloon payments, long term agreements, or walking away from extensive investments in money and labor in repairs.

The differences in the contracts were huge. Excitedly talking about their contracts, they found for example that in some contracts as little as $14 of their monthly payment was going to principle on the purchase while in others as much as $150 was being applied. That was often the case when the payments were virtually identical. In several cases, they discovered they had not been clearly told how much of their payment was going to principle at all. Even when the purchase price of the houses were roughly equivalent, families were finding that the amount of their monthly payment being applied for insurance was often different.

Looking at the question of tax payment which is especially freighted with concern, since nonpayment of taxes to the county could lead to loss of the property on tax delinquency sales. Only one family could determine from their payment the amount that was supposedly being paid to taxes, while the other families at this first organizing meeting became worried that since there was no indication, Vision might not be paying their taxes at all. Even in the one case where the tax level was stated at $150 per month or $1800 per year, there was skepticism that the house valued so modestly really was sustaining such a relatively high cost compared to true value.

Many of the people at the meeting were also on their second contract with Vision. The first had given them up to 45 days to make good on their payments, while the more recent gave Vision the right to void their option to purchase if they were late on the payments at all, making the contracts essentially no more than rental agreements, despite the fact that this was a triple-net lease with the “buyer” paying everything including thousands and thousands in repairs. One family was livid having invested over $50,000 in repairs, yet still debating whether or not they should walk away. Everyone at the meeting shared stories of about the “fishing” Vision’s representatives did with them over the phone to try and suss out the amount families had invested themselves in repairs, presumably for the company to guess whether the property might have been fixed off enough for them to seize the first opportunity to evict and flip.

People were happy to meet, but that was the only happiness in the room once the members and organizers cleared the fog away that hung over the legalese of the agreements. There was anger and plans for quick action. On the question of fight or flight, people were ready to fight. Powered by people, the campaign now begins in earnest.

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