Hedge Fund Housing Horror Stories in California

San Jose       At the University of California at Santa Cruz in the question and answer period after THE ORGANIZER, I got what has become a standard question about the role of social media in organizing.  I’m always kind but clear.  Social media is a fantastic and inexpensive communication tool that is invaluable for organizing, but it is not a substitute for the face-to-face work in the streets and workplaces where people can participate in the dialectic of direct back-and-forth conversation, listen and learn.

Talking to a young man involved in the social documentation program at the university who had been filming lots of tenant organizing work in Sacramento with his help I was finally able to understand why hedge funds, like Blackstone, have built a business model out of various rental schemes for the tranches of houses they acquired by sucking up foreclosed properties from banks, FNMA and others.   Rather than sprucing up and trying to resell these properties as the market has improved, they have either rented them or in many cases used various installment land purchase contracts to keep collecting, evicting, and holding onto the properties.  This is big business in Sacramento.  It turns out that single family homes in California are exempted from rent control restrictions there, allowing hedge funds sums to jack the rent at will taking advantage of the absurdly inflated rents and shortage of affordable properties.  ACCE, the former California ACORN, is helping lead the effort to put a ballot proposition forward in Sacramento to close that loophole, but it’s tough sledding on the signature drive and unclear if they will succeed in getting the measure before the voters this round.

A statewide initiative to repeal the law that blocks cities around the state from imposing rent control seems in better shape to make the ballot, and support may be both wide and deep there.  Talking to my cousins living and going to school in San Jose and Los Angeles they couldn’t believe the price of rentals in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida compared to these areas.  One talked about paying $1000 to share a room in LA for example.  Repealing Hawkins will definitely pull young voters to the polls!

Talking with the leaders of the Everett Program, ACORN’s great partner at UC Santa Cruz, we found ourselves all shaking our head in agreement when we talked about the end of the so-called American Dream of home ownership.  It seems to have already happened in California.  When I speculated that it would be commonplace around the country in ten years, there was no argument.   One of my cousins astutely observed in an early morning conversation that the only way most Californians would ever own homes is if they “were gifted.”  A similar point was made by a Santa Anna, Orange County Everett staffer.

How wide will we allow the housing divide become between the rich and the rest of us?


People Want to Talk about Squatting

Oakland    Over the last several days of screening THE ORGANIZER, I’ve noticed something interesting that is piquing peoples’ interest more and more about the movie.  Our friends in Bulgaria translated the movie so that they could run captions in their language at a screening in Sofia, and I skyped in for the Q&A.  Again, in big town Los Angeles and then along the central coast in the smaller city of San Luis Obispo before and after the screenings, people picked up the same thread.  Everyone wanted to know more about ACORN’s tactical experience with squatting.

On many levels I’m not surprised.  We’re in an affordable housing crisis.  People everywhere, not just in Europe or California are coming to grip with the changed reality of housing supply and finance.  Ownership is increasingly out of the question except for the one percent or those moving that way in many countries, states, and cities.  Public or social housing that is government run and subsidized is increasing inadequate and off the table as a realistic alternative for millions of families.  People are embracing predatory installment land contracts in “as is” condition without a clue, because it’s what they can afford.  Rents and evictions are off the charts.  Housing and developer trade associations are well the funded, localized equivalent of the gun lobby nationally and in many states make rent control and better housing regulations almost impossible to win for anything but the strongest organizations and most unified campaigns.  The list could be even longer and still not be all inclusive.

Documentary viewers are either being reminded or introduced for the first time to ACORN’s efforts beginning in the 1980s to squat in housing that had gone vacant and, in our slogan, “put houses that need people with people who need housing.”  They see the militance of ACORN’s leaders and members as they demanded change, broke through the boarded doors and windows of abandoned houses and moved in.  They see the encampments ACORN called “Reagan Ranches,” in various cities and on the ellipse of the White House in Washington, D.C. They see footage of Congressman Henry Gonzalez and the announcement of the passage of a bill that legalized the transfer of such houses to low-and-moderate income families.  Turns out squatting is not only an exciting tactic but offers a path to victory.

Perhaps that’s what we need to do now:  start squatting again!  This time the squatting should not just be in our own neighborhoods but in the exclusive enclaves of the rich in city after city so that the housing crisis is seen by everyone not just as our problem but a problem for everyone, and a problem that must be met and resolved.  People are clearly more than curious.  They are desperate for a winning tactic and strategy.  They see ACORN squatting working, and they want a piece of that.