A Meeting at the White House on Homeownership

Last week I attended a meeting at the White House with Obama administration officials on the housing and homeownership crisis. I joined 150 faith, civil rights, consumer protection, and community leaders from around the country to express the urgency of the crisis, share our stories, and promote practical solutions.

In a loud, clear voice we expressed the pressing reality of this crisis for families, communities, and our nation, with 2 million foreclosure filings this year, and millions more at risk. Another 15 million American homeowners are underwater—meaning that their home is worth less than they owe on their mortgage. And after years of predatory lending and mass foreclosures, a scourge of vacant properties, devastated home values, and impaired credit litter too many communities.

Participants shared their own stories, and those of neighbors, congregants and constituents struggling with abuse by banks and servicers. They included Brigitte Walker of Georgia, an Iraq War veteran who addressed the group. Ms. Walker was driven to the brink of foreclosure after an injury forced her to leave the military and sharply reduced her income. She detailed how her lender, Chase, repeatedly lost documents, gave her misinformation, bounced her around, and slated her home for foreclosure as she tried to negotiate a loan modification.

Ms. Walker was two weeks away from losing her home when Occupy Atlanta took up her case and began pushing Chase to negotiate. "They got everyday people like myself involved. Everyday people contacting Chase and advocating for me, peaceful demonstrations, people calling and writing in," Walker told a local news station at the time.

Just a few days later, Chase called back and struck a deal with Walker that allowed her to keep her home and make reasonable mortgage payments going forward. When she finished telling her story at the White House, Ms. Walker received a standing ovation.

Administration officials listened, and also detailed the considerable steps that the Executive Branch has taken to address the crisis, from establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to encouraging refinancing and loan modifications, to joining 49 state attorneys general in a national mortgage settlement with five major banks. None disputed, however, that those steps have been insufficient, so far, to address the scale of this crisis.

They pointed out, correctly, that a gridlocked Congress has thwarted many bolder solutions, like forcing consideration of principal reduction for mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or redirecting unused TARP funds toward housing counseling. That’s why, as planned, many of the participants headed to Capitol Hill after the White House meeting to urge members of Congress to take action of their own. An existing priority for many is the Expanding Refinancing Opportunities Act of 2012, a bill to allow more homeowners the chance to refinance mortgages with insurance provided by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

But the officials also candidly acknowledged something important: that many of the steps that the Administration has taken have come because social movements and everyday Americans have demanded them. That’s why we’ll be stepping up our activism, and ramping up our demands.

The Home for Good campaign, Home Defenders LeagueOccupy Our Homes, and Home Is Where the Vote Is have been pushing, separately and in collaboration, for bolder and more effective action—from the White House, Congress, cities and states, and the banks and financial industry. We seek an end to needless foreclosures, restoration of devastated communities, investment in affordable housing, and accountability on Wall Street. And we have concrete, proven solutions to offer that are rooted in research and experience around the country.

Now is the time to turn up the heat on our elected officials for home opportunity solutions. In our democratic system, that’s how change gets made.

It’s Time for the Candidates to Get Specific on the Homeownership Crisis

Now that the presidential tickets are set, it’s time for the candidates to get specific about problems and solutions critical to our economic recovery and future prosperity. Along with job creation, they should start with Home Opportunity—the cluster of housing, homeownership, and fair lending issues that are so central to the American promise of opportunity for all.

America continues to face a Home Opportunity crisis, with 2 million foreclosure filings this year, and millions more families at risk. That’s millions of senior citizens losing their economic security, children and families uprooted, neighborhoods blighted with vacant properties, and a continued drag on our economy.

What’s more, unequal opportunity and the discriminatory targeting of communities of color by unscrupulous brokers and lenders means that minority families continue to be especially hard hit. Major discrimination settlements by the Justice Department against Countrywide, Wells Fargo, and other major lenders reveal that, despite the progress we’ve made as a nation, Americans of color have been especially unlikely to get a fair deal from the banks. That translates to a historic loss of community assets and wealth that hurts us all.

Unlike employment, however, Home Opportunity has received inadequate attention in the general election campaign, despite its undisputed political, as well as economic, importance. For swing states like Florida (with 25,534 new foreclosure filings in July alone) and Nevada (with 26,498 filings), these questions are especially pressing. Amazingly though, neither campaign’s homepage includes housing, homeownership or foreclosures among the featured issues.

Early in his campaign, Mitt Romney famously told the Las Vegas Review Journal, “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom.” Months later, he appeared to shift position, saying in Florida: “The idea that somehow this is going to cure itself by itself is probably not real. There’s going to have to be a much more concerted effort to work with the lending institutions and help them take action, which is in their best interest and the best interest of the homeowners.”

Romney also said in a Republican debate that government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—the historic guarantors of the 30-year fixed mortgage for generations of middle class Americans—“were a big part of why we have the housing crisis in the nation that we have.” In neither case, however, have specific solutions followed. Romney has, by contrast, called for eliminating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Dodd-Frank legislation that created it.

As incumbent, President Obama has implemented multiple measures, including the Bureau, the Making Home Affordable program, housing counseling, and joining 49 state attorneys general in a national mortgage settlement with five major banks. (Intriguingly, Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan’s constituent services site refers Wisconsans with homeownership woes to the latter three programs for assistance).

Yet, most analysts agree that Making Home Affordable has fallen short of Administration goals, and that the national mortgage settlement, while helpful, does not reach the majority of homeowners who could benefit from its terms. Many argue, in particular, that the President can do more to extend principal reduction—shrinking the principal owed on mortgages to reflect homes’ fair market value—to mortgages backed by Fannie and Freddie. And while the Administration outlined three options for the future of those enterprises over a year ago, the President’s preferred agenda for them remains unclear.

The Obama Justice Department has been aggressive in settling discrimination suits against major lenders, but Candidate Obama has not discussed the role of discrimination in creating the housing crisis, nor the role of future equal opportunity efforts in solving it.

In short, the candidates, as candidates, have yet to articulate to the American people their respective visions for the future of Home Opportunity. How will each address the lender misconduct and inadequate rules that led to the current crisis? How will each ensure that families with the resources to be successful homeowners are not thwarted by future misconduct, arbitrary restrictions, or a lack of sound information? How will each help rejuvenate neighborhoods devastated by predatory lending and mass foreclosures? And how will each ensure that people of all races, ethnicities, and communities have an equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream?

With the tickets now set, it’s the candidates’ responsibility to get specific on these questions, so critical to the nation’s choice of the next president. As voters, it’s our responsibility to demand that they do.

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Gabby, Ryan, and Home Opportunity for All

Even Olympians are, alas, not immune from America’s homeownership crisis. The Associated Press reported this week that the parents of U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte are facing foreclosure in Florida, while the mother of gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last year, she said, “to protect my home.”

I don’t know the circumstances of these families’ financial challenges. But the fact that families who had the discipline, commitment, and drive to raise Olympic gold medalists did not have the systems or information needed to remain successful homeowners reaffirms that the promise of American opportunity is at grave risk.

Roughly four million American families lost their homes to foreclosure between the beginning of 2007 and early 2012. Some 11 million are struggling with “underwater” mortgages, meaning that they owe more than their home is worth. That’s just under a quarter of all U.S. homes with a mortgage. For most, a perfect storm of financial industry misconduct, inadequate consumer protections, falling home prices, and record unemployment are at the core of the problem.

The Lochte and Douglas families are fortunate. Their kids are now stars who will soon be paid millions in endorsement proceeds—Gabby’s already on the cover of a cornflake box.

But for most Americans, the solutions require broader action. An alliance of consumer protection, fair lending, and housing experts have developed a Compact for Home Opportunity, with over two dozen practical, tested solutions for preventing needless foreclosures, restoring neighborhoods, and rebuilding the American dream. The Compact is powered by Home for Good, a national campaign driven by people concerned about the enduring foreclosure and housing crisis.

The Compact’s solutions range from increased access to housing counseling, to reducing loan principal to fair market value, to increased fair housing and lending protections. Some states, notably California, have adopted important elements of the Compact. But a more robust, national approach is needed. Home for Good is pushing housing issues back into the presidential contest, and onto the national agenda, demanding that candidates and policymakers take a stand on the causes and solutions to the crisis. With foreclosures and bankruptcy intruding even into the Olympic games, their call is increasingly hard to ignore.

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It’s Time for Home Opportunity

Dramatic developments this month have underscored our nation’s progress, as well as our continuing peril, when it comes to Home Opportunity—the deeply held idea that everyone should have access to an affordable home under fair conditions. These developments, both positive and negative, should inform the national choices ahead, including in the presidential race.

On July 11th, California lawmakers enacted the groundbreaking California Homeowner Bill of Rights, halting unfair bank practices that have forced thousands of Californians into foreclosure. Among other protections, it restricts “dual-track” foreclosures, in which lenders preemptively foreclose on homeowners who are in active negotiations to save their homes. Importantly, the law also empowers consumers to hold lenders accountable in court.

Just a day later, the U.S. Justice Department announced a landmark settlement of lending discrimination charges against Wells Fargo. The settlement provides $125 million in compensation for borrowers who the Justice Department says Wells Fargo or its brokers steered into risky and expensive subprime mortgages, or charged higher fees and rates than white borrowers, solely because of their race. The discrimination “resulted in more than 34,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers paying an increased rate for loans simply due to the color of their skin,” according to Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

The Wells Fargo agreement builds on an earlier Justice Department settlement—the largest ever—against Countrywide Financial Corporation for racial discrimination that included a widespread pattern of discrimination against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers in mortgage lending. And on July 20, the Justice Department asked a judge to compel New York’s Westchester County to provide information on local zoning practices that might be racially discriminatory. This was a long-overdue step, since Westchester has consistently flouted the terms of a historic fair housing settlement it agreed to three years ago after decades of fostering neighborhood segregation.

These are important developments that, together, help to address the harm that years of lender misconduct and lax rules and enforcement have done to millions of American homeowners and our larger economy. They are making a difference, with the number of Americans facing foreclosure activity declining 11 percent in the first half of 2012, compared with the same period last year.

But much more is needed. Over one million homes and properties still saw foreclosure filings in the first half of this year. That’s hundreds of thousands of senior citizens losing their economic security, children and families disrupted, neighborhoods blighted with vacant properties, lifetimes of economic security destroyed.

And the financial institutions that wrecked our economy have continued their misconduct in different forms. This week, for example, JPMorgan Chase agreed to pay $100 million to settle a lawsuit filed by its customers accusing the firm of improperly increasing minimum payments on borrowers whom they knew could not afford to pay more, generating ill gotten income from the resulting late fees. This, after JPMorgan gambled and lost its clients’ money to the tune of at least $5.8 billion.

And after the British bank Barclays settled with U.S. and British regulators for $453 million, admitting to manipulating the London interbank offered rate, or Libor (a benchmark that underpins hundreds of trillions of dollars in contracts), over a dozen additional banks are now being investigated for similarly rigging exchange rates on international markets.

It’s time for Home Opportunity—American homeownership, fair lending, fair housing—to return to the national debate. That has begun, with the rise of Home for Good, a national campaign driven by people and organizations throughout the nation concerned about the enduring foreclosure and housing crisis. That effort is equipped with clear, practical solutions, in the form of a Compact for Home Opportunity developed by housing, lending, and consumer protection experts around the country.

With the presidential contest now in full swing, it’s time for the candidates to take a stand on this crucial economic and moral issue. President Obama has taken important steps, yet he’s avoided some of the most bold and effective remedies that are available to him. Governor Romney has been mostly silent on what his Administration would do to restore Home Opportunity. It’s time we demanded clarity and commitment from each of them.

 

 

Raiding Opportunity

The ink’s barely dry on the historic settlement of “robo-signing” and other abusive foreclosure practices by five big banks. But, already, some states are raiding the settlement funds to finance activities having nothing to do with preventing foreclosures or preserving homeownership. Their actions are a second slap in the face to millions of Americans who were wronged by lender misconduct and inadequate consumer protections. They are unjust, shortsighted, and, quite possibly, illegal.

The $25 billion settlement between 49 state attorneys general, the Obama administration, and the nation's five largest mortgage companies announced its intention “to remediate harms allegedly resulting from the alleged unlawful conduct of the [banks].” The National Association of Attorneys General explained that “the settlement addresses past mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure abuses and fraud, provides substantial financial relief to borrowers harmed by bank fraud, and establishes significant new homeowner protections for the future.”

The settlement has produced some important and positive changes. It is aiding many struggling homeowners by reducing their mortgage principal to fair and affordable levels and allowing them to refinance at today’s lower rates. It requires covered banks to provide a single point of contact for homeowners, mandates adequate staffing levels and training, and ends “dual-track foreclosures,” in which servicers foreclose on homes while still negotiating loan modifications with their owners.

But alongside those positive steps, a growing number of states are diverting funds from the settlement to fill general budget gaps and for other unrelated purposes. Georgia and Wisconsin acted swiftly to raid their settlement funds, over the protests of lawmakers and advocates who supported the deal. California, Missouri, Nebraska, and others are following suit. According to the non-profit investigative journalism organization ProPublica, states have already diverted $974 million from the settlement to reduce budget deficits or fund unrelated activities.

Diverting settlement funds away from home opportunity is a new violation of the American people’s trust. The data company RealtyTrac predicts as many as 1 million new foreclosures this year—nearly 200,000 more than in 2011. Every penny of settlement resources should be invested in heading off that catastrophic outcome while mitigating the effects of foreclosures that have already occurred.

Raiding settlement funds is also shortsighted, because supporting home opportunity is an investment in our economy, including state budgets. Proven strategies like principal reduction, housing counseling, and own-to-rent programs aid struggling homeowners, to be sure. But they also improve neighborhood home values, increase state and local tax revenues, reduce the need to maintain abandoned properties, and relieve the burden on social service agencies.

A coalition of housing and consumer protection groups that includes The Opportunity Agenda and the National Council of La Raza has released aCompact for Home Opportunity detailing over two dozen initiatives that can prevent foreclosures, ensure fair housing and lending, and rebuild the American Dream. Virtually any item in the Compact would be a valid use of settlement funds. But dumping those funds into states’ general coffers is irresponsible and outrageous.

It may also be illegal. The diversion of funds violates the stated purpose of the agreement, as well as its spirit. The wronged American homeowners who are, in legal parlance, the third-party beneficiaries of the agreement may have a right to demand proper usage of settlement funds.

In many states, moreover, diverting settlement funds has a racially discriminatory effect on minority homeowners and former homeowners. While most victims of bank misconduct are white, homeowners of color were disproportionately and intentionally targeted by brokers and lenders for flawed loans, and are overrepresented amongst those facing foreclosure. People of color represent less than 20% of the population in Wisconsin, for instance, but over 40% of the population in Milwaukee, where exploitation of homeowners was concentrated. The numbers in Georgia are similarly stark. Dumping settlement funds into the general treasury again disadvantages these homeowners struggling to regain their footing.

All of the states covered by the settlement have an obligation under the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, respectively, to affirmatively further fair housing, and to avoid discriminatory patterns in their programs and activities. The diversion of funds may violate both of those provisions. Everyone agrees that much more is needed to restore home opportunity around the country. But the settlement was an important step in the right direction. Diverting the resources that it produced violates the letter and spirit of the settlement, squanders an historic opportunity, and harms the very Americans whom the settlement was intended to help. It should not be allowed to stand.

 

 

No More Excuses on Relief to American Homeowners

Read also: Home Opportunity Initiative

One by one, the excuses have fallen. Yet Edward DeMarco, acting head of FHFA, the agency that runs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, still fails to offer the most effective relief available to American homeowners struggling with mortgages held by those entities. Economists, housing experts, and members of DeMarco’s own staff have concluded that reducing to affordable levels the principal owed on at-risk mortgages is effective in reducing foreclosures and their destructive fallout. But, inexplicably, he’s been unmoved by the mounting evidence.

Two weeks ago, after hinting at a possible change of heart, DeMarco punted on the question, saying it needed more study and stating that such a policy question “should be determined by Congress.” But the evidence is too clear, and the stakes are too high, for further delay. It’s time for Mr. DeMarco to either act in the nation’s interest or get out of the way.

While many parts of our economy have gradually improved over the last several years, foreclosures are on the rise in regions around the country. The foreclosure data company RealtyTrac has predicted that one million American homes may enter foreclosure in 2012. An estimated 12 million Americans currently owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, meaning that millions more are at risk.

Fannie, Freddie, and DeMarco’s agency have an oversized role to play in addressing the crisis, since the entities are assumed to own or back roughly 3.3 million underwater mortgages and help set trends in the larger market. By including principal reduction among the tools they use, they could help millions of Americans save their homes while making sustainable payments toward the actual value of their property.

The American people essentially own Fannie and Freddie after a $150 billion bailout. Even before that, the entities were tasked with providing stability and affordability to the nation's mortgage finance market. FHFA’s mission similarly includes supporting housing finance, affordable housing, and a stable and liquid mortgage market, as well as promoting Fannie and Freddie’s safety and soundness.

The calls for principal reduction are growing louder, with evidence increasingly demonstrating that those interests all point toward principal reduction. It results in fewer foreclosures, as compared with alternatives like loan forbearance (delaying loan obligations) that FHFA has authorized. In addition to the obvious benefits to struggling homeowners, reducing foreclosures improves neighborhood home values, prevents abandoned and blighted properties, and saves cash-strapped municipalities the costs of upkeep and enforcement.

Many private lenders have been reducing principal obligations on their own, recognizing it’s often the best way for them to recoup their investment. Moreover, the strategy was a significant part of the Attorneys General settlement over “robo-signing” and related bank misconduct.

Reports have emerged that even FHFA’s own internal analyses show principal reduction is in the interest of both underwater homeowners and Fannie and Freddie. Documents recently obtained by the Congressional Progressive Caucus reportedly show that DeMarco’s agency studied the question in 2009, decided it was worth trying, worked with a major lender to develop a detailed pilot, and then abruptly canceled it in July of 2010 for what the Caucus says were ideological reasons.

To be sure, principal reduction is not a silver bullet. A range of aggressive solutions are necessary to address America’s foreclosure crisis, restore ravaged neighborhoods, and put our national economy back on track. Indeed, a coalition of housing and public interest groups that includes The Opportunity Agenda, National Council of La Raza, and the National Fair Housing Alliance has released a Compact for Home Opportunity highlighting over a dozen actions that government, private industry, and individuals can take to turn things around.

Principal reduction may be only one of those actions. But it’s an important one. With a million American homes at risk of foreclosure, the time for action is now.

What You Just Said Hurts My Head

We’re all familiar with the feeling of cognitive dissonance, when suddenly we’re forced to hold two contradicting ideas in our heads. Maybe we’ve just heard unflattering news about someone we respected, or have been presented with facts that challenge a deeply held worldview. As any communications expert will tell you, we tend to deal with this kind of dissonance by simply rejecting the new information as incorrect, unreliable, or purposefully misleading.

NPR recently ran a story on this topic that went a little deeper, exploring how partisan beliefs interacted with challenging facts. Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan and Georgia State’s Jason Reifler began looking into why it is, for instance, that Democrats currently believe the president has little control over gas prices, while six years ago they believed that President Bush could do something to lower them. Republicans have just as predictably switched position on this issue. Partisans, it seems, can reject facts they earlier believed – facts that probably don’t mean much to them, really – in order to stay aligned with their party loyalty.

Party loyalty is one way to describe a more deeply held worldview, but I think an even better term is core values. We belong to certain political parties because they have become a stand-in for those values. So we reject or accept facts that question or support our party loyalty (the president has little control over gas prices) because doing so reinforces our belief that our core values are right. And that we are right. President = party = core values = core identity. So it’s important to us that our party's president does the right thing.

So how do we approach audiences armed with facts that are likely to contradict their firmly-held beliefs? NPR reports:

Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they're against the facts, but because it's painful. That notion suggested a possible solution: If partisans were made to feel better about themselves — if they received a little image and ego boost — could this help them more easily absorb the "blow" of information that threatens their pre-existing views?

Nyhan said that ongoing —and as yet, unpublished— research was showing the technique could be effective. The researchers had voters think of times in their lives when they had done something very positive and found that, fortified by this positive memory, voters were more willing to take in information that challenged their pre-existing views.

Interesting, and useful if you’re talking one-on-one and know your subject enough to evoke such specific memories. But what about messaging to the masses? I think the answer is values again. By appealing to people’s notions of what we as a country hold dear, and how those values make us our best selves, we give them a bit of an ego boost.

For instance, the topic of immigration can cause many audiences a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. The dominant narrative tells us that many immigrants are criminals just for being here, and are taking jobs from native-born Americans.  Of course, the facts don’t support either of these storylines. But many an immigration advocate will tell you that simply relaying to folks that being here without papers is a civil, not criminal, violation; or that study after study shows that immigrant workers have no affect on unemployment rates, does not change minds. But what if we made people feel a little good about themselves first? Could they better handle the dissonance?

We could start by reminding people why immigrants want to come here –for opportunity, because of our freedoms, to be a part of something we all love. We can remind people of the other aspirations that most of them believe make this country great: our values of treating people equally and fairly, our values of community and voice, our ambition to make things better and try new things.

Now clearly, those stories can go in a number of different directions and cause their own dissonance, particularly among progressives. Sure, we value equality, but then why do we stand for income and racial disparities? And doesn’t our ambition sometimes cause us to leave whole groups of people behind? No, we don’t always live up to our aspirations. But they’re still good ones. And they do make a lot of people feel good about the country, and perhaps as an extension, themselves.

Like any messaging strategy, opening conversations with values is no silver bullet guaranteed to ease the way for all challenging ideas. But if we know that throwing facts at people doesn’t work (and actually pains them), we need to rethink how we use those facts. Otherwise, they’re not just useless, but actively harmful to the cause.

The Negative Influence of Reality TV on Teenage Girls

Many of us may have conversed around the water cooler about the provocative behavior that is displayed on some reality TV shows. It’s like junk food: we love it and we know it’s bad for us, but we—and our children—watch anyway. You might say that it’s a parent’s duty to steer a child in the right direction; however, with loads of technology available at our fingertips on a variety of devices, it can be next to impossible to shield a child from junk TV. Reality TV is popular entertainment that may be having an impact on teenage girls, making it seem that the impertinent verbal exchanges and sometimes violent confrontations displayed heavily on reality TV shows such as Basketball Wives and Real Housewives of Atlanta are normal and desirable forms of behavior.

A research report commissioned by The Newspaper Association of America Foundation, Fitting into Their Lives: A Survey of Three Studies About Youth Media Usage by Vivian Vahlberg, found that “young people spend about as much time consuming media everyday (7 hours and 39 minutes) as their parents spend working.” Also, “if you factor in the additional media usage consumed in multi-tasking, young people pack 10 ¾ hours’ worth of media content into every day.” Many studies over the years have documented that some of our opinions are formed by what we consume through the media. Reflecting on over 10 hours of daily media consumption, it is reasonable to wonder how teenage girl’s behavior and perception – of society and of themselves – are being influenced by the portrayals of women on TV.

Jennifer Pozner, the director of Women in Media & News in New York City and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, shared her perspective on reality TV in an online interview with Anne Kingston of Maclean’s, a Canadian weekly magazine. Pozner emphasized how reality TV shows are all scripted with “Frankenbites,” which help exaggerate and distort a character’s true motives or intent. For example, she notes that formerReal Housewives of Atlanta cast member Deshawn Snow was kicked off the show after the first season because she did not fit into the producers’ desired depiction of black women. Instead of highlighting the positive aspects of Snow as a dedicated student, an advocate for women of color, and an avowed Christian, the producers instead wanted to focus on negative imagery of black women.

The internet has become another host to negative depictions, through the posting of videos showing violent real-life confrontations such as the recent physical altercation between two teenage age girls in Ohio over a Twitter dispute that was videotaped and posted online—with over two million viewers. While there may be at best a tenuous connection to the Ohio incident, there is little doubt that its presence online is aimed at audiences who have been conditioned through media, including reality TV, to accept as normal, even heroic, behavior we would once criticize. It’s time to take a step back and reassess our TV standards and take a serious look at the psychological and behavioral impact television, particularly reality TV, has on today’s young women and girls—and vow to do something about it.

 

 

Opportunity Impact Statement: Ensuring an Economy that Works

Americans prioritize finding solutions for our economy and job creation, and it is clear that we need an economy that works for all of us. This means building the jobs and the infrastructure that will create equal opportunities for success for all Americans. In order to make smart and necessary decisions about how and where we spend our money, we need to evaluate the impact of spending, while also honoring our commitment to avoid engaging in discrimination.

Using a tool that evaluates public spending—what we call an Opportunity Impact Statement (OIS)—at all levels of government can ensure that government looks at where investment is needed most before actually spending funds, whether it’s for job creation, building out transportation to jobs, or schools. This would ensure that all Americans have access to the building blocks of opportunity. The American Constitution Society has published an issue brief by The Opportunity Agenda on these statements. As described in the brief, “[a] coordinated process is needed to ensure that public funding complies with anti-discrimination laws and not only confronts barriers to opportunity that affect regions throughout the United States, but also builds the foundation necessary to give all communities a chance to achieve economic security and mobility.”

We describe in the brief ways for administrative agencies to use an OIS process as part of their evaluation of ongoing and proposed government funded projects and programs, with detailed examples related to housing and transportation. Read the brief here to learn about ways to use this flexible tool to promote opportunity as we build our economy.

 

 

Racial Discrimination by Banks Is Worsening the Foreclosure Crisis

Is there a house in your neighborhood that everybody hates to walk past? You know, the one with broken and boarded up windows, trash left to gather on the lawn, and grass so overgrown it’s becoming a habitat for rodents?

If you have a house like that in your community, you know it’s more than just an eyesore. Neglected, vacant houses depress property values throughout the community, and can threaten health and safety. They erode the sense of community and stability that creates vibrant localities, and they hamper economic resiliency. With a national foreclosure crisis still in full swing, such houses are all too common.

You might be surprised to learn, though, that if you have problem properties like that in your neighborhood, there’s a good chance your absentee neighbor is a bank. More shocking still, banks are neglecting houses they own in minority communities even more frequently—much more frequently—than those they hold in white communities.

A detailed undercover investigation unveiled last week by the National Fair Housing Alliance and several regional partners shows not only that banks too frequently fail to maintain foreclosed properties that they own, but that they tend to neglect their properties in communities of color at a much higher rate, with devastating consequences.

A large number of the neglected, bank-owned properties have broken or missing doors and windows, inviting vandalism and trespassers. And many have safety hazards that endanger the public. Those and other defects are significantly more prevalent in bank-owned properties located in communities of color. Another finding is that, on average, the banks are not marketing houses located in communities of color as aggressively to individual homebuyers as they do properties in white neighborhoods. The properties in white neighborhoods are, for example, more likely to have clear and professional “for sale” signs. When banks both poorly maintain and poorly market foreclosed houses, the properties tend to stay vacant longer and to eventually be sold to speculators, rather than to people who would make the houses their home.

The discriminatory differences are stark. In Dayton, Ohio, for example, 60% of bank-owned properties in African-American neighborhoods had broken or unsecured doors, compared to only 18% in white neighborhoods. In Atlanta, properties in African-American neighborhoods were almost five times more likely than homes in white neighborhoods to lack a “for sale” sign. And in Dallas, 73% of the bank-owned homes in predominantly non-white neighborhoods had trash on their properties, while only 37% in white areas did.

Neighbors of all races who live near foreclosed, bank-owned properties, the investigation found, are pulling together to keep them presentable—doing maintenance the banks should be doing, like mowing lawns and removing trash. But in communities of color, neighbors reported seeing home improvement contractors working on those properties at only half the rate seen by neighbors in predominantly white areas.

The bank behavior identified by this investigation is unethical, unlawful, and harmful to our economy. It breaches our basic national values of equal opportunity and the common good. It violates the Fair Housing Act of 1968, signed 44 years ago this week in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. And it is holding back our economic recovery by, among other things, depressing home prices and hampering sales.

It’s hard to know all the reasons why banks are discriminating in this way. Bias and unfounded stereotypes about minority communities and homes, however, are a likely root cause. The investigators controlled for 39 race-neutral factors like building structure, water damage, and curb appeal, so the different treatment is indisputably about race, and not class or other home or neighborhood characteristics.

This investigation should be a wake up call for banks, regulators, local governments, and the neighbors of these bank-owned properties. Among the solutions identified by the National Fair Housing Alliance are anti-discrimination investigations by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other enforcement agencies, making information about bank-owned properties more publicly accessible, and prioritizing buyers who will occupy these properties over speculators who may warehouse them.

As Americans struggle together toward a lasting economic recovery, good neighbors are more important than ever. It’s time to remind America’s banks that this includes them.

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