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Two housing advocacy groups are suing federal housing officials, claiming they are illegally withholding at least $382 million from a fund created by Congress to support affordable rental housing for poor people.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Right to the City Alliance filed suit in federal court in Miami on Tuesday seeking to have the Federal Housing Finance Agency provide the money to a national housing trust fund.

The trust was created five years ago. Funding was supposed to come from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored mortgage guarantee giants. They nearly collapsed during the financial crisis and the trust hasn't been funded.

After a $187 billion government bailout, Fannie and Freddie are profitable again, pumping billions of dollars into the Treasury.

Published in the Wall Street Journal. By Nick Timiraos.

Nonprofit Groups Say Mortgage-Finance Firms Should Contribute Trust Funds

Two nonprofit housing organizations filed suit Tuesday against the regulator of Fannie Mae FNMA -3.47% and Freddie Mac FMCC -1.88% for not allowing the mortgage-finance companies to contribute funds to two federal affordable-housing trust funds.

Congress established two funds in July 2008 to finance low-income housing with a fraction of the annual revenue of Fannie and Freddie, but the companies' regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, suspended those payments in November 2008, two months after the companies were rescued from collapse by the U.S. government.

The Treasury has spent more than $150 billion to prop up the firms throughout the financial crisis. Now that Fannie and Freddie have begun reporting large profits, the housing groups argue that Fannie and Freddie should resume making payments to the funds and that the FHFA, which is acting as the firms' conservator, can't indefinitely suspend those payments.

"The conservator can't simply ignore the law," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which is one of the plaintiffs. She said the circumstances that led the FHFA to suspend those payments no longer apply because the payments wouldn't jeopardize the solvency of the companies.

An FHFA spokeswoman didn't immediately comment on the lawsuit.

In the past, the FHFA has said that Fannie and Freddie should be barred from normal business activities, including payments to the trust funds, so long as they require taxpayer support. In a letter to the chief executives of both companies in November 2008, the FHFA said it was suspending the trust-fund payments because they would "further contribute to the financial instability" of Fannie and Freddie.

The suit is the latest in a flurry of efforts by different groups to claim a share of the growing profits of Fannie and Freddie, which have begun to send large payments to federal coffers over the past year. Last month, Fannie and Freddie paid $66 billion to the Treasury in the form of dividend payments.

The suit, filed early Tuesday in federal court in Miami, follows a separate lawsuit filed late Sunday in federal court in Washington by a hedge fund that invested in preferred shares in Fannie and Freddie. The hedge fund, Perry Capital LLC, is seeking to strike down an amendment to Fannie's and Freddie's bailout agreement that requires the companies to send all of their profits to the U.S. Treasury.

The lawsuits illustrate how the U.S. government faces greater scrutiny of its administration of Fannie and Freddie now that the firms are producing record profits and sending all of them to the government. The challenges are only "going to multiply until Congress reforms the companies," said Julia Gordon, director of housing finance and policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Congress created two different housing trust funds in 2008 to build a dedicated revenue source for low-income housing that wasn't subject to the annual appropriations process. The trust funds allow states and state-designated grantees to apply for money that will finance new rental housing or rehabilitate existing units for families with very low incomes, often those earning 30% or less of the median income in their communities.

Fannie and Freddie were required to set aside 0.04% of every dollar in new mortgage purchases for the trust funds, which would have amounted to less than $500 million last year, according to the lawsuit.

"Winning this lawsuit would yield the largest new investment in low-income affordable housing in over 30 years," said Rachel LaForest, executive director of Right to the City Alliance, a political advocacy group that is a co-plaintiff.

A report released last month showed that the number of extremely low-income renters jumped by 2.5 million to 12.1 million households between 2007 and 2011, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The number of affordable rental units, meanwhile, edged down over the same period, to 6.8 million from 6.9 million.

In the lawsuit filed late Sunday, Perry Capital said that the Treasury's decision to require Fannie and Freddie to send all of their profits to the government as dividend payments represented a "blatant overreach" that "illegally begins to liquidate" Fannie and Freddie. Perry Capital is being represented by Theodore Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, a former U.S. solicitor general.

A Treasury spokesman said the government was reviewing the lawsuit.

Perry Capital is one of a handful of hedge funds and other investors that began buying up the preferred shares at large discounts beginning over the past four years on the bet that Fannie's and Freddie's return to profitability could lead to a big payout. Last summer's revamp of the bailout agreement prevents Fannie and Freddie from rebuilding capital or redeeming a new class of "senior preferred" shares owed by the Treasury.

Today, Tuesday July 9th, Right to the City and the National Low Income Housing Coalition filed a national lawsuit against Acting Director Ed DeMarco of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) for violating the 2008 Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA). HERA requires Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to contribute a portion of their revenue to the National Housing Trust Fund, a fund created explicitly to support low-income affordable rental housing. Despite the banks' reporting $28 Billion in record setting profits in 2012, FHFA, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, has failed to contribute into the National Housing Trust Fund and shirked their responsibility to millions of families in need of affordable and fair housing.

Our lawsuit demands that FHFA and Ed DeMarco stop breaking the law and pay the well over $382 Million that they owe to the National Housing Trust Fund which would secure the largest new investment in low-income affordable housing in more than 30 years. In addition to accountability, we are calling for a new kind of leadership at FHFA. If Obama's nominee Mel Watt is confirmed as a permanent replacement for Ed DeMarco, we will expect nothing less than his firm commitment to fund quality affordable housing and ensure compliance.

Take Action and sign the petition to ensure funding for affordable housing nationally!

rtc-danielle-prDanielle Stelluto, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and her two children are among the millions in need of an affordable, secure home. "You think it's hard raising a toddler", says Danielle, a home care worker who makes $10 an hour and lives in a NYC shelter, "try doing it without a home."

With 11 million Americans paying more than half of their income to housing and more than 3 million homeless, half of these being children, we cannot afford to wait another day for quality, safe homes in which to love and raise our families.

Lawsuit support actions will also be also taking place in three cities today led by our Right to the City member groups, Picture the Homeless, Miami Workers Center and Causa Justa::Just Cause. The action in Miami will take place on the steps of the courthouse where the lawsuit is being filed. In New York, in front of Grand Central Terminal, several homeless residents will give testimony to their need for affordable housing and in the Bay Area in California, a Can't Wait for Housing march will highlight displacement and the shortage of affordable housing while street theatre performers articulate a vision for affordable housing.

Support Danielle and the Homes For All movement! Sign our petition to ensure funding for affordable housing nationally!

Local Plaintiffs to Join Right to the City Alliance and the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Tuesday Press Call. Obama urged to take action.

Miami, FL – This Tuesday, national groups representing low-income Americans including seniors, youth, and families are filing suit against Acting Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) Acting Director Ed DeMarco for illegally failing to contribute well over  $382 million to the National Housing Trust Fund. Details of the suit will be revealed in a Tuesday press call with plaintiffs.

What: Press call announcing legal action against  Acting FHFA Director DeMarco for illegally withholding well over $382 million from the National Housing Trust Fund, enough to help provide affordable housing  for tens of thousands of  low-income families and individuals.

When: 12:30pm, Tuesday, July 9th

Who: Speakers include:

    Rachel Laforest, Executive Director of the Right to the City Alliance

    Angela Samuels, Plaintiff from Miami

    Danielle Stelluto, Plaintiff from New York

    Sheila Crowley, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition

To participate: 866-952-1906, Code: FHFA

A full copy of the suit will be available by request after the call.

Background: In 2008, Congress passed a provision as part of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) to address the dire shortage of affordable rental homes for low-income families. The provision required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are run by the FHFA, to contribute to the National Housing Trust Fund to support more affordable housing units. Despite Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac declaring record revenue to the tune of $28 billion in 2012, Ed DeMarco and the Federal Finance Housing Agency have refused to contribute the funds. Public records have shown they have withheld well over $382 million from low-income families, youth and seniors in need. Winning this lawsuit would be the largest new investment in low-income affordable housing in over 30 years.  This is a first step in turning the tide from disinvestment to investment in affordable housing in our cities.

After the call, plaintiffs in the suit, affordable housing advocates, and low-income Americans will rally in Miami, San Francisco, and NYC in support of the suit and to call on President Obama, the FHFA, and Acting Director DeMarco to take immediate action to fund affordable housing.

Local event information:

NEW YORK - Press conference, Tuesday, July 9, 2pm EDT, Grand Central Terminal with dozens of members of Picture the Homeless, Homeless people, low-income immigrant tenants, public housing residents, and allies rally behind plaintiff Danielle Stelluto.

SAN FRANCISCO- Tuesday, July 9, 11AM PDT, 24th Street BART station, 24th & Mission Streets, Mission District, SF.  Causa Justa :: Just Cause along with plaintiff Kim Shanklin and others who have been affected and displaced. Large group leaving notes at 3 sites where tenants have been impacted and displaced; Street theater at each stop

MIAMI - Press Conference, Tuesday, July 9,  2pm, Stephen P. Clark Center, 111 NW 1st, Angela Samuels and Rosana Torres, Plaintiffs Charles Elsesser, Filing Attorney, Community Justice Project of Florida Legal Services Miami Workers Center, member organization of Right to the City Alliance, 30 people


For more information go to homesforall.org and or follow #homes4all @ourcity for updates on local actions.

More information on the National Housing Trust Fund can be found at www.nhtf.org.


The Rights of Cities

Written by

Click here for full article in the REBEL METROPOLIS

What is the Right to the City movement?  Where did it come from?  Where is it going?  Who are the actors and organizers sculpting this new social structure?  In asking these questions and studying their answers, it’s impossible to not recognize one’s own role in this current wave of civil unrest across the globe.  If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve been involved in the Right to the City movement for some time.

In Turkey, a battle to save the last public green space from the private development of an upscale mall has mushroomed into a national upheaval.  In San Francisco, a similar resistance was so inspired by current events in Istanbul that activists renamed the gardens they hope to save from destruction after the now famous Gezi Park.  The 2008 film ‘The Garden‘ chronicles a community’s heartbreaking struggle to save 14 acres of urban farmland in Los Angeles from a developer hell-bent on proving that nobody should have a free right to land.

Yet beyond street fights over land use, Right to the City encompasses broader circles of urban autonomy.  Here in Portland, a recent scheme orchestrated by high paid lobbyists and so called ‘health’ consultants aimed at dosing Portland’s pristine water supply with fluorosilicic acid was crushed by a popular voter revolt.  Most noted was the fact that the vote against fluoridation was overwhelming in the very communities who allegedly were suffering from a “dental crisis” that only fluoride would fix.  With the fluoridation fight seemingly over, a new front in the water wars has emerged.  Communities are organizing to obtain a waiver that would prevent Portland’s open-air reservoirs from being covered and converted to underground tanks.  Left unchecked, this federally mandated move would pose a series of health risks to Portland’s pristine Bull Run drinking water, and would cost taxpayers over $400,000.00 for the initial construction contract alone.  The current plan to stop the mandate is to remove the Water Bureau from the control of city hall and place it in the hands of a People’s Utility District via ballot measure in May of 2014.



To dig even deeper into the mind and tactics of modern activists, Bill talks with economic equality advocates Rachel LaForest, executive director of Right to the City, and Madeline Janis, co-founder and national policy director of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy They discuss how social action can change both policy and lives. Janis led the fight for a living wage in Los Angeles; LaForest fights for fair and affordable housing across the country.

In particular, LaForest and Janis talk about the strength of human stories to power a movement, as part of a multifaceted approach that includes research, communication, and political involvement. “You have a struggling housekeeper in a hotel who cleans 25 rooms in a day and barely puts food on the table. The idea of her being able to fight for better working conditions — a union in her hotel, a living wage — that’s going to move her a lot more than just the theory of being able to have a voice in her democracy,” explains Janis. “Although, when she finds her voice, it’s just the most incredible, empowering thing. And it’s overpowering when she stands up before a city council, or she stands up before press and tells her story.”



Originally published in La Opinion 

Los Ángeles
La ciudad de Los Ángeles debe tomar una decisión importante: preservar Wyvernwood Gardens, una vivienda inmobiliaria mayormente latina y de bajos ingresos, o desalojar una comunidad entera.

Wyvernwood es el hogar de 6,000 angelinos. La constructora Fifteen Group, propietaria de e Wyvernwood, ha propuesto una renovación que obligaría la pérdida de casi 1,200 de unidades de vivienda asequibles y, en consecuencia, el desalojo de una comunidad que ha permanecido por años en ese complejo habitacional.
El próximo alcalde de Los Ángeles tendrá un papel clave en determinar el resultado de este conflicto.
En una ciudad con recursos económicos limitados, los desarrolladores urbanos tientan a representantes del gobierno con trabajos y servicios críticamente importantes.

Esta tentación prohíbe la consideración de las necesidades de la comunidad. Por otra parte, los residentes de Wyvernwood carecen de conexiones en la municipalidad quienes elegirán preservar esta comunidad latina trabajadora.

Ha sido casi imposible encontrar imparcialidad para los residentes que quieren quedarse en sus hogares.

El concejal José Huizar representa a Wyvernwood y es uno de los pocos que ha expresado su desaprobación públicamente. El concejal proclamó recientemente que las "generaciones de familias serían perjudicadas por este desmantelamiento de la comunidad y yo me uno a la vasta mayoría de los residentes de Wyvernwood que se oponen a esta propuesta ".

La candidata a alcaldía, la contralora Wendy Greuel, se ha demostrado estar del lado de los intereses que han luchado por años para desmantelar los derechos de los inquilinos. Ella ha recibido en esta campaña política el respaldo del grupo de acción política del Central City Association (CCA), de la Cámara de Comercio de Los Ángeles y el grupo anti-inquilina Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA)

La Coalición por la Supervivencia Económica (CES ), una organización dedicada a la defensa de los derechos de los inquilinos, ha expresado serias preocupaciones sobre la lista de respaldos que ha recibido Greuel.

Al mismo tiempo, el candidato a alcalde, el concejal Eric Garcetti, no ha establecido todavía su posición sobre Wyvernwood. Hasta ahora, ha logrado formar alianzas con los defensores de la vivienda y de los derechos de los inquilinos. A través de su servicio en el concejo de la ciudad, ha sido uno de los más francos defensores de los derechos de los inquilinos y la vivienda asequible en la ciudad de Los Ángeles.

Los conflictos como estos requieren fortaleza de espíritu y convicción política. Juntos con la campaña Homes for All (Hogares Para Todos) de Right to the City (Derecho a la Ciudad), seguiremos luchando. Nuestros barrios urbanos están en juego y la elección de alcalde será determinante para nuestro futuro.

Published originally in Organizing Upgrade

by Maria Poblet 

Reflections on the World Social Forum. Tunis, Spring 2013.

Tunisia is a society under construction. After a successful revolution in 2011 that sparked the "Arab Spring", the country, and the entire region, are in the midst of profound social transformation. I went to Tunisia thrilled to learn from the social movements that overthrew a profoundly entrenched, decades-long dictatorship. The World Social Forum (WSF), held in Tunis in late March, occurred in the wake of this groundbreaking change. The Forum brought together 50,000 people from social movements on all over the world to share and learn from each other and from the advances of the "Arab Spring."

Alma Blackwell, lead member of Causa Justa :: Just Cause, and I were both part of a majority-women of color delegation of Left community-based organizations from the United States, organized by the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ). In our community organizing work at Causa Justa :: Just Cause in California, we emphasize bringing our work to scale, and building a movement strong enough to have national impact. Just last month, we helped launch Right to the City's national "Homes for All" campaign and brought together homeowners in foreclosure with public housing residents, homeless people with renters, all with the goal of building a movement large enough to win the change we need.
Where better to learn about how to bring people together and have a profound impact than Tunisia? Tunisia's social movements made history, not only through their own successful democratic revolution against dictator Ben Ali; but by inspiring and sparking the fights for democratic rights and economic justice throughout North Africa and the Middle East that became known as the "Arab Spring." Even Occupy Oakland, the largest movement work that Causa Justa :: Just Cause has been part of in years, was tiny and tame compared to the scale of mobilization, militancy, and impact the movement has had in Tunisia.
Alma & I compared notes, sitting on the lawn during the opening ceremony of the WSF. Having both been involved in the Black and Brown unity merger that formed Causa Justa :: Just Cause, we are no strangers to unity-building and convergence. The long opening march of the Forum had just concluded as the sun set. We reminisced about the last time we had marched as many hours, with that many people, while watching the sunset: when Occupy Oakland shut down the Port of Oakland on November 2, 2011. We marveled at the fact that here we were, listening to speeches in Arabic, French, and Portuguese, declaring some of the same things we heard at the port: "The system is rigged! War is the enemy of the poor!"

I was a bit star-struck to meet the unbelievably brave social movement Left of Tunisia. They were everyday, ordinary people, who took humongous risks, and made historic, extraordinary change. "Did you march down this street when you were fighting Ben Ali?" I asked Yousra, a young Tunisian woman marching next to me at the WSF opening march. "Oh...many, many times" she answered, "This is our Tahrir Square; we came here every day." I asked her to tell me more, but instead of recounting the glory days, a melancholy look flickered over my new friend's khol-lined eyes. "Now I can vote. But I have no one to vote for." She looked right and left to see who was in earshot. "Chokri Belaid. We would all like to vote for him. Now that he has been killed, we have no one to vote for."
A longtime community organizer and human rights lawyer, Belaid represented the Tunisian Left's aspirations for social and economic justice. Belaid was the coordinator of the Popular Front, an alliance of twelve progressive political parties who came together to consolidate the various tendencies of the previously divided Tunisian Left in order to compete more effectively in the upcoming elections. He was uniting the Left. He was the progressive social movement's most viable candidate. And he was assassinated shortly before the Forum.

His shocking murder and the World Social Forum took place in the context of a fierce fight over the legacy of Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution." Under dictator Ben Ali, both the secular Left and the Islamist Right, were highly repressed. Both had their political parties banned and much of their leadership languished in prison or exile for decades. When the Tunisian people won the revolution and Ben Ali fell, the victory of expelling the dictatorship also created a power vacuum. The money and the politics of the Saudi and Qatari 1% flooded the country, propping up the Islamists and propelling a formerly banned Islamist party called Ennahda into power. The well-resourced Islamists are claiming the revolution belongs to them.

Ennahda, originally inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is considered a moderate Islamic party today. But Tunisian Leftists say Ennahda is creating space for fundamentalist Islamists (often referred to as Salafists) to carry out violent attacks on secular society and build their base. Ennahda has downplayed their economic agenda, which seeks to accelerate neoliberal economic reforms like privatization and eliminating the social safety net. Just this last week they agreed on a deal with the IMF for a loan of almost 2 billion US dollars. This loan, of course, has neoliberal strings attached. As Rob Prince puts it in his article Tunisia's Salafists, "Strangely, during the Ben Ali years, Tunisia was put forth as a poster child for IMF structural adjustment programs, programs which helped undermine the country's economy and trigger the uprising. In the post Ben Ali period, Tunisia is again being held up as a model!! – this time a model of transition (but from what to what?)"

The Tunisian Left now has to contend with a party in charge that support neo-liberal economic policies and US strategic interests in the Middle East and Africa, and creates space for fundamentalist Islamists who want to put in place severe restrictions on the rights of women based on an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.
Meanwhile, the most active elements amongst the social forces that overthrew Ben Ali were many first-time progressive youth activists, along with the surviving remnants of political parties of the Left. What many in the US are surprised to learn is that although a majority of Tunisians are Muslim, the progressive movement is solidly (and militantly) secular. A common slogan aimed at the Islamist government who claims to "govern on behalf of God" is "Govern for The People!"

There are other social elements as well. People have seen how the US uses negative stereotypes and racist ideas about Islam to justify military intervention, oppression, and exploitation of societies that are predominantly Muslim. Many Tunisians understandably react to that by rising up in defense of their culture. This cultural opposition often lacks a fully formed political vision, and without clear positions against the oppression of women, it becomes a ripe ground for recruitment into Islamist tendencies.
But cultural opposition can also lead towards a coherent progressive vision, if it is informed by Left nationalism, feminism, and a strong underpinning of economic justice. There are deep connections to make between struggles for self-determination, and the fight for women's rights.

A Senegalese social movement leader made those connections at the WSF women's assembly: "Colonialism excluded us from democratic rights over our land, over our bodies, over our future. After direct colonialism, economic colonialism kept corrupt dictators in power all over our continent." She shook her fist from the podium of the packed room. "Anyone who says they want independence from colonialism, but wants to marginalize women, and exploit women workers is carrying out the legacy of colonialism!" The crowd roared in support, and chanting broke out in French: "Sol! Sol! Sol! Solidarité! Avec les femmes du monde entire!" (Solidarity with all the women of the world!).

The conversation about women's rights continued throughout the forum. Late night political debates raged about how best to confront the neoliberal transformation afoot, shrouded in the name of religion and tradition. Over green-tinted bottles of watery Celtia lager, deeply committed pro-democracy activists revealed their deepest fears: had overthrowing Ben Ali improved things? In a country where grinding poverty was uncommon, where social safety net programs existed, and where equal pay for equal work was written into the constitution since the 50s, had the political space opened by the revolution served a progressive agenda, or had it become an opening for the fundamentalist right wing to take over?

I heard from progressive Muslims about the way their faith and culture were being manipulated and distorted. I could relate – in the US, the right-wing Tea Party makes the Bible sounds like the gospel of Margaret Thatcher, and sometimes it feels like the right wing has taken out a patent on Christianity that no one is able to break. I started to understand just how difficult the situation is for progressives in Tunisia, North Africa, and the Middle East. I began to appreciate how the "shock doctrine" was playing out. How in the midst of political instability, corporations and their advocates were rushing in to restructure the economy of Tunisia and rig it in their favor. And the role conservative Islamists were playing in propping up those economic changes. The Women's Dynamic process at the forum captured a collective analysis of this and the broader picture of women's oppression and exploitation on a global level, in their final declaration. Thee core themes were: neoliberal austerity, wars of empire, and fundamentalisms. Meanwhile, despite it's rhetoric about women's rights, the US has perpetuated war and occupation throughout the region, and been nothing but supportive of the Islamist government in Tunisia, concerned only about profit via neoliberal economic policies.

"Feminists Unite! Women's Rights in the Age of Empire", the formal session that GGJ and the World March of Women organized, revealed even more about the challenges the women's movement faces in Tunisia. We heard from Suheir, a veteran feminist organizer fighting to maintain Tunisia's profoundly progressive policies on women's rights in the new constitution. She described a "curious alliance" between neoliberal capital and Muslim fundamentalists, where women ultimately pay double the cost, losing ground both on social and economic levels. She challenged feminists from the global north to reject the US narrative that claims that democracy requires free trade, and to confront US militarism and intervention in the Middle East and North Africa. In learning directly from Tunisian feminist organizers, we started to build the peer-to-peer grassroots relationships that Internationalist Feminism depends upon. A student leader named Sham shared the vision of the youth who participated in Tunisia's revolution. "We want a society based on equality, social justice, and economic justice," she said. "Feminism that doesn't embrace the struggle for economic justice, that does not address questions of class, is just an embellishment added to a picture that doesn't fundamentally change. That's not what we fought for, that's not what people died for in the square." The session also highlighted what is so unique about the forum. When Tunisian women paid tribute to Chokri Belaid's militant feminist widow, South African women broke into song to pay tribute! Where else would such an exchange be possible, except the World Social Forum?

My experience at the WSF gave me a deeper understanding of the challenges looming for the progressive movement, and for feminists in particular, in Tunisia and in the whole region. The Social Movements Assembly declared "we are at a crossroads where retrograde and conservative forces want to stop the processes initiated two years ago with the uprisings in the Maghreb-Mashreq [North Africa & Middle East] region that helped to bring down dictatorships and to challenge the neoliberal system imposed on the peoples. These uprisings have spread to all continents of the world inspiring indignation and occupation of public places." As inspiring and outgunned as David facing Goliath, progressives in North Africa and the Middle East have no choice but to fight, despite the odds stacked against them. The Tunisian social movements hosted the forum as a strategic move to gain space for the Left, to challenge neoliberal globalization, and to build common cause with people from the rest of Africa, and all over the world. Halima, a forum organizer and women's movement leader summarized the forum in a very personal way. "After losing Chokri, we didn't know if we could go on. Now that everyone has come here, we know we are not alone. We must continue to fight!"

Like Tunisia, the World Social Forum is also under construction. It is just the beginning of a process of becoming a more coherent, progressive, and global "we." This process ultimately needs to lead us towards joint action. The same banks that we at Causa Justa :: Just Cause confront alongside women trying to save their homes are the ones restructuring Tunisia's economy in a way that impoverishes women. Our movements need to reach towards international scale and impact, so these connections and solidarity can take organizational form. The world's 1% have their World Trade Organization, their World Bank, their agreements and coordinated plans. We, the global 99%, need that scale of functioning too. It's the only way we can win the internationalist feminist change we need.


Originally published in the Brooklyn Rail

Looking north, east, or west from the roof of my Williamsburg apartment building, you can see plenty of steel-and-glass condos either recently built or nearing completion. But to the south, red brick projects dominate the skyline. At the moment immune from surrounding real estate market pressures, these high-rise, featureless housing blocks are what help keep Williamsburg south of Broadway multi-ethnic and blue collar—a world apart from the increasingly homogenized cultural extension of Manhattan along the waterfront.

New Yorkers might not believe it, but it’s a fact: We have the best public housing system in the nation. Yes, the one with all the broken elevators, causing a five-year-old boy to fall down a shaft to his death in 2008. The one that covered up $1 billion in federal funds while residents waited for basic repairs. And yes, the one where residents waited for months for heat and hot water after Hurricane Sandy.

The system is the best primarily because it still exists. From coast to coast, major cities have destroyed their high-rise projects, outsourced management, and embarked on public-private alternative housing models. Cabrini-Green in Chicago, once one of the nation’s most famous projects, is now a near-empty plain. Atlanta tore down most of the Techwood homes to make way for the 1996 Olympics. And New Orleans reduced its housing stock by half before Hurricane Katrina, according to John Arena, author of Driven from New Orleans (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), who maintains that the massive flooding of the city was “a great opportunity to finish the rest off.”

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) never partook in the post-Reagan effort to destroy the New Deal’s residential monuments in the name of urban renewal. With 403,000 residents—larger than the populations of Oakland, Cleveland, and Minneapolis, and accounting for eight percent of the city’s rental units—NYCHA properties are also physically integrated into the city and not wholly isolated on the wrong side of the tracks. “Public housing is not everywhere in New York City, but it’s in every borough,” says Nicholas Bloom, author of Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). “Politicians tend to defend public housing and want it to be better rather than get rid of it.”

But privatization is creeping in. NYCHA has proposed leasing off park and courtyard space in otherwise prime locales such as the Lower East Side to luxury developers in order to bring in revenue for the authority, which is facing a $40 million operational deficit and a $6.6 billion capital deficit; with sequestration hitting federal funding, those totals will likely grow. Even so, residents haven’t been adequately informed about the proposed transformation. “The process is just moving way too fast. This is extremely anxiety producing,” says councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who sits on the public housing committee. “The residents in the developments are overwhelmed with information and are trying to understand what’s going on. I don’t think there’s been enough community input built into the process.”

What tenants rights advocates fear is that the proposed leasing is only the beginning of a delayed plan for New York City to follow the rest of the country and destroy public housing in order to hand the land over to developers. For decades, the real estate industry—firms that develop, build, and market high-end residences and commercial space—hasn’t had a crisis to exploit in order to make that happen. In that sense, NYCHA’s woes present a golden opportunity.

Real estate developers in this city are accustomed to getting their way, with community approval processes for new construction considered mere tiresome formalities. Neighborhoods once considered off limits to the gentrifying class can easily be converted into fertile soil for speculation. NYCHA is one of the few institutions that can decelerate the invasion. Consider the Lower East Side. Developers have built nearly all they can, while along the river and just below Delancey Street a sea of housing projects provides a home to thousands of lower and working class people.

Unlike other public housing agencies across the nation, NYCHA had been in good financial health until 2007. In the 1990s, Governor George Pataki terminated operating subsidies to public housing, and in 2004, Bloomberg followed suit. According to Victor Bach, senior housing analyst at the Community Service Society, as those cutbacks took place, the federal government also reformulated its funding model, which resulted in less cash for NYCHA. The economic crisis in the agency began, and as it has worsened, real estate sharks have waited for the moment to pounce. “There’s definitely a strong developer interest in these properties.” Bach says. “That’s part of the reason the pressure is being applied to NYCHA in the media, in order to declare it incompetent and allow it to be taken over more closely by private interests.”

The inside man for the real estate world is NYCHA chairman John Rhea, who has a long career in public administration. Just kidding. Before taking over in 2009, Rhea spent two decades in finance, including as a managing director at Barclays and as a member of the Boston Consulting Group. Incidentally, that same outfit scored a $10 million contract with NYCHA under Rhea to draft a cost-savings report, causing fed housing administrators to open an investigation into a conflict of interest last year.

Beyond simply the possible direct corruption, Rhea’s mere presence, like that of Cathie Black in her short stint as schools chancellor, illustrates the Bloomberg administration’s desire to implement private-sector management in public agencies. It’s clear from his language. Last year before city council, Rhea referred to NYCHA’s “assets,” which provoked an angry response from Gregory Floyd, who is president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents most of the city’s public housing front-line staff. “It seems like they forgot that NYCHA’s assets are not just property,” Floyd told the Council. “They must remember the people call those assets home or their job.”

Such statements surface only when Rhea is available for comment, because he’s often disdainful of public oversight of NYCHA management. In January, the Daily News reported that Rhea failed to show up for city council hearing on NYCHA’s woeful response to Sandy, saying that he had jury duty when he actually didn’t. In his place, the agency dispatched a technocrat with no real answers but whose name, Cecil House, at least suggested that he knew something about the issues.

In addition, as Bach explains, the state senate has approved a Bloomberg-backed measure that would create a NYCHA board serving under the mayor. Since nearly all of the mayoral candidates in the 2013 have the financial backing of real estate interests, developers would surely make their way onto that board, just as they have influenced the governing board of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

As for the leasing proposal, Rachel LaForest, executive director of Right to the City, notes that the proliferation of luxury units invariably would have an adverse effect on the low-income anchor tenants. “The services in the neighborhood change to meet the new needs,” she says. “Mom and pop stores are priced out with the rising rents and what replaces them are more expensive luxury retailers who are not there to feed, clothe, or care for the working family that has to use food stamps or just cannot afford to spend $400 on weekly food shopping.”

And others object to the idea that for-profit management cures waste and corruption. “I’m always a bit uneasy in terms entrusting social welfare policies to the private sector, because it’s not really what drives them,” says Edward Goetz, author of Clearing the Way (Urban Institute Press, 2003), about the downfall of public housing in America. “If you look at the privatization of welfare, you can see examples of scandal and the same types of behavior that we decry about public officials.”

Developers, of course, have considerable influence over what happens in both city and state politics. And the financing of large ventures ropes in private equity investors (e.g. Goldman Sachs) and a vast network of lawyers, architects, construction companies, and engineering firms. Meanwhile, many local media outlets rely on real estate money to stay afloat. Thus, opposing the demands of the industry is a complex task, especially when it comes to defending a mismanaged agency like NYCHA.

Even so, there are in fact alternatives to preserving public housing that don’t involve selling it off to the city’s one percent. Bach notes that each year NYCHA pays $100 million to the city out of its operating budget, most of which goes toward policing, which private landlords get for no extra charge. A smaller chunk goes to the city in exchange for not paying property taxes, but huge non-profit landowners also enjoy not paying those taxes. Such payments to the city, Bach argues, should cease, thereby eliminating the agency’s operating budget deficit.

To tackle the capital deficit, many are advocating that the state and city return to funding the authority. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, change at the federal levels seems impossible, but LaForest points to a bill introduced by Representative Keith Ellison. As she explains it, the bill would “replace the federal mortgage interest deduction with a 15 percent non-refundable tax credit for all mortgages up to $500,000 and use the resulting federal budget savings to increase the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and provide additional funding for the Housing Trust Fund, Section 8, and the Public Housing Capital Fund.”

Such a redistribution of wealth will require a realignment of the city’s political center of gravity. It means electing politicians who see their boss as the public that elects them and not the real estate tycoons who fund them. In order for working class people to remain in the city, we need to maintain our existing public housing stock, and—though it sounds far-fetched—maybe even build more.



Originally posted in the Huffington Post

On Wednesday, community activists and homeowner groups got some good news from Washington. President Obama announced that he was removing Ed DeMarco, the Bush-appointed acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). FHFA regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the bailed-out mortgage financiers that together own or guarantee 60 percent of the nation's mortgages.

For more than a year, activists have waged a "Dump DeMarco" campaign because of his stubborn refusal to help troubled homeowners avoid foreclosure by requiring banks to modify "underwater" mortgages that are higher than the market value of the homes. Under orders from DeMarco, both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have refused to permit banks to write down mortgage principal for underwater homeowners. He called such write-downs a "free lunch" that would discourage homeowners from paying their mortgages.

But Obama's Treasury Department countered that write-downs would save money by reducing the chances homeowners would default on their loans. And a Congressional Budget Office report released Wednesday estimated that even a modest mortgage principal reduction program (reaching only 95,000 homeowners) could save taxpayers up to $2.8 billion.

The Obama administration has said it supports this approach to reset mortgages to fair-market value -- called "principal reduction" -- but until now the president was unwilling to fire DeMarco, who Bush appointed to the position in 2009.

The pressure to oust DeMarco has been mounting from both activists and elected officials frustrated by his intransigence to help consumers and his unwillingness to hold banks accountable for their misdeeds.

"Here's some random idiot who ends up in charge of this agency, who is doing actual damage to the housing industry and my constituents," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) told the Los Angeles Times last year. "He is intransigent, incompetent and should be removed."

"We need to be finding ways to keep people in their homes, not kicking them out," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) at a rally in Minneapolis last month sponsored by Occupy Homes Minnesota. "Other members of Congress and I have taken the extreme but reasonable step of calling for [DeMarco] to be fired. Big banks need to change the way they're doing business in our communities. Enough is enough."

In February, members of the Michigan Organizing Project, a community activist group, placed signs on freeway overpasses across Detroit demanding "Obama: Dump DeMarco." In March, activists disrupted DeMarco's statements before a congressional hearing that was broadcast on C-SPAN.

Last month, nine state attorneys general -- including Eric Schneiderman of New York, Kamala Harris of California, and Martha Coakley of Massachusetts, who last year had pressured major banks to agree to a $25 billion settlement to help troubled homeowners -- urged Obama to replace DeMarco. "Our nation's economy will never fully recover until we address this foreclosure crisis," explained Coakley at the time.

On Sunday, April 21, more than 500 protestors from National People's Action, a nationwide network of community organizing groups, descended on DeMarco's home in Silver Spring, Maryland, a Washington, D.C. suburb, carrying 15-foot puppets of the federal housing official and signs reading "Save Our Homes" and "Dump DeMarco."

Activists have mounted similar protests throughout the country to persuade Obama to oust DeMarco and to raise public awareness about the ongoing housing crisis.

The anti-DeMarco campaign is part of a broader movement to hold Wall Street banks accountable for crashing the economy, destroying the housing wealth of millions of homeowners, and refusing to help families facing foreclosure through no fault of their own. The crusade has been led by a crazy-quilt of community organizations, consumer groups, MoveOn.Org, and unions under the banners of the New Bottom Line, the Home Defenders League, the Coalition for a Fair Settlement, and Americans for Financial Reform.

Beginning around 2000, using a variety of risky, reckless, illegal, and predatory practices, banks preyed on unwitting homeowners, leading to an epidemic of foreclosures by mid-decade. Millions of low-income and middle-class families have watched their major source of wealth stripped away, their neighborhoods decimated by falling property values, their cities devastated by dramatic declines in property tax revenues, and their future economic security destroyed.

Since 2006, more than four million families -- disproportionately people of color -- have lost their homes. Another four million are currently at risk of foreclosure. About 14 million homeowners are now underwater, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. The total amount of underwater mortgage debt is $1.2 trillion.

Almost all of these troubled homeowners are in this predicament through no fault of their own. Housing prices nationwide fell by a third between 2006 and 2012. Families have lost nearly $7 trillion of home equity.

The activists' demand for principal reduction is not a request for charity but a way to reverse the economy's free-fall. If mortgages were reset to the fair-market values of homes, this would not only fix the foreclosure crisis but also pump $71 billion into the economy annually and create over one million jobs a year.

DeMarco has been "the biggest roadblock to our country's economic recovery," said Tracy Van Slyke of the New Bottom Line coalition.

Obama has nominated Congressman Mel Watt, a veteran Democratic congressman from North Carolina, as a permanent nominee to replace DeMarco. First elected in 1992, Watt has served on the financial services committee, where was a strong voice against banks' predatory lending practices.

"Mel Watt has a long history of fighting predatory lending and supporting economic justice," said Vivian Richardson of San Francisco, a leader of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), one of the community groups involved mobilizing homeowners to protest the banking industry's malfeasance. "ACCE is calling upon the Senate for a swift confirmation of Congressman Watt and urging him to support principal reduction as a core strategy to save our communities and jumpstart the economy."

In 2010, Obama nominated Joseph Smith, at the time North Carolina's banking regulator, to replace DeMarco, but Senate Republicans refused to confirm him. Senate Republicans will likely try to block Watt's nomination, too, in order to keep DeMarco in the position. Many Republicans -- who have close ties to the banking industry and oppose principle reduction -- are likely to criticize Watt for his longstanding criticism of banks' discriminatory lending practices.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a longtime critic of the banking industry, praised Obama's choice of Watt and called on the White House to immediately remove DeMarco from his post, rather than waiting for the Senate to approve his replacement. "Under DeMarco's leadership, the FHFA has refused repeatedly -- often with cold indifference -- to work with families struggling to save their homes," said the former Harvard law professor who specialized in bankruptcy law.

"Families deserve an FHFA that pursues helpful policies like principal write-downs and abandons senseless rules like those that prevent foreclosed homes from being re-sold to their original owners," Warren said.