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Outrage over federal lawsuit on vacant properties ordinance

A federal agency’s legal challenge to the city’s vacant properties ordinance is “astounding,” said Braden Listmann of Action Now.

The group is one of several community organizations making up the Foreclosure Convening, the coalition that earlier this year won a new provision holding lenders and servicers responsible for maintaining vacant homes following foreclosure.

The Federal Housing Finance Authority filed a lawsuit Tuesday arguing that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are exempt from local supervision or regulation.  The two corporations, which are supervised by FHFA, hold mortgages on over 250,000 Chicago homes and use over 200 banks and mortgage companies to service the loans.

Listmann said that Fannie and Freddie’s contracts require servicers to abide by state and local laws and ordinances.

He points out that Fannie and Freddie have refused to modify troubled mortgages with principal reductions.  “Instead of writing down $20,000 on the principal and getting the rest back over 30 years, they’re foreclosing on homes,” he said.  “After the buildings become vacant and fall apart, they’re selling them for $10,000 or $20,000 – enough to cover the servicers’ fees.”

“And now with this lawsuit, the FHFA is admitting that they don’t even want to take care of the vacant properties that result from their policies,” he said.

Mayor Emanuel has vowed to defend the ordinance – and Wednesday morning, Cook County commissioners unanimously passed a similiar measure.

“These abandoned vacant properties are left to deteriorate and attract drug and gang activity, violence, graffiti, garbage and debris,” according to a statement from the Foreclosure Convening.

“They threaten the safety of children, neighbors, police and firefighters, lower the property values of surrounding homes and drain the city’s budget. Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pick up the bill for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s negligence.”

Championing neighborhood schools

It’s now ten years since the launch of Renaissance 2010, the CPS campaign that closed scores of neighborhood schools and poured resources into scores of new charters.

The result?  Virtually no improvement in academic performance, according to the Chicago Consortium on School Research.  Better-resourced charters performing at the same level as neighborhood schools.  Worse, CPS’s racial achievement gap has only gotten larger.

The response from new city and school leadership?  They say they want much, much more of the same:  many more closings, many more charters.

What’s the alternative?  Nine community organizations are proposing a Neighborhood Agenda for Schools at an event on Tuesday.  They argue that since the vast majority of CPS students attend neighborhood schools, that’s where available resources should be focused.

The endorsers include groups that have long histories of involvement with schools, including nationally-recognized parent involvement, teacher training, community schools, anti-violence and student mentoring work.  Their recommendations flow from their extensive experience.

The groups include Action Now, Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Enlace Chicago, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Organization of the Northeast, Southwest Organizing Project, and Target Area Development Corporation.  The College of Education of NEIU has also signed on.

The agenda will be released at a public event with 60 community activists from across the city, Tuesday, November 22, 10:30 a.m., at LSNA, 2840 N. Milwaukee.

‘An amazing convergence’

It’s been a remarkable week in Chicago, a nonstop whirl of protests targeting the financial industry and government collusion with corporations, and demanding action on jobs, housing, and schools.

Coming Friday:  a rally for “jobs not cuts,” with MoveOn, Stand Up Chicago, Chicago Jobs With Justice and Occupy Chicago joining forces, at noon at the Federal Plaza.

Occupy Chicago gets much credit for capturing the public’s imagination – and for their 24-7 commitment and important organizational innovations.  But it was community groups and unions that staged some of the most dramatic and creative actions here this week.

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Lawbreaking bank calls the cops

A Lawndale activist who was arrested Tuesday while calling on Bank of America to follow the law – and fix code violations in foreclosed properties – has posted her comments at Action Now’s blog.

“I was in shock,” says Marsha Godard, 52, a mother and a Bank of America account holder.  “How can my own bank arrest me for trying to speak to them about vacant properties that are in my neighborhood and all over the city of Chicago?

“Bank of America is not only ruining the lives of homeowners, the safety of communities and America’s economy, they are now arresting people like me that question their destructive actions.”

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On TIF reform, Bronzeville has ideas

Bronzeville residents turned out in impressive numbers for last Thursday’s public forum of the Mayor’s Task Force on TIF Reform, which was held at the Bronzeville Chicago Military Academy.

Other communities were represented, but more forums in additional communities would certainly offer the task force greater breadth of public input.  But last week’s was the only hearing that is planned.

Bronzeville is one of the city’s most heavily TIFed communities, with thirteen TIF districts covering 80 percent of the area, many created to finance CHA redevelopments – with more in the works had Mayor Daley won the 2016 Olympic games, according to Housing Bronzeville.

Sheila Carter testified on behalf of the group that TIFs have “failed local taxpayers” in their lack of transparency and accountability.  It’s been “virtuallly impossible for local residents to understand how TIF monies were being raised and spent in our area,” she said, suggesting “this confusion and lack of documentation was intentional.”

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A convention for Chicago’s grassroots

It had the look and the excitement of a political convention, and indeed it was:  a convention of Chicago’s grassroots.

Markers identified sections for delegations from dozens of community groups, and most sections were filled with people wearing brightly colored, matching t-shirts—blue for Action Now in the back corner, Maroon for KOCO in the front, yellow for Lakeview Action Council, orange for Logan Square Neighborhood Association.  Green for Albany Park, orange for Brighton Park.  On one side was a group of young people from Woodlawn, near a section of people, many in wheelchairs, from Access Living.

At the beginning of the New Chicago 2011 mayoral forum, held Tuesday evening at the UIC Forum, members took turns calling out their organizations from the podium, and in turn each section erupted in cheers.

It’s likely to be the largest crowd for a mayoral forum all season – well over 2,000 people — but for some reason, you won’t hear much about it in the city’s mainstream media. (So far Mike Flannery at Fox News Chicago seems to be the only exception, though his report manages to focus on a candidate who wasn’t there; Progress Illinois has some video clips.)

***

Miguel del Valle drew the sharpest distinctions with the pundit’s putative frontrunner Rahm Emanuel — who had declined an invitation and was tied up at a hearing on his residency anyway — and Patricia Watkins emerged as a serious candidate with several specific proposals.

Carol Moseley Braun and Danny Davis stressed their experience with the groups’ issues; for Davis it stretched from his role as the original sponsor of living wage legislation in the City Council long ago to current sponsor of the DREAM Act in Congress.  James Meeks stressed TIF reform and his work for equitable school funding — but didn’t mention the call for vouchers at the heart of the educational program he released Wednesday morning.

Gery Chico drew boos when was asked about food deserts and started talking about Walmart.  He and Meeks left early.

In his opening statement, Del Valle drew the clearest line between his campaign and Emanuel’s, telling the audience, “You understand the need for a neighborhood agenda, not a downtown agenda, not a big business agenda, but a neighborhood agenda.”

When the candidates were asked about immigration reform, Del Valle drew the most sustained applause of the evening, attacking Emanuel as “the one individual most responsible for blocking immigration reform, as a congressman, as chief of staff,” continuing to a passionate crescendo over the rising cheers of the crowd: “How can we expect him to protect the residents of this city’s neighborhoods?”

He also made a clearest distinction with Emanuel’s program for schools: “We can’t continue to set up parallel systems of education, on one track selective enrollment, magnets and charters, on the other track neighborhood schools. It’s time to strengthen neighborhood schools.”

Watkins opened by referencing her background of community organizing, shared with the audience:  “I have marched with you for immigration reform, for criminal justice reform… We have done more as organizers than any politician that you know.”

She called for a program of social investment bonds to encourage “venture philanthropists” to tackle social problems and for a city effort to develop railroad industry jobs.  On immigration she demanded that “ICE stop trolling in Cook County Jail, because we have to keep our families together.”

The candidates were asked about youth issues, immigration, schools, the living wage, and an ordinance devoting TIF funds to affordable housing.

Asked about schools (and school closings specifically), Braun mentioned her sponsorship of school reform legislation that created local school councils, said no closings should happen without community input, and attacked Chico for his record as Board of Education president in the early days of mayoral control.

Chico gave a spirited defense, saying schools were on an upswing when he left his post, and “we built 65 new schools – we didn’t close schools, we built schools.”

Like Davis, Watkins backed an elected school board and an educator to head CPS. “Decisions are being made for us and we are not at the table,” she said.

Her position on school closings and “turnarounds” – “no school needs to close; we can turn around our schools from within” – seemed to contrast with her previous work with groups that turn around schools from outside.  (More here.)

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It was the neighborhood activists who introduced the various issues who gave the most moving talks:  Jessie Belton of Southwest Youth Collaborative talked about a neighborhood youth who was attacked on the street after being turned away from a youth center that was closed.  Cindy Agustin, a University of Chicago senior whose family moved to Back of the Yards when she was three, talked about the impact of her undocumented status on her dream of teaching elementary school.

West Sider Takaya Nelson, representing Action Now, said that growing up, “I never though college was an option,” and now — as a CPS teacher recruited and trained through the Grow Your Own program — she encourages children to expand their ambitions.

Cira Isidiro, from Illinois Hunger Coalition, described her heartbreak explaining to her daughter why there isn’t enough to eat in the refrigerator, and Debra Geirin, a resident and activist with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, talked about the joy of getting their own place after she and her husband had to live with her mother and her sister’s family for five years.  “A lot of families are doubling and tripling up because there is not enough affordable housing,” she said.

Communities seek Olympics benefits

Hundreds of South Side residents rallied at Michael Reese Hospital yesterday with community organizations calling for inclusion in Olympics planning and a legally-binding community benefits agreement to be included in Chicago’s final application for the 2016 Olympics.

With a dozen community and labor organizations signed on, Communities for an Equitable Olympics 2016 has written Mayor Daley and Chicago 2016 chair Patrick Ryan seeking a meeting, said Gregory Kelley of SEIU Healthcare.

The group supports the Olympics bid but said in a statement that “we do not believe that the Olympics should come to Chicago without a community-led benefits agreement process.”

“We don’t want to sit on an advisory committee; we want a seat at the planning table,” said Deshun Bray of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “Our communities and our lives are no games.”

“We want to make sure the winds of change don’t turn into a hurricane for our communities,” said Denise Dixon of Action Now.

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Direct action against foreclosures

Most advocates for families with troubled mortgages say some cases are unsalvagable. Not Action Now.

“We accept anyone, even the most difficult cases,” said Madeline Talbott of Action Now, a grassroots membership organization of low-income families based in Englewood, West Englewood, Austin and Little Village.

Calls to the group about mortgage problems “are increasing dramatically,” Talbott said. Action Now refers homeowners to counseling if it’s an option; if not they take a busload of members to the loan servicer’s office and “sit in and raise hell,” she said.

“Sitting in works,” she said. “It gets results.”

If there’s no local office for the loan servicer, the group encourages the Illinois Attorney General’s office to take action.

“Homeowners think it’s a matter of humilitation and shame; we think it’s a huge scandal brought on by lenders,” Talbott said. “We help people see it’s not a personal problem, it’s a public issue.”

Rather than being embarrassed, she says, homeowners in trouble “should be outraged at the injustice.”

The crisis stems from predatory lending, and Talbott lays much blame on the Bush administration, which “opposed any efforts to clamp down on predatory lending” and “completely opened the floodgates. It’s a systemwide failure.”

“You buy a house once or twice in a lifetime,” Talbott said. “How are you supposed to be an expert on all the scams they can run on you?”

“When we started organizing in Englewood in the ’80s there was a huge number of abandoned buildings.” Redlining meant there was no access to credit and it was very difficult to transact real estate deals. “We fought for CRA [the Community Reinvestment Act] and established lines of credit. Things changed and you could start buying and selling property through normal channels.”

Then “the subprimers found loopholes in the regulations, and nobody stopped them. The predatory lenders came in with the line than anybody could get a house.

“Now we’re back to just as many abandoned homes as ever.”

“What we need is an across-the-board solution,” Talbott said, with new federal legislation and regulation. “But for that we may need a new president and Congress, and we’re going to lose tens of thousands of homes in Illinois this year.”

In the meantime, the state should require mandatory mediation before foreclosure. “If you can get to mediation, you can often resolve these issues,” Talbott said.

Action Now has also prepared language for a city ordinance requiring owners of empty properties to pay fines and fees and acquire a license. That would give lenders an incentive to negotiate a resolution with homeowners.

Sit-ins also provide such incentives, and Action Now plans to continue with direct action.

“We really think this is a problem that was caused by bad guys, and we’re going to go after them,” said Talbott.



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