A Tale of Two Approaches: How Cities Respond to Domestic Violence

Across the country, victims of domestic violence struggle to secure housing after escaping abuse. As a result, domestic violence is among the leading causes of homelessness in the United States. Despite the national scope of the crisis, cities and local governments are often the ones tasked with directly addressing the problem in their communities. Their solutions at times could not be more different, both in terms of their objectives and effects on survivors of domestic violence.


Take New York City, for example, which recently began a rent subsidy program to move victims of domestic violence out of shelters and into affordable housing.  The program further supports victims by connecting them with a team of counselors, legal aid attorneys, and other service providers. Additionally, after correlating homicide rates with increasing incidents of domestic violence, the New York Police Department dedicated resources to targeting and decreasing the numbers of homicides involving intimate partners in the City.

New York’s approach—aimed at giving survivors stable housing, support, and protection—stands in stark contrast to a recent policy trend among over 1,400 other local governments that have enacted crime-free housing programs and nuisance property ordinances. These ordinances increase homelessness and housing instability among victims of domestic violence by requiring landlords to evict entire households—including victims—for suspected criminal activity on rental properties., Landlords are often incentivized to evict all of the tenants rather than risking fines or the loss of their rental license, even in instances where eviction is not required by the ordinance. 

Many cities also penalize victims for calling the police by deeming those calls a “nuisance” that the property owner must abate by evicting the tenants.  As a result, victims are effectively forced to suffer silently or risk homelessness. A major barrier encountered by advocates is breaking the cycle of silence, as many victims of domestic violence already struggle with shame or fear that calling the police may lead to retaliation or further harm.. By linking calling the police to losing your housing, these ordinances undermine the long-standing efforts of domestic violence advocates to ensure that victims feel safe and empowered to call the police. As a result, they are  decreasing public safety in communities throughout the country.  Recognizing how these ordinances harm victims, Pennsylvania recently passed a law prohibiting municipalities from punishing victims of crime for calling for help.  

This penalization of victims for calling the police for the acts of their abusers is also disproportionately felt by low-income women of color, and therefore raises serious fair housing concerns. A 2013 study of Milwaukee’s nuisance ordinance found that women from inner-city, minority communities are bearing the brunt of its enforcement, noting that these women are forced to make the impossible choice “between calling the police on their abusers (only to risk eviction) or staying in their apartments (only to risk more abuse).”

Though New York City is on a promising path towards ensuring that more victims of domestic violence will be safe in their homes, the majority of cities across the country are choosing the wrong approach—too often leading to tragic consequences for women.
 

Rehabilitation and Community Renewal: Including Individuals with Criminal Records in Neighborhood Restabilization Efforts

The recent foreclosure crisis had the most severe impact on low-income and minority neighborhoods. Although the number of new foreclosure filings is now declining, the poor neighborhoods hit hardest continue to struggle to overcome the impact of housing abandonment and disinvestment. Vacant and blighted properties still plague neighborhoods, families are still fighting to stay in their homes, and hundreds of thousands of properties still enter the foreclosure process each year.

Many policymakers and local governments have responded with concern about the secondary effects of property abandonment and vacancy, particularly increases in disorder and crime. Neighborhoods affected by the foreclosure crisis experience physical deterioration and residential turnover, leading to a perception that the neighborhood lacks protection and “eyes on the street.” Vacant properties may also provide a safe haven for crime. In response, many local governments and housing authorities have relied on policies and practices that target individuals with criminal records as a threat to their neighborhoods. Ironically, however, these policies in fact increase displacement and crime in the communities they are meant to protect. Without stable housing, many men and women with criminal histories struggle to maintain mental health treatment, overcome substance abuse, and secure employment—which increases the likelihood they will re-offend.

Housing instability remains one of the primary barriers to individuals’ successful reintegration into communities after interaction with the criminal justice system, but policies that limit housing opportunities for individuals with criminal records are still widespread. Instead of mandating individualized screening that considers any mitigating circumstances behind an applicant’s criminal history, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development grants substantial discretion to both public housing authorities and private landlords renting government-subsidized units. This discretion is often abused by public housing authorities, whose implementation and enforcement of overly restrictive local policies leads many individuals and families to be unnecessarily excluded from federally subsidized housing.

Individuals with criminal records also encounter discrimination in the private rental market, as many landlords employ criminal records checks as a method of screening applicants. Some admissions policies used by private landlords bar admission to applicants with criminal records of any kind—including records consisting only of arrests, or decades-old convictions for minor offenses. Policies enacted by local governments compound this problem by putting pressure on landlords to keep properties “crime-free.” Over 100 municipalities in Illinois alone have enacted crime-free rental housing ordinances in recent years, penalizing landlords for suspected criminal activity on their properties.

Policies and practices that exclude individuals with criminal records from stable housing will only serve to increase homelessness and jeopardize safety in our communities. Communities that develop partnerships with men and women who have interacted with the criminal justice system, on the other hand, may be able to fight the problems of blight, crime, and destabilization. This alternative approach has been adopted by the Green ReEntry Program—an interfaith collaboration run by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs, and the Southwest Organizing Project in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood.

Chicago Lawn was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and is still experiencing its effects. In 2013, the long-term vacancy rate in Chicago Lawn was nearly twice as high as in the rest of Chicago. One three-square-mile area alone had 479 vacant homes. As a result, civic institutions in Chicago Lawn have suffered, and neighbors have opted to move away from the community rather than to invest in abandoned properties. Instead of working to keep individuals with criminal histories out of the neighborhood, the Green ReEntry Program has partnered with them to develop a creative solution. The program employs men and women with criminal records to convert vacant properties in Chicago Lawn into affordable, environmentally friendly housing. This redeveloped housing then serves as a stable place for them to call home.

The Green ReEntry Program recently acquired a vacant building that had been marked for demolition after a series of criminal incidents took place on the property. The building was a site for drug dealing and prostitution, and a recent sexual assault galvanized the community to do something. The Green ReEntry Network—comprised of neighbors, priests, imams, and rabbis—organized to acquire the property and worked with individuals with criminal records to rehabilitate it and to give them a place to live. The Chicago Lawn building now includes eco-friendly insulation, efficient appliances, and a backyard vegetable garden. The basement will serve as a public space for community meetings. The men and women living in the rehabilitated Chicago Lawn building are settling into their community, and actively participating in the process of improving it. The Green ReEntry Program is now working to acquire two additional properties in the neighborhood to retrofit.

The Green ReEntry Program’s approach represents an interesting model of rehabilitation that could hold promise for other neighborhoods across the country. The model is based on the recognition that finally moving past the devastation of the foreclosure crisis will require a unified effort, while continued exclusion will only increase homelessness and perpetuate crime in our communities.

 

Giving People a Second Chance at Home: Why Rental Admission Policies Should Follow the Progression of Employment Policies

This blog post was coauthored by Todd Belcore, Community Justice Lead Attorney at the Shriver Center.

Rental property owners who utilize “blanket bans,” which typically deny admission outright to anyone with a record of criminal conviction or even just a history of arrests, need to take a look at what’s happening with similar blanket bans in employment. 

This past summer Illinois became the
fifth state to enact a “ban the box” law for private employers. Most employers can no longer ask about a person’s criminal history on the initial application for employment. Only after an individual is considered a qualified candidate for the job can the employer consider a person’s criminal background. Individuals in states with “ban the box” laws have both an incentive to become qualified for job opportunities and a legitimate chance to sell themselves to a prospective employer so they can get the jobs they need to take care of themselves and their families.

“Ban the Box” laws don’t just give people who have turned their lives around a chance to work; they are also good for employers. Employers who don’t rule applicants out based on criminal history have access to a broader pool of applicants from which they can hire the best candidate for the jobs. Moreover, this hiring practice helps employers avoid possible violation of federal civil rights laws relating to employment. (
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has promulgated guidance
noting that blanket hiring bans of individuals with criminal and/or arrest histories could violate civil rights laws.)

Employment-related blanket bans disproportionately harm minorities, who have greater contact with the criminal justice system despite not actually being more likely to commit crime—especially as it relates to drug offenses. As a result, blanket bans relating to criminal history can be a proxy for discrimination according to race.

While employers in states with “ban the box” laws can ultimately reject applicants with criminal records, they may only do so after an individualized analysis of each applicant’s qualifications. This evolution in thinking honors the value of giving people second chances and goes a long way towards reintegrating people into society and advancing civil rights.    

Unfortunately, the progress made in eliminating employment-related blanket bans has not influenced similar bans instituted by property owners in rental housing. In fact, housing-related blanket bans have actually become more commonplace in recent years and have expanded to bar not just persons with conviction histories, but also individuals who have nothing more than an arrest on their record.

These housing-related blanket bans have become so pervasive that in 2011, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Sean Donovan urged housing providers to use their discretion in admitting persons with criminal history to housingYet a 2011-12 report of Illinois affordable housing providers found that this discretion was essentially used to enact far-reaching criminal background check admission policies. For example, some rental housing admission policies deny admission to anyone who has ever been arrested for anything in his or her lifetime, or impose 100-year criminal background checks on applicants. Moreover, municipal rental crime-free ordinances, which require landlords to conduct criminal background checks of all rental applicants, have proliferated. These ordinances may prevent rental housing applicants from living in certain parts of the country entirely. 

Beyond just affecting an individual’s ability to obtain housing for themselves and their loved ones, these housing bans also create serious obstacles to gaining employment, because the lack of a permanent address can make finding a job next to impossible. In that regard, housing-related bans erect the same type of civil rights impediments the EEOC identified with respect to employment-related bans.

Right now, too many people are forced to go without housing simply because of policies that may violate civil rights and that do not recognize the broader notion that people can turn their lives around. Thankfully, that can change. HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity should issue guidance, similar to the EEOC guidance, making clear that some of these housing-related policies violate civil rights laws. New HUD Secretary Julian Castro should also go beyond what his predecessor did and limit the use of arrest records and lifetime bans for minor and non-violent offenses. Affordable housing providers should follow the lead of agencies like the Chicago Housing Authority, which recently began a pilot program to allow persons with criminal histories the chance to move back in with their families. Finally, laws should also be enacted to bar the blanket bans in housing, including the use of arrest records to deny admission to rental housing.  Because everyone deserves to have a place they can call home.


Joelle Ballam-Schwan contributed to this blog post.

 

   

The Role of Unemployment Insurance in Keeping People Housed

As further evidence that the foreclosure crisis is coming to a close, July 2014 marked the 46th consecutive month of year-over-year decreased foreclosure activity in the U.S. While Illinois still experienced the fourth highest level of foreclosure activity among the states, foreclosure activity was still down from a year ago, for the 20th consecutive month. As the crisis improves nationally, it is important to assess what has worked and not worked in bringing relief. Federal programs targeting families in distress show a broad reach but perhaps less impact than hoped. And one new study has illuminated how unemployment insurance appears to have played a surprisingly important role in curbing foreclosures during the Great Recession. 

Predictably, the billions of dollars spent to prevent foreclosures through federal recovery programs have had a positive impact. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) program saved nearly a million households from foreclosure. Moreover, through March of this year, the federal Hardest Hit Fund (HHF) spent $3.6 billion to help over 178,000 households avoid foreclosure. These programs and others such as those funded by Department of Justice settlements directly target families in distress and have made some of the on-the-ground difference communities need. But, while we should continue to make programs like HAMP and HHF available to families at risk of foreclosure, these programs did fall short of their goals and served far fewer families than initially planned.   

A loss of income undeniably impacts a household’s ability to pay the mortgage, but the receipt of unemployment insurance benefits has not previously been considered as a tool for foreclosure prevention. A July 2014 report on a study from the Federal Reserve and the Kellogg School of Management may change that. The study found a direct correlation between a state’s extension of unemployment insurance benefits and a decline in mortgage delinquency and default, and foreclosure-related relocations and evictions. 

According to the study, unemployment insurance benefits in states with higher maximums prevented significant numbers of delinquencies among laid-off workers. Where unemployment insurance benefits were higher, foreclosure-related evictions were cut almost in half. Moreover, federal measures that extended the length of unemployment insurance during the recent recession also prevented delinquencies by similar rates. 

These results underscore the significant role that unemployment insurance can have in preventing unemployed homeowners from losing their homes. The researchers found that, as a result of unemployment insurance extensions between 2008 and 2013, approximately 2.7 million delinquencies were averted, and 1.4 million foreclosures prevented. Thus, unemployment insurance helped more homeowners than other federal foreclosure prevention programs, and should be considered as a key foreclosure prevention strategy. 

The benefits of unemployment insurance don’t end there. The research additionally found that increased unemployment insurance benefits resulted in better credit access for laid-off workers, both in terms of credit availability and lower interest rates. The study also revealed more dramatic benefits to lower-income households, in particular households earning less than $35,000 a year – those individuals just below HUD’s Area Median Income for Chicago, for example, who are more likely to be more housing cost-burdened.

By keeping people housed at all income levels after they lose work, we can reduce reliance and strain on other programs. Since housing, wages, and available income are all interrelated in our economy, an improvement in one arena is likely to have an effect across the board, particularly in times of crisis.

 

"Super Voucher" Controversy Distorts the Real Issue

This blog post was coauthored by Adam Ballard, Community Organizer and Housing Advocate at Access Living, and Kate Walz, Director of Housing Justice at the Shriver Center.

You’ve probably seen the flurry of news coverage about low-income families living in $3,000 to $4,000 a month luxury apartments in downtown Chicago via a federal housing program.  Sounds like just another story of people taking advantage of a government program, right?  Really, what could make a better news story? Perhaps one grounded in the real details and the facts behind the program being attacked. 

This controversy began with an amendment proposed by Rep. Aaron Schock (R–Peoria) to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual appropriations bill.  That amendment would prohibit public housing agencies from offering fair market rents in excess of 120%, otherwise known as “exception rents,” to landlords who participate in the tenant-based Housing Choice Voucher program. Schock’s stated rationale for the amendment is that the Chicago Housing Authority has paid rents in excess of 300% of the fair market rents, allowing voucher holders to live in tony apartments near the lakefront.

The Housing Choice Voucher program is one of the government’s main federal housing assistance programs, helping more than two million very low-income households, including families, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities, afford their housing by giving them vouchers to cover a portion of their rent in the private market. Vouchers are one of the best means of relocating families to higher opportunity and less violent neighborhoods and reducing homelessness and poverty rates for participants. The Housing Choice Voucher program also enables more than one million persons with disabilities, including veterans relying upon the veteran-specific VASH voucher program, to live independently in a community of their choice. 

Schock’s amendment and the news coverage that followed missed the mark entirely. Less than 2% of the Chicago Housing Authority’s 38,000 vouchers have exception rents, and only a fraction of those vouchers have rents in excess of 200%. For all of 2013, there were only three vouchers with rents at the 300% cap.

None of the news coverage asked the question why such high rents were even needed. Here are a couple of questions that should have been asked: Is there a person in the household who is disabled and requires a hard-to-find accessible unit that can only be found in higher-rent neighborhoods? Is the housing close to a good elementary school for the family's children? Finally, is the housing in proximity to employment that may help the family lift themselves out of poverty?

The much larger issue is that the vast majority of voucher holders in Chicago live in high poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods and struggle to find units that are accessible. Indeed, only $1 out of every $10 spent on rents through the voucher program went to neighborhoods with lower rates of poverty and more opportunity.  

Vouchers are also a lifeline for the disability community. Due to a pervasively high unemployment rate independent of recessionary cycles, the majority of people with disabilities rely on fixed-income benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). These programs are not adequate to pay rent and still have money left for the other necessities of life. Once a person with a disability receives a voucher, the challenge is to find accessible housing, especially for those with significant mobility impairments. In Chicago and many older cities, antiquated housing stock built without physical access for this population makes the search very difficult. Agencies that provide housing search assistance for people with disabilities in Chicago and elsewhere are overwhelmed by demand that is impossible to fully meet—one such agency receives over 200 unique requests every month. The answer often lies in newer buildings in higher-rent and/or gentrifying communities. In order to make these opportunities possible, exception rents (often around 200%, but in rare cases as high as 300% or more) come into play as a “reasonable accommodation” under federal fair housing and civil rights law.

The Chicago Housing Authority’s effort to improve where voucher holders live by offering them a real and sometimes first chance to live in better neighborhoods and out of institutional settings (which are still more costly to the taxpayer than an exception rent voucher), is also what civil rights laws require. Without the ability to offer higher-than-market rents to landlords, the hard reality is that voucher holders struggle to find landlords willing to rent to them. Though voucher discrimination has been outlawed in Chicago and Cook County and other parts of the country, landlords still openly discriminate against voucher holders, particularly in higher opportunity neighborhoods. This refusal to rent to voucher holders is often pretextual, where the landlord’s actual reason for refusing to rent is discrimination on the basis of race, familial status, or disability. 

When efforts were made to protect voucher holders from discrimination in Illinois, Aaron Schock, then a state legislator, opposed extending that protection. If Rep. Schock actually wants to work to improve the voucher program, let’s begin with the full set of facts, cut out the rhetoric and splashy news pieces, and support every effort to permit voucher holders to live in communities of their choice.

Protecting the Housing of Survivors of Violence Should Be a Top Priority for HUD Secretary Castro

In early July, the Senate voted to confirm San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), putting this rising political star at the helm of the nation’s federal housing programs. One can only imagine the fever pitch of requests competing for Secretary Castro’s attention. Many important issues deserve focus, including the lack of affordable housing across the nation in spite of increasing need, the slow and sometimes stymied recovery of the housing market, increasing recognition of the detrimental effects of residential racial segregation, and the failure of or outright resistance by many local governments to affirmatively further fair housing. Secretary Castro should steer his agency to develop laws and policies proactively that can address these issues for long term.

But here’s something Secretary Castro and HUD should act on immediately. In 2005, Congress’ reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) included for the first time critical housing protections for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking who lived in or were applicants to certain federal affordable housing programs. The new housing provisions were groundbreaking in that they prevented certain housing providers from evicting or denying admission to individuals for being crime victims. It is a grim reality that, before VAWA 2005 was in place, many housing providers did evict victims. And it took years of education and slow roll out of HUD rules and policy to get to the point where most housing providers covered by VAWA 2005 understood the law. 

In March 2013, President Obama signed the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA. The housing provisions in VAWA 2013 are just as groundbreaking as those in VAWA 2005. Among other things, VAWA 2013 added nine more federal housing programs to the mandate not to harm, evict, or deny admission to victims of violence, which potentially cover an additional 1.4 million households. The new law also now covers sexual assault survivors, LGBT survivors, and immigrant survivors. These  protections are long overdue. Finally, the new law permits survivors to move into other federal affordable housing in order to escape violence—a critical new tool so that survivors do not have to choose between their safety and their affordable housing. But other than a HUD notice issued in August 2013 seeking guidance on the new provisions and a brief guide to public housing authorities from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD has failed to issue new policy or instructions, including basic updates to housing providers, tenants, and applicants, such as leases that spell out the new protections for sexual assault survivors. This delay puts survivors and housing providers in confusing and potentially dangerous territory, where the lack of instruction could result in evictions of crime victims at their most vulnerable time. Because more than 85% of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are women, this delay also presents a serious impediment to fair housing for women.   

Secretary Castro and HUD should act immediately to issue these long overdue policy and instructions on VAWA 2013. Because survivors of violence can’t wait for HUD to do its job.  


Updated August 13, 2014--Good News for Survivors of Violence
 
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued last week a new HUD VAWA Certification Form for victims of violence who are residents, recipients, or applicants of public housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, and VASH vouchers. The form has been translated into eleven other languages and incorporates the new and improved protections for survivors as a result of VAWA 2013. We thank HUD for responding to concerns raised in this blog post that there had been implementation delays with respect to VAWA 2013.

 

Will a Building Boom Be a Bust for Low-Income Residents?

House under constructionHousing affordability has become one of the hottest issue in America's urban centers, and one popular solution is to ramp up housing construction. In his first State of the City address, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio emphasized that in order to solve its affordability problem, the city must work with developers to build more housing. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee similarly focused his own annual address on an ambitious plan to build 30,000 units of housing by 2020.

The logic behind this building push rests on the simple principles of supply and demand and the assumption that increasing the supply of homes will lower housing costs. The reason rents are too high, it’s claimed, is because there is great demand for a relatively small number of apartments. Therefore increasing the supply of homes will lower housing costs. But while building seems to be the obvious solution, it's a policy choice that comes with complex questions. Who should build the homes, and who should live in them? Where should the homes be built? If we don't get the answers to these and other questions right, a pro-building policy will do little to ease housing costs of low-income residents, and will likely end up accelerating their displacement from our cities.

The choice of who builds new homes will influence who lives in them. Private, for-profit developers are only likely to build affordable housing if it’s profitable and if there aren't more attractive business opportunities. If we chose to deregulate zoning and rely on the private sector to build (a policy currently championed by liberals and conservatives alike), we'll end up with more housing for the wealthy, as that's what makes developers the most money.

It should be obvious that the development of luxury condos is not a solution to a housing affordability crisis, but advocates of deregulation, like popular economics blogger and The Rent is Too Damn High author Matt Yglesias and urban economist Ed Glaeser, insist that even those who can't afford to live in these homes will benefit. When a high-income person moves into a new luxury unit, the argument goes, she frees up her old home for a slightly lower-income person to move in. This scenario repeats itself, providing new housing opportunities all the way down the economic ladder.

However, this model doesn’t take into account who is really buying these new luxury properties and why they’re buying them. In cities that attract new real estate buyers from around the world, such as New York and San Francisco, the homes left behind by new luxury condo residents will often be in another housing market, providing no new housing opportunities for existing residents. The most stunning example can be found in Central London, where 70% of all newly built homes are bought by foreigners. In New York, foreign buyers accounted for one out of every three condo purchases in 2011.

And in some cases, the purchasers of these new properties don’t leave any homes behind at all—luxury condos are often bought as real estate investments or second homes. Housing appreciation is so high in these cities that investors have little incentive to rent out their property, leaving some stretches of Manhattan looking like ghost towns.

This spatial mismatch between people and housing, as well as speculative real estate investment, mean that private sector housing development will have diminishing returns as we move down the economic ladder. Vacant homes will be snapped up by speculators and out-of-towners before they ever reach low-income tenants. This creates a scenario where a city will have to satisfy external housing demand before it can even begin to address the housing needs of its current low-income residents. At best, this is a spectacularly inefficient way to deliver affordable housing to those who need it the most; at worst, it doesn't deliver at all.

The federal government must again focus on subsidizing the construction of more affordable housing rather than bankrolling the demolition of our nation's federally assisted housing stock. Indeed, a new Urban Institute study found Atlanta and Chicago, two of the country’s most prolific demolishers of public housing, to be among the cities that made the least progress toward meeting their affordable housing needs over the past decade.

Whether it’s governments or developers, or both, that end up building, it's clear they will have a lot of work to do. We'll need to drastically change parts of our cities in order to build enough housing to make them affordable again. This raises a final question: Which parts of our cities—or, more appropriately, whose parts—will be transformed by this building boom? America's experience with urban renewal and gentrification has taught us that it is largely low-income communities that are destroyed in order to create new housing opportunities. If upper- and middle-income residents aren't willing to share the burden this time around, or if governments lack the political courage to enforce an equitable development plan, then a building boom may only exacerbate the housing problems of low-income residents.

Housing Discrimination Moves Downtown

Last month, concluding a four-year investigation of Dallas’s housing practices, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that the city had discriminated against minorities and furthered segregation. In response, HUD threatened to cut the funds it gives to cities like Dallas if they remain indifferent or hostile to minorities' housing needs. The Dallas case is one of the agency's most important moves since its 2009 settlement with Westchester County to enforce municipalities' obligation to affirmatively promote fair housing.

For as long as the Fair Housing Act has existed, its battles have been fought on the predominately white fringes of metropolitan areas, largely because the demographic legacy of white flight and urban disinvestment have concentrated focus on integrating the suburbs. In the archetypal case, a suburb enacts zoning restrictions that make it impossible to construct affordable housing for low-income minorities within its jurisdiction.

But the Dallas case represents something new. The initial complaint was made by a frustrated developer whose plan to build affordable housing in Dallas's central business district was thwarted by the city’s refusal to grant him the government subsidies that he and other urban developers have come to expect and rely upon—subsidies city officials have used to accelerate and secure gentrification in the city center.

Dallas's opposition to affordable housing is part of a larger development strategy that has dramatically changed the demographics of its downtown in the last two decades. The following maps show the racial makeup of the area in 1990 and 2010, with red census tracts being majority non-white, and blue census tracts being majority white. These maps show a large influx of white residents and a complete shift in the racial composition of Dallas's downtown over the past twenty years. The red dot represents 1600 Pacific, the planned site of the failed development project that spurred the HUD investigation. In the census tract where 1600 Pacific was set to be built, the white population has almost doubled since 1990, while the black population has decreased from 1,702 to just 281—a reduction of 83 percent.

Downtown Dallas 1990

  Downtown Dallas 1990

Downtown Dallas 2010

  Downtown Dallas 2010

Dallas is not unique; similar stories exist in the downtowns of America's other large cities. You can see for yourself by looking at the maps at mixedmetro.us, where geography departments from Dartmouth, University of Georgia, and University of Washington have collaborated to map the progress of residential integration for America's 53 largest municipalities.

Gentrification is often considered a phenomenon tied to the ebbs and flows of the real estate market, but the Dallas case shows it to be shaped just as much by public funds and policy. It also shows how city officials can accelerate gentrification by taking affirmative measures to keep out poor and minority residents. 

Have We Closed the Book on the Foreclosure Crisis? Housing Outlook Improves, But the Senate May Have the Final Say

Boarded up houseJanuary 2014 will mark five years since new home starts bottomed out and foreclosures were at an all time high; over this time entire communities have been decimated and many families have fallen from the middle class. As we head toward this milestone, the Obama Administration’s latest Housing Scorecard shows improvement over a broad range of housing indicators, and state and federal homeowner protections continue to keep homeowners in their homes. These signs of progress are good for the housing market, the job market, and the overall economy. We cannot allow partisan politics to impede further progress. 

A sharp 50% increase in homeowner equity during the first half of 2013 to $9.286 trillion brings homeowner equity back to fourth quarter 2007 levels, according to Federal Reserve data. Meanwhile, steady increases in home prices continue to build that equity. According to the Housing Scorecard, the Federal Housing Finance Agency purchase-only home price index has risen for the last consecutive 19 months. Another indicator, the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index, indicated gains of 12.8 percent over the past 12 months, its highest level since August 2008. These numbers are very encouraging, especially given an almost 20% spike in 30-year fixed mortgage interest rates during the same time. What this means in real terms is that the economy is stabilizing and homeownership is once again becoming an investment.

Clearly these numbers have been helped by state and federal efforts to protect homeowners from foreclosure. As of August 2013 over 3.8 million loans had been modified by HOPE Now lenders, and over 1.2 million homeowners had received permanent loan modifications to keep them in their homes through participation in HAMP, the federal mortgage modification program created in 2009. That program was extended another two years in May, and is now set to expire on December 31, 2015. States like Illinois are following suit by passing legislation to ensure that homeowners are given a chance to use HAMP before they lose their homes to a judicial sale.  

But to keep homeownership improvements moving forward, real leadership must be in place at the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).  On October 31, Senate Republicans blocked a confirmation vote of Rep. Mel Watt to lead the agency, leaving it without a permanent director as we enter the new year. This is an important time for the agency, as it continues to reorganize and wind up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Stabilization of Fannie and Freddie is key to our nation’s housing market and, ultimately, our economy, as Fannie and Freddie and Ginnie Mae have a piece of about 90% of all home mortgages. And now is the time—with the housing market turning around, Fannie and Freddie’s profits are soaring. Last Thursday the two companies announced that they will pay $39 billion to the U.S. Treasury this year; both companies are close to repaying the amounts they received in their bailouts. 

FHFA should install a leader to guide these companies’ direction now and gain control over this significant sector of the American economy. Let the lessons of the foreclosure crisis be learned.  The Senate should back every effort to improve the housing market, homeownership, and the economy and should install a new leader for FHFA so that we can truly close the book on the housing crisis. 



 

The Rental Assistance Demonstration Program: Too RAD-ical?

The idea of a Washington consensus may sound laughable these days, but for the past two decades there has been wide agreement between liberals and conservatives that public housing is in trouble—and its salvation is in the private market. That the Obama Administration’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program bears a striking resemblance to President George W. Bush’s Public Housing Reinvestment Initiative reflects this shared understanding. RAD is a scaled down, test-version of a much more ambitious proposal to fund all of public housing through the Section 8 funding stream. The hope is that public housing authorities will then be able to borrow money against this future revenue in order to address the current needs of their housing stock. In other words, that means bank-owned mortgages getting tangled into our public housing stock, a prospect that has many politicians and housing advocates sounding alarms.

Make no mistake: RAD promises to increase the funds available to public housing and will provide some much needed rehabilitation and repairs for the 1.2 million households served by public housing. The reason there is bipartisan agreement on the program is that public housing has undeniable problems—specifically a $30 billion backlog in repairs and renovations. This backlog is a result of the chronic underfunding of the traditional housing program, and if it is not addressed, some properties will deteriorate to the point at which in which demolition will make more sense than renovation. RAD, through its use of the better-funded Section 8 program, as well as private equity, is an attempt to avoid this result.

However, relying on private equity to fund these repairs means that banks will determine who gets money and how much they get. Risk-averse banks will provide the most credit to projects that offer the most security for their investment—specifically, developments that reside on valuable real estate and are already in good condition—and not necessarily based on the relative needs of our housing stock. Accordingly, banks will extend more credit to projects near Chicago’s Loop than to those on the far South Side, more to New York and less to Flint, Michigan.

Similarly, some developments will be able to secure greater protections in the case of foreclosure than others. As Chicago redevelops its public housing, it has been able to leverage prime downtown real estate and ample HOPE VI funds to preserve the housing for 99 years regardless of the status of the mortgage. The RAD default use agreement, meanwhile, guarantees public housing “for the term the [contract between HUD and the owner] would have run”—which is at most 20 years. Chicago, which plans to submit RAD applications for 11,000 of its units, will be able to convince banks to agree to 99-year protections. But will Flint have the same leverage?

HUD admits that the private equity stirred up by RAD will not be enough to cover the capital needs of most public housing. Thus, RAD encourages and practically requires public housing authorities (PHAs) to seek supplemental funding for their proposed conversions. This will mean the use of tax credits, which require PHAs to cede ownership and control of a property to private developers. Already, 83 (of 132) projects approved for RAD conversion are using tax credits.

RAD is well intentioned and addresses a real need, but it shouldn’t encourage PHAs to make shortsighted, irreversible decisions. For that reason, HUD should amend RAD to:

  • Prohibit private ownership and the use of tax credits. PHAs should not be given a false choice between retaining ownership of their housing and having the necessary capital to make repairs.
  • Subject all mortgages to a use agreement that extends for as long as legally possible. This may scare off some lenders, but Congressional funding, even in the form of Section 8, is shaky enough for us to be concerned about budget cuts leading to defaults and foreclosures.
  • Make all mortgages taken out by PHAs FHA-insured. This will help close the gap between the RAD-rich and the RAD-poor by making banks more comfortable with lending to “riskier” developments.

A RAD program amended to reflect these concerns won’t make the big splash that HUD is hoping for, but it will still increase the funds available to PHAs for repairs and rehabilitation. Fiscal austerity is neither an essential nor eternal feature of American democracy, and we shouldn’t privatize our public housing stock to take advantage of short-term gains in funding. When the political will to fund public housing returns, a more modest RAD will ensure that we still have a program to support.

Government Shutdown Hits Close to Home for Millions of Americans

Congress’s failure to pass FY14 appropriations jeopardizes housing for 1.2 million families living in public housing, another 1.2 million families living in project-based Section 8 units, and over 2.2 million families residing in properties subsidized by Section 8 vouchers. Also at risk are the paychecks of employees and contractors of some 3,300 or so housing authorities that own, manage or administer funding for those units, and that are dependent on funding streams from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Indeed almost every aspect of HUD’s vast operations is detrimentally affected. The shutdown hits the department itself hard. With an estimated 8,302 out of 8,709 employees furloughed, HUD appears to rank as the second hardest hit federal agency. 

HUD’s contingency plan outlines plans for funding HUD’s largest programs through October. Beyond that is anyone’s guess, and HUD’s plan offers little comfort.

Public Housing: HUD cannot continue to pay public housing authorities during a lapse in appropriations, and does not expect to make any payments beyond October. HUD predicts some housing authorities “may not be able to maintain normal operations.”

Housing Choice Voucher Program: Housing Assistance Payments (HAPs) and administrative fees will be paid as long as previously-allocated funding remains available. Per the plan, HUD expects these payments can be made “into November.” 

Project-Based Rental Assistance: HAPs will be paid “into November.” HUD will only entertain contract renewals as long as current funding is available, also expected to mean sometime in November. 

Other programs that provide housing in cities across the country are in peril. Community Development Block Grants, the HOME Investment Partnership Program, and other block grants will only receive funding to address “a threat to safety of life and protection of property.” Homeless Assistance grants that provide supportive housing to veterans and housing for people with AIDS will only be funded “to protect against imminent threats to the safety of human life.” Additionally, “nearly all” of the department’s Fair Housing activities have ceased. 

HUD’s plan, however, offers little guidance on how decisions to fund will be made. Already, homeless shelters report HUD isn’t answering the phone, as they contemplate shutting down or turning people away. 

Families participating in HUD-assisted programs violate HUD rules and risk eviction when they fail to pay their share of rent. In an ironic twist, HUD now stands to break its own rules. While most HUD-funded rent subsidy programs offer some protection to tenants when the government doesn’t pay its share of rent, housing authorities and property owners are still out of luck, as are those who might otherwise qualify for new subsidies that won’t be offered during the shutdown. Moreover, housing providers cannot function indefinitely without funds, so regulatory or contractual protections for tenants could eventually be rendered meaningless. 

Many HUD housing programs rely upon private parties to work with the federal government to provide affordable housing and shelter. The shutdown has the effect of disrupting those important partnerships now and potentially for the long term. 

For the millions of low-income families dependent on government funds, the shutdown means more than an inconvenience. Indeed, Congress’s inaction directly threatens the livelihoods and basic human needs of millions—hitting close to home for many across the country.  

Illinois Senate Bill 56 Signed Into Law, Extending Statewide Support to Illinois Renters in Foreclosure

Renters in Illinois can rest assured that, if their landlords are in foreclosure, a new Illinois law will protect them from unnecessary displacement. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has signed Senate Bill 56 into law, creating protections for renters that will take effect statewide on November 19, 2013. The new law makes permanent in Illinois many of the key provisions afforded to renters by the federal Protecting Tenants in Foreclosure Act, which is slated to sunset on December 31, 2014. That act came about to finally stop the sudden eviction of tenants from their foreclosed homes, often with little or no notice that the property had even been foreclosed. Illinois's measure means the state avoids a return to the same conditions that led to the PTFA once it expires. As Gov. Quinn explained when he signed the bill, “The foreclosure crisis has been devastating to homeowners as well as many families living in rental homes who are at risk of losing their home due to no fault of their own."

The new law will allow renters who entered into a written lease prior to foreclosure the right to remain in the unit for the entire term of their agreement. All renters with bona fide leases, including oral agreements, will be entitled to a minimum of ninety-days' notice before facing an eviction from foreclosed properties. The law includes an exception for purchasers of property who will use it as their primary residence. Local governments are also trying to protect renters and ensure that properties in foreclosure do not sit idle and vacant, which contributes to neighborhood decline, crime and other problems. In Chicago, the recently passed Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance provides renters of foreclosed properties with the right to continuing occupancy and/or$10,600 of relocation assistance.

Illinois's and Chicago's efforts to protect renters serve as a reminder that this country must preserve and protect rental housing and realize that being a renter of safe, decent and sanitary housing is another part of the American Dream. Indeed, President Obama warned against backsliding into thinking that led to mass foreclosures. "In the run up to the crisis," the President said, "banks and governments too often made everybody feel like they had to own a home... That's a mistake we should not repeat. Instead... let's bring together cities and states to address local barriers that drive up rents for working families."

"Crime Free" But At What Cost?

A New York Times article published over the weekend tells the upsetting story of domestic violence survivor Lakisha Briggs.  Ms. Briggs was forced to sue Norristown, Pennsylvania after the city tried to push her out of her home based on calls made to the police as a result of her abuser’s violence against her.  In doing so, Norristown was actually enforcing a local ordinance that authorized this very outcome.  Because of the municipality’s threats to her housing, Ms. Briggs was too scared call the police when she most needed help and her abuser ended up putting her in the hospital.

The stories of Lakisha Briggs and William Zarnoth that were relayed in the recent Times article are just two examples of how tenant families, landlords, and ultimately the whole community can be harmed by crime free rental housing and nuisance property ordinances that are proliferating among municipalities in Illinois and across the nation.  In a new report titled The Cost of Being “Crime Free”: Legal and Practical Consequences of Crime Free Rental Housing and Nuisance Property Ordinances, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law describes these various harms, and also the legal liability that can follow for municipalities when they pursue these problematic local laws.

Crime free rental housing ordinances and nuisance property ordinances are laws that seek to penalize tenants and landlords for police activity associated with rental properties.  Common elements of these ordinances include mandating that landlords perform criminal background screening of all prospective tenants, requiring landlords to use a “crime free lease” that makes criminal activity by any person connected to a tenant household a basis for eviction (even if the tenants themselves were not involved in or were victims of the crime), and forcing landlords to evict households that generate calls for police service.

These ordinances can actually end up undermining the public safety goal that they are ostensibly meant to serve.  The serious problems that can result from these ordinances include:

  • Causing the eviction of crime victims – especially victims of domestic or sexual violence – because of the crimes committed against them or their efforts to obtain police help;
  • Causing the eviction of persons with disabilities because of behaviors related to their disability;
  • Deterring tenants and landlords from reporting crimes or otherwise reaching out to the police when they need assistance;
  • Increasing homelessness and educational disruption for children;
  • Increasing the number of vacant properties in the community; an
  • Reducing the supply of affordable rental housing.

Municipalities that adopt and enforce these ordinances can end up being liable for housing discrimination, for interfering with efforts to get police help, and for denying due process, among other things.  In addition, municipalities can potentially lose access to certain federal funds that are conditioned on the municipality taking action to “affirmatively further fair housing” by avoiding practices that lead to housing discrimination.

While there are steps that municipalities can take to mitigate the most common problems created by these ordinances, these steps will not be able to completely avoid the harms that can result.  For example, domestic abuse often plays out in complex ways, and so even if an ordinance incorporates some protective language many cases involving victims are likely to fall through the cracks.  The only surefire way for a municipality to eliminate harmful consequences – and the risk of liability that can follow – is to not have such an ordinance in the first place, and to instead focus on utilizing other available tools to improve public safety and the quality of rental housing.

 

Foreclosure Help Still in the Balance for Owners and Renters

Home for saleRates of new foreclosure filings nationally are dropping dramatically from a year ago. Some estimates indicate 21% fewer filings in June than in May, which is 45% fewer filings than June 2012. These numbers translate to the fewest foreclosure filings in seven and a half years, a good sign for both homeowners and the nation’s housing market.

Even so, as foreclosure cases move through the courts, the number of foreclosure auctions continues to soar in some states like Illinois, Nevada, Ohio, New Jersey, and Florida, putting innocent renters in peril. While a necessary and ultimately positive phase of the housing market recovery, these sales place tenants in jeopardy of losing their homes since, historically, 40% households that have lost homes to foreclosure have been renters. That’s concerning, especially in view of the looming December 2014 sunset of the federal Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act (PTFA). Since 2009 the PTFA has ensured that investors who purchase foreclosed rental homes provide tenants with enough time to make a safe move, which is either the balance of their lease or upon 90 days’ notice. 

Although the federal PTFA was originally scheduled to sunset in 2012, it was extended another two years. Tenant advocates support a second—ideally, permanent—extension of the federal PTFA, but a 2011 bill to extend it has not moved. Illinois is not waiting for Congress to act. Illinois Senate Bill 56, which passed both houses this year, will codify important protections of the PTFA into permanent Illinois law. SB 56 mirrors key provisions of the federal act, requiring investors to honor the balance of most leases and to provide 90 days’ notice to bona fide tenants before compelling a move. The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

While Illinois was proactive, other states have relied on the federal PTFA and have not moved to pass their own laws. The federal government should recognize that tens of thousands of renters living in foreclosed homes—the true innocent victims of the foreclosure crisis—still need the protection of the PTFA.  Banks across the country are living with it.  Foreclosed homes are turning over in spite of it.  Making the PTFA permanent will preserve a just and fair status quo.  

Recognizing the damage caused by the foreclosure crisis, Illinois is also supporting the efforts of agencies working to protect renters, homeowners, and the neighborhoods decimated by the foreclosure crisis. Last week Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced that she will distribute another $70 million to agencies helping struggling homeowners and renters and affected communities. State officials understand that the government must help these constituencies in order for the economy and housing market to turn around.

The first half of 2013 has brought some positive news and, in Illinois, more help to those still struggling. Yet the foreclosure crisis is not over, and its aftermath will be felt for the foreseeable future. Armed with the forthcoming protections of new legislation and an influx of resources, Illinois communities, homeowners, and tenants alike will end 2013 on a stronger footing to survive the crisis. The federal government ought to step up.  

The Unfinished Business of Fair Housing

HousesForty-five years after the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act in 1968, a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has found that illegal discrimination against blacks, Hispanics, and Asians still pervades housing markets in metropolitan areas throughout the country. The Housing Discrimination Against Racial and Ethnic Minorities 2012 study—conducted in conjunction with the Urban Institute—concludes that, while blatant refusal to rent or sell to certain minorities is no longer prevalent, whites still receive favorable treatment in the process of searching for a home.

This was the fourth in a series of studies conducted by HUD since the 1970s to measure discriminatory treatment in the rental and sales markets. The study found that for the most part equally qualified whites and minorities had equal success in learning about at least one available unit when housing opportunities were advertised. However, white home-seekers were systematically told about and shown more available rental or for-sale units than their equally qualified black, Hispanic, and Asian counterparts (with the exception of Hispanics looking for owner-occupied housing). This means that minorities have fewer housing options and pay higher costs to find suitable housing. The study also found that minorities experience more discrimination when it is easier to identify their race or ethnicity by their names, speech patterns, and/or appearance.

While the housing discrimination uncovered by this study is appalling, it is really only the tip of the iceberg. This study does not measure discrimination that may occur after a prospective buyer or renter actually applies for particular housing, such as the unequal treatment that is found in mortgage lending markets. Further, the study only looked at instances where whites and minorities were treated differently and did not review the pervasive problem of practices that may be applied equally to all groups but ultimately have the effect of making it harder for minorities to obtain housing in the communities of their choice (i.e., create an adverse disparate impact for minorities). For example, the study does not address the problem of source-of-income discrimination experienced by home-seekers who need subsidies in order to afford decent housing, who are more likely to be members of racial and/or ethnic minorities in many areas. As the report itself acknowledges, the discrimination identified by the study does not fully account for the persistence of residential segregation and neighborhood inequality suffered by racial and ethnic minorities in many metropolitan areas. Segregation limits access by minority groups to critical opportunities like good jobs, quality schools, and safe neighborhoods, and thereby perpetuates racial and ethnic disparities throughout society.

Both in its findings and in its gaps, this study makes clear that much more work is needed to eradicate harmful inequalities in our housing markets. However, our ability to achieve this goal is under attack. Although courts have long acknowledged that practices that impose an adverse disparate impact on minorities or contribute to residential segregation are illegal under the Fair Housing Act, some people continue to challenge this well-settled principle. Unfortunately the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear one such challenge. Now more than ever we must be vigilant in our efforts to fulfill the promise that every individual and family will have access to equal housing opportunities

Bills of Rights for America's Homeless

Homeless tentAround the country, advocates for low-income Americans are incorporating international human rights norms into their daily work. This spring, in both Illinois and California, advocates for homeless people are on the verge of having their elected representatives pass legislation that would guarantee homeless people certain basic rights. These efforts are part of a positive recent trend. Last summer, Rhode Island became the first state to clearly define homeless people’s rights through the passage of a homeless bill of rights. The state legislatures in Vermont, Oregon, Connecticut, and Missouri have also introduced bills to protect homeless residents’ rights. 

Last week, the Illinois House passed the Bill of Rights for the Homeless. Advocated for by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (and supported by the Shriver Center), the bill would “protect people who experience the loss of housing from discrimination by creating a list of basic rights. These rights include the right to maintain gainful employment, to access emergency medical care, to access public spaces and transit systems, the right to privacy of personal property, records, and information, and the right to vote on the same basis as others.” Notably, under the terms of the Illinois bill, these rights could not be denied because of housing status; if they were violated because someone was homeless, that person could sue for damages.

California’s Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, formally known as Assembly Bill 5, recently passed an important committee hearing and moved one step closer to a final vote.  Although it targets the same problem as the Illinois legislation, the California bill differs from the Illinois bill in many respects. The California bill is significantly longer than the Illinois legislation and contains protections for people who assist homeless citizens. The California bill also requires local law enforcement agencies to provide information to the attorney general and the public about their enforcement of ordinances against homeless persons and compliance with the act. Under the California bill, the California Department of Public Health would be required to create “health and hygiene centers” for homeless residents. Like the Illinois bill, the California bill would allow civil suits and damages for people whose rights are violated.

As Greg Kaufman observes in his blog at The Nation, it would be particularly meaningful for California’s homeless population to have a clear statement of their rights. In California, Kaufman writes, “[t]here are now approximately 160,000 men, women and children who experience homelessness … on a daily basis, about 20 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. The state ranks second worst in the number of homeless children, and third worst in the percentage of children who are homeless.” 

Bills of rights for the homeless have opponents, however. The California Chamber of Commerce labeled the California bill a “job killer” because it supposedly imposes “costly and unreasonable mandates on employers.” Other Californians are concerned about how much the health and hygiene centers could cost, and the time and money that law enforcement would need to devote to the bill’s reporting requirements. In Illinois, by contrast, criticism of the Bill of Rights for the Homeless focused on the supposed potential for voter fraud.

Both the Illinois bill and the California bill are still moving through their state legislatures. The California bill is scheduled to go before the Appropriations Committee shortly, and the Illinois bill has been returned to the Illinois Senate for a vote on an amendment. Even if the bills pass, their supporters’ work will not end. As the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless observed:

“The Homeless Bill of Rights hasn’t changed conditions overnight. Ensuring that agencies are complying with the new rules is difficult. Committees have been established to ensure that the law is implemented, but of course, law or no law, harassment and discrimination continue.”

No matter what happens to the Illinois and California bills, however, they have prompted legislators to give serious consideration to the issues facing homeless people—and to use human rights language when doing so. As the Illinois bill recognizes in its statement of legislative intent:

“[N]o person should suffer unnecessarily from cold or hunger, be deprived of shelter or the basic rights incident to shelter, or be subject to unfair discrimination based on his or her homeless status. At the present time, many persons have been rendered homeless as a result of economic hardship, a severe shortage of safe and affordable housing, and a shrinking social safety net.”

To learn more about how you and your colleagues can use human rights principles in your work, consult Clearinghouse Review’s 2011 special issue, Human Rights: A New (and Old) Way to Secure Justice.

This One's Gonna Hurt: What Will Happen to Families Who Lose Their Homes Because of Sequestration?

Public housingWhen travelers recently felt the sting of airline delays due to sequestration, Congress quickly acted to provide additional money for air traffic controllers. As more cuts are rolled out over the next few months, a cadre of interest groups will press to restore funding to various federal programs. One group that needs Congress’ attention and action right now: the millions of low-income families who rely upon federal housing assistance to keep a stable roof over their heads and are being threatened with losing access to these funds. If Congress does not act, deep cuts to federal housing programs will do more than just delay a vacation or business trip—they will push thousands of families into needless homelessness. And these cuts will encourage private property owners who participate in these programs to take a pass the next time they are offered a chance to help house the nation’s poor. 

The Housing Choice Voucher program, which gives low-income individuals and families a subsidy they can use to afford housing in the private market, is the dominant source of federal housing assistance for the nation’s poorest households. Because of sequestration, however, housing authorities across the country already have been forced to stop issuing newly available vouchers to households on their waiting lists—many of whom have been awaiting this help for years—and are even taking vouchers back from the households that were most recently given assistance. It is estimated that by the beginning of next year approximately 140,000 fewer households will be using vouchers to access affordable housing. 

Without this assistance to keep housing costs stable and at an affordable level, low-income households will face an ever-present risk of eviction. Families will be forced to double up with other households, or will wind up in shelters. Children who are forced to change schools will fall behind. Parents who lose access to public transportation will lose jobs. Both physical and mental health will suffer for the whole household. Family members will be separated as they struggle to find a way to stay off the streets. And those families who do manage to find a way to keep their homes will have to sacrifice other necessities such as utilities, food, and medicine.

The nation’s public housing resources are also threatened by the impact of sequestration. Cuts to the public housing operating and capital funds will mean the further deterioration of a housing stock that is already experiencing a severe backlog in addressing capital needs. At some point deferred maintenance cannot be undone, and we will lose these housing units dedicated to serving low-income individuals and families forever. Sequestration is doing long-term damage to our ability to meet the need for low-income housing—a need that already outpaces the assistance that is available by more than 8 million households.

Even as sequestration pushes more low-income families who rely on housing assistance toward homelessness, it will also deprive local communities of the homeless assistance funds that they use to keep people housed in times of crisis and to move families from shelters into permanent housing.

Furloughs of our nation’s civil servants will be tough to be sure, but homelessness creates far greater burdens—not just for the families that experience it, but also for the communities where they live. The debate over sequestration needs to address restoration of funding for the rental assistance programs that keep millions of Americans in stable housing.

Connecting the Dots: First Lawsuit Linking Investment Banks to Racial Discrimination in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

House for saleOn October 15, a landmark lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against Morgan Stanley for facilitating the production of risky loans that targeted African-American borrowers. The suit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Michigan, the National Consumer Law Center, and San Francisco-based law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein on behalf of five Detroit residents and the nonprofit legal aid organization Michigan Legal Services, is unique for two reasons. First, according to the ACLU, the suit is the first to connect racial discrimination to the bundling of mortgage-backed securities. Second, unlike previous lawsuits where the named defendants were subprime lenders that originated the loans, this is the first lawsuit where victims of the subprime lending crisis have sought to hold an investment firm accountable for its role in providing a subprime lender strong incentives to originate risky mortgages.

Specifically, the three-count suit alleges that Morgan Stanley violated the federal Fair Housing Act (prohibiting discrimination in housing transactions and unfair lending practices), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (banning discrimination for credit transactions such as mortgages loans), and the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (prohibiting discrimination in making or purchasing of loans secured by residential real estate). Plaintiffs contend that Morgan Stanley was the principal financer for the now bankrupt New Century Mortgage Company, providing the funding that enabled New Century to make mortgage loans to borrowers located in Detroit’s African American communities. Morgan Stanley then “dictated” the types of loans that New Century issued by requiring that a substantial percentage of New Century’s loans bear a combination of high-risk terms (e.g., adjustable interest rates that increase significantly after an initial year of low interest rates and prepayment penalties), effectively placing borrowers at an elevated risk of default and foreclosure. Plaintiffs further allege that Morgan Stanley encouraged New Century to abandon standard fair lending practices that focus on whether borrowers can meet their obligations under the terms of the mortgages and, instead, focused solely whether the loans New Century originated could be processed and sold as securities. The complaint also states that an African American borrower was 70% more likely to obtain a high-cost loan from New Century than a white borrower. 

Although the case concerns lending abuses in Detroit, these practices were common among financial institutions and had a disproportionally adverse affect on Latino and African American borrowers across the country. In this past year alone, the Department of Justice has successfully negotiated residential fair lending settlements against Countrywide Financial (now a subsidiary of Bank of America) and Wells Fargo for African American and Hispanic minority borrowers who were steered into subprime mortgages or who paid higher fees and rates than white borrowers because of their race or national origin.

Morgan Stanley has issued a statement that it will defend itself "vigorously" against the lawsuit. If successful, however, this suit could introduce a new avenue of justice aimed at holding investment institutions accountable for their role in helping to craft the lending policies that resulted in the subprime mortgage crisis.

This blog post was coauthored by Stephanie Patterson.

Subprime Mortgage Crisis Widening the Racial Wealth Gap

ForeclosureAmerica has long been experiencing a growing racial wealth gap, however, the 2008 recession and mortgage crisis widened the gap.   

Household wealth is the sum of assets such as a home, car, savings, stocks, etc., minus the sum of debt. The Federal Reserve has released an analysis of U.S. family finances that showed that racial and ethnic minorities lost about a third of their net worth from 2007 to 2010. Overall, median family worth dropped from $126,400 to $77,300 in just four years, and medium income dropped 7.7%. This dramatically unbalanced wealth disparity is the largest since the government began collecting and documenting the data over 25 years ago. The racial wealth gap is twice the size it was 20 years before the 2008 recession.

A recent Pew research study explains that decreasing home values are the main cause for the decline of household wealth among minorities, hitting Hispanic and black families the hardest. The Pew study also showed that homeownership rates are highest for whites and lowest for blacks; in between are Hispanics, who experienced the greatest decline in the homeownership rate, from 51% to 2005 to 47% in 2009. A leading cause of the decline in homeownership was the foreclosure crisis.   

During the housing boom, there seemed to be loans for anyone who wanted them, but for some these loans came at a high cost. The boom enabled a boost in homeownership in minority neighborhoods because of the availability of risky loans at high interest rates. As the bubble burst, borrowers defaulted on these loans, and home prices fell at record rates. Investigations into the cause of the housing collapse revealed that many mortgage companies were discriminating against minority borrowers or otherwise engaging in suspect practices. SunTrust, for instance, was sued for charging African American and Latino borrowers significantly more than white borrowers with similar credit backgrounds for loans in Atlanta. The judge in that case called the lender's actions a “racial surtax.”

The recession also had a trickledown effect on other important aspects of families’ financial health, especially their credit scores. A foreclosure can remain on a credit report for up to seven years and drop a credit score by 86-160 points leaving a lasting scar on one’s financial well being. A low credit score, in turn, can limit a person’s ability to get a job and increase the interest rates one pays for loan products. According to FICO, nearly 50 million people saw their scores drop more than 20 points at the height of the financial crisis, and over 15 million people’s scores dropped 50 points in 2010-11. A low credit score due to a subprime mortgage, foreclosure, or the inability to pay bills on time can prevent one’s achievement of the American Dream, which, for minorities, was once a reality but is now out of reach. 

Read more about the growing racial wealth gap in Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy

Criminal Records Should Not Bar People from Subsidized Housing

Open doorFor over a year, three minor criminal offenses have kept Ms. K – a single working woman with mental health disabilities – out of housing that would otherwise bring her closer to both her daughter and free transportation to work.  Considering that her most recent offense – theft of a library book – took place over four years ago, it is no wonder that Ms. K’s employer entrusts her to handle confidential financial documents. And yet, her criminal record remains a relentless obstacle to federally subsidized housing.  

To help people like Ms. K, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has taken the first steps toward what advocates hope will be a long-term plan to increase housing access for people with criminal records.  In two letters issued over the past year (one last June and the other last month), HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan reminded public housing authorities and project owners of the discretion they have to admit people with criminal records in the federally subsidized housing programs.  Contrary to popular belief, a person is not barred from these programs simply because of a past criminal record.  Rather, as Secretary Donovan recognized, “people who have paid their debt to society deserve the opportunity to become productive citizens and caring parents, to set the past aside and embrace the future.”   

These reminders are sorely needed, as the Shriver Center’s “When Discretion Means Denial” report has shown. For example, more than half of the written admissions policies in Illinois gloss over the fact that applicants could—and in some cases, have the right to—present mitigating circumstances after being denied based on criminal history. Additionally, PHAs and project owners do not consistently follow HUD regulations requiring them to consider the time and nature of a public housing applicant’s conduct.  

Noting that upwards of seven and half a million people leave prisons or jails in the United States each year, Secretary Donovan acknowledged that many intend to return to their families, some of whom reside in federally subsidized housing.  Policies that ban people with criminal records from these housing programs not only prevent family reunification, but they also put people at greater risk of recidivating, thus straining the community.

To prevent these results, Secretary Donovan urged PHAs and project owners to engage in thoughtful consideration of various factors. In particular, he noted, these housing providers should “seek a balance between allowing ex-offenders to reunite with families that live in HUD subsidized housing, and ensuring the safety of all residents.”  

To make this type of balancing a reality, however, HUD needs more than a strongly worded letter. HUD should take active steps to ensure that discretion does not become synonymous with denial.  For instance, PHAs and project owners need specific guidance on the limited value of relying on arrest records or unreasonably long look-back periods. This is especially important considering the significant risk that use of these screening devices violates the Fair Housing Act because of their disparate impact on minority applicants.  Without additional affirmative steps, hard-working people like Ms. K will not be able to access the housing they need to pull themselves away from their past and out of poverty.

This post was coauthored by Shannon Flaherty.

 

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act: A Fair-Lending Tool for the Justice Department and You, Too

Foreclosed homeThe Department of Justice (DOJ) ended 2011 with a bang, reaching an enormous $335 million fair-lending settlement with Countrywide Financial Corporation and its subsidiaries. The record-setting settlement secures relief for more than 200,000 African American and Hispanic borrowers who were more often steered into subprime mortgage loans or were charged higher fees than were white borrowers with similar credit profiles. The proposed consent order of December 21 resolves DOJ’s claims that Countrywide’s lending practices during the housing boom of 2004–2008 violated both the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits discrimination in every phase of a credit transaction such as a mortgage loan. When creditors discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, marital status, or another protected class, they subject themselves to civil liability for actual and punitive damages. Private citizens can bring ECOA claims, as can several authorized government agencies such as the Department of Justice and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. ECOA has been on the books since 1974, but its enforcement has been minimal. The foreclosure crisis and its disproportionate impact on minority groups, however, have renewed public interest in fair-lending laws such as ECOA—and given DOJ’s landmark discrimination settlement, this revived focus has come none-too-soon.

ECOA is valuable for more than just compensating victims of discriminatory lending, as was accomplished by DOJ. Many people who were unfairly steered into subprime mortgages ultimately found themselves facing foreclosure. In the current issue of Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, Jennifer D. Newton and Tamara St. Hilaire of Florida Legal Services explain how advocates can use ECOA to challenge and prevent such foreclosures. The authors explain that borrowers, depending on where they live, may file a lawsuit under ECOA to prevent a foreclosure or, if a foreclosure case is already underway, may countersue under ECOA or use it as a defense against the foreclosure action. Plaintiffs may prove discrimination with direct evidence of discriminatory intent. Most courts also allow plaintiffs to meet their burden of proof with circumstantial evidence of disparate treatment or impact.

When courts allow disparate impact claims under ECOA, they look to fair housing discrimination cases for guidance. The U.S. Supreme Court will also be looking at disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) later this year when it decides Magner v. Gallagher, which is scheduled for oral argument on February 29. Specifically, the Court will decide whether disparate impact claims are cognizable at all under FHA and, if so, how they should be analyzed. The outcome of Magner will likely affect how courts view disparate impact claims brought under ECOA as well.

In the meantime, the Justice Department will be appointing an independent administrator to identify victims of Countrywide’s discriminatory lending who are entitled to compensation as a result of the settlement. Those who believe they were discriminated against by Countrywide and have questions about the settlement may contact the Department at countrywide.settlement@usdoj.gov

 

When the Truth Collides with Libertarian Fantasy: Attack on Federal Housing Programs Is Incorrect and Dangerous

With a penchant for equating criminal activity with the participants of various anti-poverty programs, it’s not surprising James Bovard recently took aim at one of the most important federally-assisted housing programs—the Section 8 “Housing Choice Voucher” program. Bovard’s August 17, 2011 Wall Street Journal piece “Raising Hell in Subsidized Housing” blames the Section 8 housing subsidy program for increased crime, allowing criminal-minded Section 8 tenants to stave off evictions by falsifying claims of domestic violence, and, oh yes, argues that the Obama Administration is responsible for the alleged failings of this more-than-40-year-old, Republican-created program. 

Bovard’s blaming of Housing Choice Voucher holders for the rise in crime in their communities is not unlike Hanna Rosin’s widely discredited 2008 American Murder Mystery piece in the Atlantic Monthly. Like Bovard, Rosin’s claim of a link between crime and voucher participants made dangerous assumptions and stereotypes about program participants. Both writers also conveniently avoided reviewing empirical research to support their claims of a Section 8 to crime connection. Indeed, a new study commissioned by HUD found that Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers do not bring crime when they move to a new community.

In reality, the Section 8 housing subsidy programs provides 2 million low-income Americans with a chance to afford their housing, find new opportunities, and escape poverty. Rigorous admission screening practices and lease compliance laws make participants some of the most scrutinized tenants in the country. 

In this era of debt ceilings and super committees, Bovard’s rant might help rally budget hawks to push for the end to this program. Even without Bovard’s allegations gaining traction, the federal assisted housing programs are part of a package of discretionary spending programs that could face draconian budget cuts totaling $1.2 trillion beginning in 2013 should the super committee fail to reach agreement.  With cuts that significant, low-income Americans who rely upon Section 8 programs to make their housing affordable could actually lose their housing subsidies. These households would then join the millions of families across the country who are considered “housing burdened”—paying up to 100% of their income towards rent, and being forced to choose between utilities, food, transportation, and medicine in order to stay housed. Worse still, they would join the ranks of the homeless. So that’s the real danger here—not some mob of people with Section 8 subsidies wreaking havoc on a community—but pushing law-biding low-income Americans into even deeper poverty.

 

When Discretion Means Denial for People with Criminal Records in Federally Subsidized Housing

When the Secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently urged public housing authorities (PHAs) to use their discretion to admit applicants with past arrest and conviction records rather than simply exclude them from subsidized housing, we wondered: what happens when discretion means denial?

In a report entitled “When Discretion Means Denial: The Use of Criminal Records to Deny Low-Income People Access to Federally-Subsidized Housing in Illinois,” the Shriver Center reviewed the criminal records policies of nearly all the public housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs in the state as well as over 100 properties participating in the project-based Section 8 program. Concentrating on areas where HUD give PHAs discretion to admit applicants with criminal records, the report identifies four areas where PHAs and project owners are most likely to abuse their discretion. The report also urges HUD to align its programs with its “belie[f] in the importance of second chances” by taking affirmative steps toward ending each of these abusive practices.

Many PHAs and project owners fail to set reasonable limits on how far back to look when considering an applicant’s criminal history.  Even though federal law requires PHAs and project owners to narrow their inquiries to criminal activity that occurred during a “reasonable time” before screening takes place, many admissions policies often give them license to look back as far as they want.  These policies often:

  • Have no time limits and simply deny admission to applicants who have certain types of criminal history in their backgrounds.  Without a specific look-back period as a guide, many applicants with criminal records do not bother applying.
  • Impose permanent bans on people who have been convicted of certain criminal activity. Given that the federal government has chosen to impose permanent bans in only two narrowly tailored instances, however, permanent bans in federally assisted housing should be sparsely used in only the most compelling circumstances.
  • Use excessively long look-back periods, which essentially function as permanent bans. In two particularly egregious cases, the written admissions policies actually allow owners look back 99 years and 200 years, sending a strong message to people with criminal records—and their families—that they are not welcome in federally subsidized housing.
  • Rely on minimum look-back periods rather than engage in the usual practice of setting maximum look-back periods. As a result, applicants are deprived of any notice of how long their criminal records will prevent them from accessing federally-assisted housing.

PHAs often rely on arrests as sufficient proof of criminal activity, even where the charges were ultimately dismissed and the arrests never led to convictions. Federal law allows PHAs to deny admission to applicants who have engaged in “criminal activity.” But instead of determining whether criminal activity actually occurred, many PHAs substitute a criminal arrest for criminal activity. This administrative shortcut often deprives people of housing when no wrongdoing may have ever taken place.  Moreover, its effect on reducing crime is questionable. What is certain, however, is that arrest record screening impedes the fair housing choice of racial minorities disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and therefore highly suspect under the federal Fair Housing Act.

What do these policies look like? About one out of every ten public housing programs in Illinois define “criminal activity” simply by the number of arrests on a person’s criminal record, even if no conviction resulted. The Housing Authority of Edgar County and Massac County Housing Authority, for example, go so far as to deny public housing applicants for a single arrest within the past decade.

More common are PHAs that consider arrests as evidence of criminal activity. Although about half of these admissions policies add that “a conviction for drug-related or violent criminal activity will be given more weight than an arrest for such activity,” the authority to deny admission on the basis of mere arrests remains. As a result, these PHAs are susceptible to violating their duty not to discrimination and their duty to affirmatively further fair housing under the Fair Housing Act. 

Some PHAs and project owners use categories of criminal activity so vague that neither applicants nor administrators fully understand how to apply these standards. Admissions policies usually refer to the three types of criminal activity listed in HUD regulations: drug-related criminal activity, violent criminal activity, and other criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, and right to peaceful enjoyment of other residents. Sometimes, PHAs and project owners supplement this list with vague categories of criminal activity that provide little notice to applicants of the housing provider’s actual standard, such as crimes of “moral turpitude,” an imprecise term that is not defined in the Illinois Criminal Code. 

Other amorphous categories include criminal activity “that indicates that the applicant may be a threat and/or negative influence on other residents” and “criminal activity that will adversely affect the reputation of the Development.” Neither standard reflects any language found in federal statutes or regulations, making them vulnerable to abusive application. Furthermore, a standard based on a building’s reputation strays from a property owner’s legitimate interest in resident safety, further increasing the potential for abuse.

A number of housing providers underuse mitigating circumstances, thus depriving applicants of the opportunity to overcome their past arrest and conviction records. Although HUD regulations require PHAs to consider the time, nature, and extent of a public housing applicant’s conduct, including the seriousness of the offense, more than half of the written admissions policies in Illinois gloss over the fact that applicants could—and in some cases, have the right to—present mitigating circumstances upon being denied for criminal history. Without notice of how to challenge a denial based on a criminal record, many applicants are likely to select themselves out of the admissions process.

In the project-based Section 8 program, consideration of mitigating circumstances is encouraged but not required. One out of four tenant selection plans reviewed explicitly stated that the project owner would not consider an applicant’s mitigating circumstances, thus stacking the odds of admissions against anyone with a criminal record.

Together, HUD, PHAs, and project owners need to ensure that criminal records screening respects the applicant’s right to be free from unwarranted discrimination. More than simply pulling a person’s criminal history, proper screening requires thoughtful consideration and proper balancing of various factors, such as the nature and severity of the offense, the time elapsed since the commission of the offense, and its relationship to a person’s tenancy. In the quest for bright-line rules, however, policies in Illinois today instead allow PHAs and project owners to abuse the discretion given to them by HUD. 

For proper screening to happen, HUD must make clear that housing providers need to look beyond the criminal history or face potential consequences. To help ensure that people with criminal records are not unnecessarily barred from federally subsidized housing, we recommend that HUD, PHAs, and project owners:

  1. reign in unreasonable look-back periods;
  2. end the use of arrests as conclusive proof of criminal activity;
  3. enact clear standards for reviewing criminal history that have a basis in federal law; and
  4. ensure that applicants can overcome criminal records barriers by presenting evidence of mitigating circumstances.

Only when HUD, PHAs, and project owners take these affirmative steps can discretion lead to admission, not just denial.

Why We Can't Let the Congress Ignore the Nation's Housing Crisis

Homeless Child by http://www.flickr.com/photos/ixtlilton/3645409747/While political pundits reminisce about the month-long government shutdown of 1995-96 as the current budget battle takes place, I can only think of a political cartoon from that time. In December 1995, my local paper ran a political cartoon depicting two homeless men huddled together in front of a fire on a blustery winter day. In that cartoon, a member of Congress walks by and proclaims, “What a relief! For a minute I thought you were burning a flag!” That more than 15-year-old symbol of Congressional disconnect from the real-life challenges facing low-income people still rings true today. As our national poverty rate among children is set to hit a record 25%, the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to cut $61 billion from the FY 2011 budget, representing the largest cut to domestic spending programs in U.S. history.

Among hundreds of programs that help low-income households, H.R. 1 proposes deep cuts to housing programs that prevent homelessness and provide stability to low-income households. H.R. 1 proposes to cut $5.4 billion from domestic housing programs, which could mean fewer available rental vouchers (which help families rent housing in the private market), the loss of 10,000 vouchers for homeless veterans, almost a 70% cut to programs providing affordable housing for the elderly and disabled, a $1.1 billion cut to capital money needed to repair and maintain public housing, and the loss of HOME dollars, which enable local governments to meet local affordable housing needs.

These deep cuts to critical housing programs come at the same time the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a report, finding that “worst case housing needs” grew by 1.2 million households, or more than 20%, from 2007 to 2009. “Worst case housing needs” are defined as low-income households who pay more than half their monthly income for rent, live in severely substandard housing, or both.

To avoid a government shutdown, the House and Senate must figure out how to fund the remainder of FY 2011 by March 18, 2011. Given the hard lines being taken in this budget battle, more proposed cuts are expected to domestic spending programs, including housing. Campaign rhetoric cannot ignore everyday people and children, who rely upon this Congress and President to protect them from deep poverty and homelessness. In the end, domestic spending cuts that eliminate critical housing programs will not save us money—they will cost us money. Research has shown that homelessness costs us more than paying for programs that prevent/address it. Indeed, a recently published study found that the cost of family homeless programs far is nearly double the cost of the nation’s rental assistance programs. These housing programs deliver real assistance on a daily basis so that seniors, families, and persons with disabilities do not have to choose between medicine, food, and housing. Wake up Congress, put aside this political blustering, and provide the necessary support for our nation’s low-income housing programs.

 

Housing Remains Unaffordable for Low-Income Americans

Even as the home prices and rents decrease in the wake of the housing crisis and communities see more and more vacant units, American families increasingly need more affordable housing.

Last month, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released its “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2010” report. The report describes a housing market sputtering toward stabilization, but facing significant obstacles. 

Indeed, many aspects of the housing market continue to erode. The Joint Center reports that one in seven homeowners owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth at the end of 2009. Similarly, foreclosures continue to rise; 2.1 million loans were in foreclosure during the first quarter of 2010. Nonetheless, 2009 saw an increase in home affordability and a surge in first-time homebuyers (due in large part to the first-time homebuyer tax credit). 

On the rental front, the number of renter households grew by 800,000 in 2009. But, due to a combination of new multifamily completions and a jump in the number of existing homes for rent, vacancies continued to rise and rental prices correspondingly sagged. (For information regarding Chicago-area rents and vacancy data, see DePaul University's Institute for Housing Studies first-quarter 2010 Cook County Rent and Vacancy Report.)

Despite increased vacancies and lowering prices, housing continues to become less and less affordable for more families. There has been a significant increase in the number of households with a severe housing cost burden (more than 50% of income spent on housing) since 2000. As of 2008, one in four renter households and over 44 million Americans, of which nearly 14 million are children, are living within households with severe cost burdens. Over half of renter households spend over 30% of household income on housing. Of these households, low-income, single-parent, minority families are more likely to suffer from harsher cost burdens.

Amid the upheaval in the housing market, The State of the Nation’s Housing 2010 makes clear that the nation’s housing remains unaffordable for more and more low-income Americans--especially in light of the staggering rate of unemployment. Indeed, while the number of vacant rental units priced at $1,500 or above per month jumped 23 percent, the number of vacant rental units for less than $600 remained virtually the same as the year before. Exploring ways to increase the availability of housing that is affordable to American families is more important now than ever.

Bank of America Settles Countrywide's Debts

Foreclosed HomeThousands of homeowners will be getting relief soon if they took out a loan with Countrywide Financial before 2008. Charges against Countrywide, now a subsidiary of Bank of America, are part of the largest mortgage-servicing case ever to come before the Fair Trade Commission (FTC), and one of the largest overall judgments. The New York Times reported that Bank of America will pay $108 million to families who were charged inflated “cost of service” fees such as lawn mowing and property inspection.

Over the past few years, Countrywide has become the poster child for the predatory lending industry and has received much of the blame for the housing crisis. Reports of abuses include the inadequate underwriting of adjustable rate mortgages or ARMs, unhelpful customer service, abysmal record keeping, abusive origination fees, and making false and defaming claims against homeowners who filed for bankruptcy protection.

As part of the monetary settlement, the FTC is requiring Bank of America to establish internal procedures and to use an independent third party to verify that bills and claims filed in Countrywide’s ongoing bankruptcy proceedings are valid. Countrywide also faces a criminal investigation by the Federal Fraud Enforcement Task Force into the defamation charges against it.

Unfortunately, Countrywide is only one of many lenders accused of predatory lending and consumer abuses. Although the FTC has played an integral role in holding Countrywide accountable, these predatory practices still abound in the mortgage industry. We need strong laws that protect consumers; that is why the Shriver Center supports an independent consumer protection agency which will prevent these abuses from happening in the future.

For more information contact the Community Investment Unit at the Shriver Center.

This article was co-authored by Susan Ritacca.


Adding Eviction to Injury: When Did It Become OK to Blame Crime Victims?

Congress and several states take actions to stop evictions of victims of violence

For women and children in this country, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness. Survivors of domestic violence (of which 90 to 95% are women), dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking living in rental housing are particularly vulnerable to homelessness because they are often threatened with eviction after an incident of violence. These evictions are frequently born out of property owners’ stereotypes about survivors of violence as individuals accountable for the acts of their abusers. Indeed, up until a few years ago, when victims of violence who lived in federally assisted low-income housing called the police to report intruders, being shot, or otherwise terrorized by their abusers, they would immediately receive an eviction notice.

In 2005, Congress adopted federal protections against evictions and denial of housing for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. The 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act prohibits evictions and admission denials of victims of violence who live certain types of federally supported low-income housing. The 2011 VAWA reauthorization should improve upon VAWA 2005 and expand it to cover other types of federal supported low-income housing. Any reauthorization must also extend those protections to survivors of sexual assault. 

On April 27, the Illinois Legislature passed H.B. 5523 and joined several other states, including Indiana, Colorado, Arkansas, Delaware, Texas and Virginia in protecting victims of violence from evictions based upon incidents of violence and/or their status as a victim of violence. Maryland has recently passed a similar bill. The governors of those states should sign the bills immediately.

However, property owners are not the only ones threatening survivors’ housing. A growing number of municipalities have adopted aggressive property nuisance codes or “crime-free” rental housing ordinances that obligate owners, under threat of losing their license to operate rental property, to evict all tenants when there is a crime or multiple police calls for assistance. To limit a survivor’s access to police assistance under threat of homelessness or to blame them for the crime committed against them likely violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution and Federal Fair Housing Act. While we support the idea of improving the quality and safety of rental housing, municipal actions cannot interfere with a survivor’s safety or hold them accountable for a perpetrator’s actions. Municipalities should amend these ordinances to eliminate these harmful and likely illegal provisions.   

Illinois Legislature Passes Bill to Protect Homeowners

Bill seeks to ensure that Illinois homeowners benefit from federal Making Home Affordable Program

On April 29, 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported that the number foreclosures reaching completion in the Chicago area was higher in the first quarter of 2010 than in any other period during the past five years. This is according to Woodstock Institute data released the same day. 

While the worsening crisis in the Chicago region certainly highlights the shortcomings of federal foreclosure prevention programs like the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), HAMP servicers have also been failing Illinois homeowners. Advocates report that homes are being lost to foreclosure even while homeowners are still trying to modify their loans under HAMP, in violation of the program. Indeed, the National Consumer Law Center and the National Association of Consumer Advocates reports that in a recent survey of over 100 consumer advocates, nearly 95% of the surveyed advocates have represented homeowners in cases where a servicer tried to proceed with a foreclosure sale without a completed review under HAMP. HAMP can hardly be successful if homeowners who apply to the program are losing their homes because the program is violated. Illinois homeowners deserve the opportunity to try and benefit from federal foreclosure prevention programs, even if they are not as effective as was hoped.

Recognizing the need to improve the effectiveness of the HAMP program, the Treasury Department issued new directive 10-02 on March 24, 2010, that, among other things, (a) clarifies that servicers must inform homeowners who meet basic criteria about the HAMP program, (b) prohibits referrals to foreclosure until either the homeowner has been evaluated and determined ineligible for HAMP or reasonable solicitation efforts have failed; and (c) requires that a servicer of a mortgage potentially subject to HAMP certify to the foreclosure attorney or trustee that the homeowner is not HAMP-eligible before a home can go to foreclosure sale. 

Although these new rules give foreclosure attorneys better guidance about when to file cases and proceed to sale, the directives still rely on the compliance of servicers. In order for the HAMP program to truly benefit homeowners, they must be able to stop foreclosure court proceedings when the HAMP program is violated before their homes are lost.

A proposed Illinois law may help. HB 5735, spearheaded by former Representative Deborah Graham, Representative Al Riley, and Senator Jacqueline Collins, makes clear that if a home goes to foreclosure sale in violation of the Making Home Affordable Program (of which HAMP is a major component), the homeowner can have the court set aside the sale, so that the owner can continue to work through the federal program. HB 5735 should be heading to Governor Quinn’s desk shortly. We implore Governor Quinn to sign the important protections of HB 5735 into law.

Healthy Communities, Housing Choice Vouchers, and Segregation: How Do You Solve a Problem That Won't Go Away?

HousingA new report released by the Illinois Assisted Housing Action Research Project (IHARP) shows that Chicago families in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program continue to live in overwhelmingly poor, African American neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides. These neighborhoods also experience high rates of crime, mortgage foreclosures, poor health, and high levels of lead.

The HCV program is supposed to give families the chance to rent in “healthy communities,” meaning areas with job opportunities; good schools, services, and transportation options; and low rates of crime. But this study and others like it shows that the majority of HCV families don’t live in those communities.

Being stuck in communities without opportunities is a significant issue not just for HCV families but for all low-income families, especially minority families. A recent Urban Institute report on residential mobility found that “residential churning,” or moving short distances due to financial stresses and housing problems, is prevalent in low-income communities. Nearly half of families originating in the report’s study areas were described as “churning movers” who gained little in neighborhood amenities and opportunities by moving. Strikingly, higher percentages of African-American and Hispanic families who moved were “churning movers” than white families who moved. 

This may be due to the fact that minority households face race-related barriers to residential mobility, and remain in poor neighborhoods due to racial segregation and social and economic inequities. As cited in the Urban Institute report, African Americans are less likely to move to better neighborhoods than other groups, even when they have achieved the same levels of income and education as other groups who moved out.   

We can do more to help HCV families move to healthy neighborhoods. Mobility counseling must be offered and supported provided both before and after families move. The rents offered by the HCV program must also be adjusted to reflect the block-by-block distinction of many communities, particularly in urban environments. If the rents are not set high enough to compete with the actual market rents in a healthy community, then no amount of mobility counseling will make a difference. As well, too many HCV families across the country are denied the chance to live in a healthy community because of open discrimination by property owners. Only by protecting voucher holders against source-of-income discrimination will these types of practices end. Finally, some thought should be given about how to make these moves to healthy communities more permanent--converting some of these vouchers to site or project-based subsidies (so the housing subsidy remains even after the tenant leaves but the tenant receives another voucher) could secure a long-term supply of affordable housing in these communities.

All in all, we need to reconsider how many housing choices not just low-incomes families really have under the current HCV program, but all low-income families in this country have.

This post was co-authored by Elizabeth Frantz.


 

New Protections for Renters in Foreclosure

As the foreclosure crisis has unfolded throughout the country, it has become evident that renters – not just homeowners - have been victims of this crisis. Indeed, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition reports that renters make up about 40% of the families facing the loss of their housing due to foreclosure and more than one in every five foreclosed properties is a rental property. 

Residents in foreclosed properties have been caught unaware that their home is being foreclosed and have scrambled with very little notice to find safe replacement housing. Rental properties in foreclosure fall into disrepair – even when there are still families living there.  Advocates throughout the country, grappling with the effect of the economic downturn, have called for increased protections for renters affected by foreclosure. Legislators have listened.

On May 20, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009, part of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009 (Pub. L. 111-22). This law, which sunsets in 2012, ensures that renters in foreclosed properties receive at least 90 days notice before they have to move, and that tenants who start a lease term before the notice of foreclosure may continue to live in their homes until the lease expires.

In Illinois, Representative Will Burns and Senator Jacqueline Collins have championed a bill, HB 3863, which would provide much needed protections for Illinois renters living in foreclosed properties. Currently, Illinois renters are not entitled to notice when control or ownership of the property in which they live changes as a result of foreclosure. Consequently, they frequently do not know who owns the property, where to pay rent, or who to call if repairs are necessary. Among other protections, HB 3863 would provide renters with essential information regarding their homes. 

The basic provisions of HB 3863 include:

·         During the foreclosure case, if a receiver (or mortgagee in possession) is appointed to operate and manage the property while the foreclosure case is pending, the receiver must:

a)      Make a good faith effort to identify residents of the property; and

b)      Notify residents of his or her appointment, inform residents that the property is the subject of a foreclosure action, and provide contact information for resident concerns and repair requests.

c)       Post notices with contact information at the property.

·         After the foreclosure is complete, the lender/new owner must:

a)      Make a good faith effort to identify residents of the property; and

b)      Notify residents that the lender/new owner has acquired the property, inform residents that the property has been the subject of foreclosure, and provide contact information for resident concerns and repair requests.

c)       Post notices with contact information at the property.

·         Tenants evicted as a part of the foreclosure case are granted a minimum of 30 days to move after the eviction hearing.

HB 3863 has been sent to the Governor’s desk. We implore Governor Quinn to sign it to protect the hidden victims of the foreclosure crisis.

Call 217-782-0244to encourage Governor Quinn to sign HB 3863.


 

Fighting the Foreclosure Monster

Dedicated advocates around the country are working furiously on behalf of clients who face foreclosure. Surely some of these creative minds have figured out how to solve the foreclosure crisis—haven’t they? Well, no. Lenders and loan servicers continue to resist loan modification, despite new federal incentives contained in the Home Affordable Modification Program, and advocates continue to grapple with the foreclosure monster.  

But promising efforts are underway. Philadelphia’s mandatory foreclosure diversion program, often held up as a model, can force lenders to come to the table. Of course, as advocates there point out, the program’s success relies on multiple pieces being in place: organizers (from ACORN, Philadelphia Unemployment Project, and other organizations) making personal contact with homeowners facing foreclosure, the Philadelphia Legal Assistance hotline, housing counselors, and representation in the actual mediation. While no panacea, a report on the program’s first year credits it with averting 1,400 foreclosures.

In areas where property values hit the stratosphere a couple of years ago many borrowers, to keep their homes, need not just loan modification but also principal reduction. In Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, advocates from Neighborhood Legal Services and community organizers from One LA joined forces to help homeowners negotiate collectively with their loan servicers; One LA used the data gathered to get the city council involved. The result is a pilot project through which, if the lender agrees to reduced principal and a fixed interest rate, the city will fund a “silent second” mortgage to reduce payments even further; the second mortgage is payable only upon sale or refinancing of the property.

Both these approaches were highlighted in a June 23 Shriver Center webinar, and the Los Angeles effort is also the subject of an article in the May-June 2009 issue of Clearinghouse Review. What innovative approaches are underway in your community? We’d love to hear about them. Email marciahenry@povertylaw.org  

Do The Right Thing, HUD Secretary Donovan!

During the past eight years, almost 100,000 units of public housing have been approved for demolition, and fewer than 40,000 units of public housing have been constructed, meaning that over 60% of public housing units demolished have not been replaced. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD ) approved a request from the San Diego Housing Commission “to get out of the public housing business” by vouchering out its entire stock of over 1,300 units. Vouchers allow residents to rent a unit in the private market. In 2008, the housing authorities in Las Vegas and Atlanta submitted applications to HUD to dispose of all their public housing units.

While most displaced residents receive Housing Choice Vouchers in which to move, the vouchers do not compensate for the loss of public housing to a community. Public housing is a commitment from the government that there will always be a housing resource for our most vulnerable populations—a commitment that the private sector cannot make. Even though vouchers are an important part of the nation’s affordable housing supply, they are not a permanent replacement for hard public housing units. 

On June 15, 2009, the Chairman of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee, Representative Barney Frank, and the Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, Representative Maxine Waters, sent a letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan asking him to impose a one-year moratorium on the approval of applications for demolition or disposition of public housing units. The Committee noted that, “Until such time as housing authorities are required to replace demolished or disposed units on a one-for-one basis, we risk losing the crucial investment and significant asset these units represent.”

We applaud the decision of Representatives Frank and Waters in making this request and in working on legislation to require one-for-one replacement of demolished public housing units.  In order that the nation not lose any more public housing units, it is imperative that HUD Secretary Donovan declare a one-year moratorium on public housing demolitions so that legislation can be enacted to preserve the nation’s supply of low-income public housing.