CFPB: Government for the People

Posted by Bill Bynum on January 23, 2017

Those of us who work in regulated industries, such as banking and credit unions, often succumb to the temptation to see government regulators as adversaries and to view any restrictions they impose as unreasonable curbs on free enterprise.

Increasingly, this anti-regulation chorus in the financial services industry, coupled with the virulent anti-government sentiment sweeping into Washington, has painted a huge target on the back of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Policymakers and the voting public don’t need a long memory to understand the danger in undermining one of the most effective pro-consumer federal actions in our nation’s history.

The 2008 housing crisis made clear that giving banks free reign to put profit before the interests of American consumers places the entire economy at risk. Before the CFPB, lightly regulated banks did sloppy underwriting, tricked consumers, and took unconscionable risks in investment markets. This crisis cost American households on average about 40 percent of their net worth, according to data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.

Banks struggled too in the crisis, of course, but the financial service industry’s recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. Their rebound is even more striking when compared to other sectors of the economy, and to American consumers.

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Organizing Will Win

Posted by Laura Barrett on January 20, 2017

For anyone who organizes and advocates for worker justice, the last months of 2016 felt like an unmitigated disaster. But even as we begin 2017 facing grave uncertainty about the future for working people, we should not forget the accomplishments of the past year. In fact, it is even more important to celebrate them and take the lessons about successful organizing that we can.

In the Interfaith Worker Justice affiliate network, worker centers and faith and labor groups have moved a number of campaigns to improve the lives of working people.

Here are some of those stories:

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Five for the Frontlines: 2016’s Best Books to Prepare for the Fight Ahead

Posted by James Tracy on January 19, 2017

We asked some of our regular contributors for suggested reading lists to prepare for the coming four years. As we receive their suggestions (specifically on political theory and organizing strategy), we'll share them here. Do you have a list of your own? Feel free to share them in the comments section.—The Shelterforce Editors


“ … books and Black lives still matter.” —Prince

Say what you will about how horrible 2016 was; it was a great year for books all around. The stakes are way too high to lock one’s self away in a Scandinavian country and read them all over the next four years. These five books stand out particularly because they provide clues on what good organizing might look like in the years ahead.

In Defense of Housing, by David Madden and Peter Marcuse (Verso). The president-elect made sure that commentators and pundits from across the political spectrum had steady work in 2016, but one aspect missing from the discussion was the implications of having a real estate developer as the nation's commander in chief. In Defense of Housing clearly lays out the systemic nature of the housing crisis and seamlessly breaks down complicated economic concepts. Madden and Marcuse gently disabuse readers of illusions that the end of the housing crisis is just a policy tweak away.

Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt, by Sarah Jaffe (Nation Books). Jaffe dignifies and contemplates recent social movements including Occupy, anti-Stop and Frisk, and the Fight for 15. Necessary Trouble is necessary reading as an antidote to advent-of-fascism blues. It belongs on the same bookshelf as Piven and Cloward’s classic Poor People’s Movements: Why they Succeed and How They Fail.

Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton. (Verso) An incredible anthology tracing the bloody history of broken-windows policing and its implications for city life in general. Policing the Planet is even more relevant with a president-elect who has publically praised stop-and-frisk policing and has a friend in Rudy Giuliani. It’s a solid collection with stand-out contributions from Robin D.G. Kelley, Rachel Herzing, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

From #blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation, by Keenanga-Yamatta Taylor (Haymarket Books). This book describes a politics where anti-racism and class can co-exist, fortify one another, and ultimately change the course of history. It is a book for today’s young organizers and grounded in historical analysis.

Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used To Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance, by Shon Meckfessel (AK Press). We know the script. Movements get big. Protests surge. Then, activists tear each other down debating nonviolence, violence, and property destruction. Meckfessel elevates this debate by engaging on the level of strategy and tactics. He avoids the pitfalls of more-radical-than-thou rhetoric and provides his readers with the tools to think through the hard questions that arrive with mass mobilization.

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In Troubled Times, Taking Stock of Our Community Wealth

Posted by Steve Dubb on January 17, 2017

In the wake of the 2016 election, many have focused on the vote and the politics behind that vote. But it is important, too, to look to movement assets that might be available to mobilize to continue to build local economies in the face of an inhospitable federal government. And here there is some good news—namely, that the state of what I like to call community wealth building is much stronger today than in 2001 at the start of the Bush administration.

Community wealth building strategy, as I wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, refers to the use of “community ownership of business and land to generate income-producing assets and build wealth in low-income communities over time.” The political point is that community-controlled economic institutions develop economic power that enables them to more forcefully promote policies that benefit their constituents. And it is not just policy: these community institutions provide mechanisms to employ community residents, purchase goods and services, and invest and allocate resources. In short, while one shouldn’t overstate this, there is at least some ability to work around policy obstacles, as well as push for supportive state and local policies, even, as Rick Jacobus noted, defensive battles will need to be fought.

Of course, our field has a mixed story to tell. Despite the growth of community institutions, communities are still suffering. Clearly, there has not been a full recovery from the Great Recession—this homeownership chart, for example, shows how far ownership rates remain below pre-recession levels.

But in thinking about how to face the current federal environment, it might be helpful to take stock of where gains have occurred. Among these growth areas are:

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The President as Developer-in-Chief

Posted by Seema Agnani on January 13, 2017

People have been asking me what I think about Ben Carson as the nominee to be Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It’s not just family, friends, and acquaintances who ask this question, but allies—people who work at other national organizations like and unlike mine.

But can I admit something? This question—what do I think about Ben Carson as nominee for HUD Secretary? —is an especially hard question for me to answer. Sure, I have set of pat answers that I’ve been giving people. I express skepticism because the nominee has so little prior experience with issues of housing and community development or with public administration. I talk about my displeasure that someone who recently and publicly called fair housing a failed socialist plot would be at the helm of a federal agency charged with enforcing fair housing. I talk about my and my organization’s commitment to fight for quality, affordable housing for low-income people; for equitable, vibrant, and sustainable communities; and about how these commitments stem from our larger vision of racial and economic justice. And I express my hope that all of these values remain a core part of HUD under the new administration, regardless of whoever becomes the head of the agency.

But underneath my answers, I admit to being uncomfortable, and even stifled with my own talking points. Ben Carson seems like a nice enough man, but my real feeling is that he is probably what they called a “Chamcha” in India under British rule—conveying a person without a backbone who facilitates the erosion of society by being uncritical and instead a pawn of the empire. I hope I am wrong.

But even more than that, the real issue is not Ben Carson.

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Carson Tries to Please Everyone in Confirmation Hearing, Mostly Succeeds

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on January 12, 2017

Triage is in effect among those opposed to the incoming administration and the president-elect's cabinet picks. This morning’s Senate hearing for Ben Carson was not a exercise in determining whether he should be confirmed. Instead, a group of people certain he was going to be confirmed tried to get Carson on record supporting their positions.

The appointment of Carson, a neurosurgeon with no housing experience, has been described as one of Trump’s most baffling moves. But it’s baffling not only in that he does not have any relevant experience, but in that people can’t suss out an ulterior motive, unlike so many of the other nominations that have clear conflicts of interest and a strong likelihood to undermine the very missions of the agencies they are nominated to lead. It’s clear that citizens and the Senate alike have decided that Carson is not worth fighting over.

That said, there were some useful and pointed exchanges in the hearing.

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Time for a Job Guarantee

Posted by Jamaal Green on January 12, 2017

In various economic pundit conversations on Twitter, the new target of scorn is Universal Basic Income (UBI). Supporters of UBI (at least those who identify as being more left-leaning) posit it as a solution to the jobless and depressed landscapes that litter the country—from the heavily deindustrialized counties of the Rust Belt to the inner cities and suburbs where joblessness has been the norm for decades. By definition, UBI is a guaranteed payment from a government to all of its citizens to help support basic needs. The logic behind UBI is intuitive: sever the connection between labor and wages, simplify the cruel, confusing aspects of our threadbare welfare system, and offer folks a life not wholly dependent on the whims of the greater labor market. And, as Matt Bruenig powerfully argues, we already have UBI for the wealthiest in our society, so why not make it available to everyone not fortunate enough to have a steady stream of capital income?

A host of online pundits, best exemplified with this piece from Josh Barro, counter that UBI ignores the inherent value of work and is a logistic and ideological loser. The basic idea is that Americans want to work and get value from being "useful" in their jobs. This argument isn't new, and some of his policy recommendations would generally be positive—decreasing workplace discrimination, implementing paid child leave, and mandating scheduling certainty are all decidedly positive, pro-worker steps. But these policies, and the reasoning behind them, miss two essential things.

First, and most basic, is that none of these policies have anything to do with making new jobs. The closest Barro gets to an actual job-creation policy is moving federal agencies, a dubious "place-based" idea that will simply shift labor from one region to another in the hopes of a large enough multiplier effect to spur economic growth. One does not need a degree in economics to know that most jobs that move will already be filled, and any knock-off effects that do show up will likely be in the growth of lower-paying, poor-quality jobs in the retail or service industry. Job quality is an important and undervalued area of workforce policy, but it does nothing in areas where there is an absolute lack of jobs in the first place.

Second, this notion of the intrinsic value of work is little more than an amalgamation of Protestant work ethic ideology extended. It is laughable that so many economists—in a field that never tires of commodifying that which we claim cannot, or should not, be commodified, now point toward the intrinsic, incalculable value of working. I do not deny that many gain some value from working beyond that of their wages. We all want to feel useful and valued, to be good providers for our families, and to lead reasonably comfortable lives. But the lie rests in the idea that any job will do. And even if we accept that the mere act of having a job is intrisically valuable, then we must still ask why conservative critics of the UBI are so wary of the most obvious solution: giving people jobs directly. 

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GOP Tax Plan Takes Mortgage Interest Deduction Unfairness Off the Charts

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on January 11, 2017

Let's raise the standard deduction and lower tax rates to give everyone a tax cut! 

It should not surprise you that since this is a description of the House GOP tax plan that it's not as good as it sounds.

Indeed, an analysis from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center shows that, surprise, surprise, the benefits would be extremely concentrated among the wealthy, who would save tens of thousands to millions every year, compared to $50 to $410 for the lower four-fifths of the income scale. That's a 4.6 to 16.9 percent increase in after-tax income, depending if you are merely well off or super rich, while everyone in the bottom four-fifths sees, at most, a 0.5 percent increase. (See table.)











Of course the effects would be worse than that sounds. Given that that analysis also shows modest and short-term GDP growth resulting from these tax cuts that would be dwarfed by loss of revenue in the trillions, this plan would almost certainly mean dramatic scale back or cancellation of dozens of ways we currently take care of the vulnerable or those going through economic dislocation.

The downsides of losing affordable healthcare and housing support, veteran benefits, food stamps, unemployment benefits, defense against employer abuses, publicly created jobs, and the like would expontentially outstrip $50 to $410 per year in additional income.

But wait, there's more.

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Myths and Realities About Cycles: Avoiding the Inevitability Trap

Posted by Alan Mallach on January 9, 2017

About a year ago I wrote a post about Paul Krugman and whether building luxury housing could mitigate the effects of gentrification. For whatever reason, I just noticed one of the comments on that post, which in turn prompted me to think about a very different question. The reader wrote that “the author is completely ignorant of the housing cycle. As time goes on, the luxury condos tend to pass down the economic chain to become condos for the middle class, then the lower-middle class, and then back up the economic chain again.” Leaving aside the writer’s condescending rudeness, which reflects more on him than on the subject of his criticism, his observation is utterly fatuous. But be that as it may, he raises an important point. As human beings, we are constantly attuned to cycles in nature. The sun and moon rise and set, the tides rise and fall, the seasons go and come back. Perhaps that explains our desire to impose a cyclic order on social and economic phenomena, but we’ve been doing it for a long time. In 1959, two of the most prominent urban economists of the time, Edgar (not J. Edgar!) Hoover and Raymond Vernon, offered their take on the “neighborhood life cycle”:

Stage 1: Single-family residential development.

Stage 2: Transition to higher density, apartment construction.

Stage 3: Downgrading to accommodate higher density through conversion and overcrowding of existing structures, spread of ethnic and minority districts.

Stage 4: Thinning-out or “shrinkage” characterized by population loss and decline in housing units.

Stage 5: Renewal through public intervention, redevelopment and replacement of obsolete housing with new multifamily apartments.

In 1975, HUD asked the Real Estate Research Corporation (RERC) to take a fresh look at the cycle. RERC was more pessimistic, as reflected in its version:

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Not All Artists Are Young. Or Childless.

Posted by Tiffany Eng on January 5, 2017

On Dec. 3, the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland became the deadliest in the city’s history, claiming the lives of 36 individuals. The warehouse inferno also consumed an event venue and artist collective that up to two dozen people—many of them artists—called home.

In the weeks since the fire, there's been no shortage of reporting on the many factors that set the scene for this tragedy, including the lack of coordination between public agencies, the disregard for common safety measures, and the broader housing crisis that disproportionately affects artists.

And yet, there has been little reported on the fact that for the past few years, a family that included three young children was living in the Ghost Ship in unsafe and substandard living conditions. While the subtenants who made the warehouse their home opted into the collective, the children likely had little choice in the matter. While their lives were thankfully spared, their improvised home was not.

Given the circumstances, it’s not enough to characterize artists simply as individuals in need of affordable places to create and live. We need to first understand that artists are a very diverse group, with a range of incomes, ages, and household sizes. And as the victims of the fire have demanded, we also need strong rental protections, eviction controls, and safe and affordable spaces for those who have been marginalized by society to gather and collaborate.

But if we genuinely want to make room for our artistic communities to thrive, we need to consider them within the full circle of life.

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