Posted on September 30, 2010
No, mortgage companies aren’t embracing futuristic robot technology. Instead, the public is just beginning to learn about a time-honored industry practice that just might invalidate tens of thousands of foreclosures around the country.
Last Wednesday, a company called Ally Financial quietly ordered its agents in 23 states to halt any sales, evictions, cash-for-keys deals, and other foreclosure transactions. According to a two-page memo obtained by Bloomberg News, the company was considering “corrective action in connection with some foreclosures” in the affected states, which include foreclosure hotspots like Florida and Ohio.
Beneath Ally’s smooth technical language lies a troubling revelation with potentially disastrous implications for the massive industry that has grown up around the foreclosure crisis. According to the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and others, Ally used to be GMAC Mortgage, an entity that received three federal bailouts totaling more than $17 billion since 2008. After rebranding as Ally, Inc., the company began servicing mortgages for some of the nation’s largest lenders. In the wake of the housing crash, a great deal of Ally’s business involves executing foreclosures—in other words, verifying and signing the affidavits that judges rely on to determine whether a lender can seize a home. And as the market continues to spiral out of control, homeowners’ losses are Ally’s gain: the more foreclosures out there to process, the more fees it and other companies can rack up. And now it looks like good old-fashioned greed may call tens of thousands of foreclosures into question. Read more »
Posted on September 22, 2010
Before I left South Africa, there was one more visit I had to make: to the Apartheid Museum. Today’s lesson: while it’s good that apartheid is where it belongs – in a museum – the job isn’t done yet.
At the museum entrance, your ticket randomly assigns you either “White” or “Non-White”, and then you must pass through segregated gates – making a physical, in addition to emotional impact. From the moment I pushed through the turnstile, I felt a heavy weight descend on my shoulders. Of course, I knew the long arc of the story told by the museum bends toward a better ending, but the immediate intensity of the pain and suffering of generations was overwhelming.
As I wound through the museum (literally – parts of it are set up as a maze – perhaps so you can’t see the end while you’re in the middle of it), the thing that struck me most was the cruelty of many of the quotes from politicians and regular people alike proclaiming their superiority and the inferiority of other races. It boggled my mind that people here felt they could make those statements openly, in my own lifetime. But then I thought, have we really moved so much further?
At the end, the story had wound its course to a free South Africa, finishing with the negotiation of a new constitution which replaced the laws of separation with seven pillars of Democracy, Equality, Reconciliation, Diversity, Responsibility, Respect, and Freedom. A constitution which, like our own, contains the best of our ideals, but, as shown by recent events, needs a lifetime of work to put it into practice. The attorneys and activists I’ve met this week are part of that work for the respect of universal human rights, and I count myself lucky that my own job is as well. Together, we’ll work to keep putting more of the world’s inhumanity into museums.
-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director
Posted on September 17, 2010
Today we concluded our meetings in South Africa with a budget analysis workshop and a discussion of our common challenges. Back in the U.S., the Census Department released new data showing 1 in 7 Americans live in poverty – the highest number and highest percentage on record, in what is still the wealthiest country on earth. The only way to explain this is that people are too willing to shut their hearts and minds to their fellow human beings’ suffering, to say “it’s ok if it happens to ‘them,’ and long as it’s not ‘us’.” So today’s lesson is one my wife shared with me long ago: at the end of the day, it all comes down to empathy.
Whether you’re in Cairo or Pretoria, Chicago or D.C., our budgets today are not based on ensuring people’s basic human rights and basic human needs are met. Most Americans live in subsidized housing –homeowners receive a mortgage income tax deduction that actually goes up the richer you are, and the bigger the house you own. Every year, the amount this costs our government is more than double the entire HUD budget for public housing and housing vouchers. Most homeowners see the mortgage tax deduction as an entitlement and would scream and shout if it were threatened, yet many are quick to criticize those living in public housing – most of whom are working families, elderly, or disabled persons – and say they shouldn’t be relying on Uncle Sam for handouts. Somehow, one class is seen as deserving, and the other isn’t. And because the tax credit is on the revenue side, it is mostly invisible, but the HUD budget needs to be approved every year, and each dollar is on the chopping block.
This same scenario repeats itself all around the globe – budgets invisibly benefit the wealthy, but expenditures to help the poorest of the poor are grudgingly, and inadequately given. As Zubo, a young adult living in the shacks in Soweto told me, all she wants is a safe, secure place where her parents won’t have to live with the cold in the winter – concerns we should all be able to understand. But Zubo and her family have now lived for generations in the shacks, just as poor Americans have struggled for years to rise out of poverty. And unfortunately our budgets show that we don’t care for families like Zubo’s as much as we do for our own. Click on the image to the right to watch my conversation with her.
A human rights budget is one that guarantees everyone can live with the same basic human dignity you would want your own family to be able to enjoy. This is our common challenge as we look ahead, and what I will be working for when I return home tomorrow.
-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director
Posted on September 16, 2010
Today was an incredible, inspiring, heartbreaking day of site visits to three key sites for the movement for housing rights in South Africa: an active squatters building, two buildings where squatters have been relocated, and an informal shack dweller settlement in Kliptown, in the Soweto suburbs of Johannesburg. Though there’s so much I wish I could share, for now, the lesson for today is: litigation can achieve huge victories in protecting the human right to housing, but it will require much more to see the right fulfilled.
Our first visit was to the 115 Main Street building in downtown Jo’burg, where three floors of a former garage have been turned into dark warrens of essentially indoor shacks constructed of plywood, metal, and fabric. The approximately 120 residents, including 20 families with children, live without running water or regular electricity, and were threatened with eviction by the building owner, who wants to upgrade this building in a gentrifying area. Because of South Africa’s phenomenal constitutional protection of the human right to housing and the supporting Prevention of Illegal Evictions Act, local lawyers were able to stop the eviction until the city proposes alternative accommodations for the residents. Read more »
Posted on September 14, 2010
Today marks the first in a mini-series of blog posts from my trip to South Africa, where I am attending a convening of housing rights experts put on by the Ford Foundation. Today’s lesson is: we are not alone!
Participating in today’s conversation were lawyers and advocates from South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Egypt, India, Kenya, and Argentina. And despite coming from vastly different legal and political contexts, the challenges we face are strikingly similar.
A quick sampling of issues – see if you can match the issue to the country:
- A poor community living on potentially valuable waterfront real estate is threatened with summary eviction to make way for redevelopment, where they “may” have a chance to purchase housing units after they have been displaced for several years.
- Homeless persons dying of exposure on the streets while politicians claim there is no money in the budget for shelters.
- Police marching into a homeless encampment and tearing down tents and shelters without warning.
The answers, in this case are Nigeria, India, and South Africa. But any of them could have taken place in the U.S. Read more »
Posted on September 10, 2010
Each day, as my computer shakes to life, I’m conscious that the work my colleagues do is vitally important. But the enormity of homelessness and poverty can weigh on a person, and numb them to the good days. I wonder when the day will come when homelessness is removed from the American picture, finding life only in personal and academic histories.
I remind myself, though, that history is but a string of small moments, bound by the fibers of perspective.
Each year, at our annual McKinney-Vento Awards, the Law Center pays tribute to those moments and to the people responsible for them. This year, on October 14, at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., we’re proud to welcome U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan as the keynote speaker at this evening dedicated to those working diligently to end homelessness.
That night, we’ll be proud to honor New York Times best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich, whose work has demonstrated a deep commitment to raising awareness and promoting understanding about poverty and homelessness in the U.S. We’re also excited to honor Dechert LLP, a firm which has displayed an exemplary commitment to pro bono legal work. Read more »