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#BlackLivesMatter. #UnitedWeFight.

Saturday, a group of ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ activists protested at a Seattle public event to celebrate decades of Social Security and Medicare. Our affiliate organization, Washington Community Action Network! was a cosponsor of the event. The event featured U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Sen. Sanders was unable to speak to the crowd because of the protest.

The issues of Social Security, Medicare and racist police violence are issues that are very important to us, our organizations and our grassroots members. It should be noted that other speakers earlier in the event spoke about the urgency and importance of the #BlackLivesMatter movement on the eve of the one year anniversary of the killing of ‪#‎MikeBrown‬ in‪#‎Ferguson‬, MO.

We understand why some rally participants were frustrated not to hear Sen. Sanders as planned, but we are very disturbed that some in the crowd demanded that protestors be arrested and heckled during the short moment of silence for Mike Brown.

As long as the killing of black people remains a crisis in this country activists will demand that #BlackLivesMatter be front and center on the national agenda. And it should be. But we also believe that there are other important and pressing issues facing working people and communities of color. We think there is room for conversations on all these issues and more in Congress, along the Presidential campaign trail, in statehouses and in the public debate.

The candidates will all have to improve their response to the crisis of police violence and mass incarceration, and all of us will have to learn to work together, broaden our understanding of issues — even those that don’t directly effect us — and deepen our sense of solidarity. Sometimes that means making room for issues that aren’t our personal priority. Sometimes that means being uncomfortable.

That’s why it is so appropriate that organizers in Ferguson this weekend are using the slogan ‪#‎UnitedWeFight‬. It will take a united fight to change police practices in this country, as well as to expand Medicaid, defend Social Security and Medicare and win a better world for all.

Seattle Election Initiative Aims to Take Big Money Out of Campaigns

This article was contributed by Rosalind Brazel, communications manager for Washington Community Action Network (Washington CAN!)

The Honest Elections Initiative campaign aims to take big money out of politics and give low income people a real voice in electing leaders who represent them.

On Monday, June 1, more than 32,000 signatures were delivered to the Seattle City Clerk. Initiative 122 would change the way City of Seattle campaigns are financed.

Seattle voters would receive vouchers, four of them for $25 each, that could be given to the candidates or campaigns of their choosing. I-122 would also set limits on the maximum contribution an individual could make to a campaign.

New lobbying, disclosure and enforcement measures are also infused into this initiative to amplify the voice of the voter. The funds would come from a property tax – about $8 a year for the average homeowner.

Washington CAN! Leader Chettie McAfee was a guest speaker at the Honest Elections press event outside Seattle City Hall on Monday.

“The interests of banks and big developers do not align with the interests of people like me: women, people of color, and people with low incomes. A system where money influences who becomes an elected official, is a system where money influences political priorities and the direction of this city.”

If the clerk validates at least 20,360 of the signatures submitted, I-122 will appear on the November ballot. If passed, this would be the only system of its kind in the U.S.

Changing the Way We Help Underwater Homeowners | foreclosure

This opinion piece by LeeAnn Hall originally appeared in the Seattle Times.

By LeeAnn Hall and Will Pittz

While the recession officially ended in 2009, there are still over 9 million households across the country with homes worth less than the value of their mortgage. There are still neighborhoods in Seattle where more than 20 percent of homes are underwater.

How many more Seattle families need to lose their homes in the foreclosure crisis that continues year after year? There are solutions, but they need champions, and leadership – both locally and nationally.

Advocates are pushing the Seattle City Council to pursue a local principal reduction program to reset the value of mortgages based on their current market value. That local action can help thousands of homeowners in Seattle, but it must include strong buy-in from the City Council and include mechanisms to encourage big banks to participate. Proposals are outlined in a recent report by Reset Seattle and the Alliance for a Just Society.

Thankfully, members of the City Council are making progress. The council commissioned a short study on the feasibility of principal reduction in Seattle, and council members have publically expressed their intent to pursue a program similar to one in Oregon. This action comes too late for homeowners who have already lost their homes, but it can still help many families throughout the city with underwater mortgages.

While Seattle is making slow progress, other families throughout the country also need champions. Leadership was expected from Mel Watt, the recently appointed director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).

For more than 20 years, Mel Watt served the people of North Carolina as a member of Congress. During that time, he earned a reputation of being on the side of working families in his district, including those who were struggling to make ends meet. Watt advocated for struggling homeowners, co-sponsored mortgage reform, and promoted affordable housing.

However, as director of FHFA, Watt has done an about-face. While he once urged the president to enact principal reduction, he has done nothing to take steps within his power to make that assistance a reality. Such steps would not even require congressional approval.

It’s too late for millions of homeowners across the country, it’s not too late for leaders at the local and national level to step up and take action for those homeowners still struggling.

The foreclosure problem hasn’t gone away; the need for assistance remains critical in Seattle and nationally, especially in urban neighborhoods and among people of color. In many cases, these mortgages were the result of predatory lending practices in the years leading up to the market’s collapse.

By not acting, Watt is making matters worse. Local leaders on the Seattle City Council are considering a great step to help homeowners in Seattle and especially communities of color, as in the International District and Delridge, that still have high rates of underwater mortgages. However, both local and national action must happen soon before more families lose their homes.

It’s time for Seattle to move quickly toward a local principal reduction program, and it is well past time for FHFA Director Watt to remember the work that landed him in the nation’s capital and take action to help homeowners.

LeeAnn Hall is executive director of the Seattle-based Alliance for a Just Society. Will Pittz is executive director of Washington Community Action Network

“While We Celebrate a $15 Minimum Wage, Let’s Remember It’s Not Enough”

There has been a lot of buzz around the Seattle City Council’s historic adoption of a $15 minimum wage, the highest in the nation. Now there’s also excitement over last week’s passage of a living wage ordinance by the King County Council that sets the same wage floor for county employees and contractors.

Yes, $15 is more than twice the federal minimum wage, which stands at a paltry $7.25 an hour and that Congress has failed to increase for five years and counting.

But despite the recent local victories, let’s not hang up a “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet; we still have a long way to go. In this debate, some have argued that $15 is too big of a jump. On the contrary, it does not go far enough.

First and foremost, $15 is not enough for King County families to meet basic needs.

In August, the Alliance for a Just Society and Washington Community Action Network jointly released “Families Out of Balance,” which calculates basic expenses for King County residents.

The report finds that the hourly wage full-time workers in King County need to make basic ends meet, ranges from $17.37 an hour for a single individual to $34.46 for a single adult with two children. These calculations include food, housing, utilities, transportation, health care, household, small savings, child care and tax costs. They assume a 40-hour workweek. (See http://www.thejobgap.org.)

Meanwhile, if you can’t make ends meet, it’s not as simple as just finding another job. Another study the Alliance released last year found that, for every living wage job for a single individual in Washington state, there are eight job-seekers.

For a single parent with two kids, there are 21 job seekers for every living wage job. Seventy-eight percent of all job openings in Washington don’t pay enough for that parent to survive.

Quite simply, many King County families aren’t making ends meet, and $15 is not a living wage.

Our improved minimum wage falls short by other measures as well. A Center for Economic and Policy Research report finds that, had the federal minimum wage kept up with economic productivity, it should have been $21.72 an hour in 2012, about three times the current minimum wage.

It is also worth noting that several exceptions have watered down the policy. The Seattle minimum wage is phased-in, getting to $15 an hour gradually between 2017 and 2021, depending on the size of the business and whether it offers health care.

The Seattle wage schedule gets us closer to an actual living wage than we’ve been in the history of our living wage study, which goes back to 1999. But in reality, it remains a modest step in the right direction.

In the end, the triumph of $15 is that it was a bottom-up approach to progressive policy change that succeeded. After all, it was Seattle’s low-wage workers who first had the courage to demand a $15 minimum wage — and they got it.

Many families face impossible balance sheets, paying living costs, maybe student loan debt or medical bills, and are having excruciating kitchen table conversations.

A $15 minimum wage is a huge step in the right direction, but we must remember that this is only the beginning in the movement for a more prosperous Washington and America.

This article originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

Bank of America Settlement Could Fund Principal Reduction Programs

Screen shot 2014-09-24 at 3.43.37 PM

Reset Seattle members listen as homeowners facing foreclosure ask Seattle City Council members to enact a principal reduction program to help them save their underwater homes from foreclosure. Photo: Reset Seattle

It has taken six years and dozens of lawsuits and settlements after the largest housing collapse since the Great Depression – and finally we may have a way to set up and implement local principal reduction programs in cities across the country.

September has brought us what is expected to be the last of the big settlements by the Justice Department against the big banks. The good news is that the settlements have grown progressively larger each time, with more and more specificity regarding how the banks must comply.

On the flip side, however, there are the murky oversight mechanisms that present challenges for municipalities and community groups looking for a handle.

In the latest settlement Bank of America is required to provide $2.5 billion in principal reduction where foreclosure is not pursued. Additionally, they’re required to pay $50 million to capitalize local programs administered by local governments, Community Development Financial Institutions or other community organizations.

This is ready-made for the proposal the Reset Seattle coalition is working to implement. Reset Seattle is an alliance of hundreds of individuals and more than 30 faith, community, and labor groups in Seattle dedicated to stopping the foreclosure crisis.

The Bank of America settlement money could create a revolving loan fund that is designed purchase underwater homes in zip codes that are particularly hard hit – such as those in southeast Seattle where 15 -20 percent of homes are underwater and homeowners haven’t felt the recovery the way parts of the city have.Screen shot 2014-09-22 at 12.02.24 PM

Seattle must seize this opportunity to demand Chase, Bank of America and Citibank meet their settlement obligations by funding principal reduction proposals, like the one proposed in Seattle. This seems like a perfect fit for everyone – the banks meet their obligations, the city doesn’t have to issue bonds to capitalize the program and underwater homeowners in the city get their principal reduced saving hundreds of dollars every month.

In her latest brief on principal reduction, Alliance Policy Associate Allyson Fredericksen writes that “many other cities are already taking action to give banks the incentive to renegotiate mortgages and work with homeowners to avoid foreclosure”

Some of those incentives, according to Fredericksen, include instituting fees to encourage mediation, to issuing fines for blight on foreclosed homes, to releasing reports on banks’ actions in the community. Such actions put the responsibility on banks to act without putting additional pressure on homeowners.

Seattle should learn from other cities, and lead the way in helping homeowners, without requiring those stretched and stressed homeowners to negotiate with banks on their own.

Unfortunately as we’ve seen time and again since the housing market collapsed, common sense rarely wins out and unnecessary suffering is inflicted to score an ideological point. Hopefully the stars have finally aligned

You can read the Bank of America settlement here.

You can read the details of the Community Relief section here.

 

Welcome to the Alliance’s “Power from the Roots Up” Conference

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 3.30.52 PM** Letter from the Executive Director **

Welcome to the Alliance’s annual conference, “Power from the Roots Up”!

In this moment, we are witnessing intense gridlock in D.C. The once-promising dream of comprehensive immigration reform has turned into a political nightmare. Congress refuses to allow former students to refinance one of the great scourges of family debt out there, student loans. And, despite significant momentum by state and local governments around the country — including the recent passage of a $15 minimum wage here in Seattle — Congress is still unable to increase a federal minimum wage that has remained stagnant since 2009.

However, we have much to celebrate.

Community organizations around the country are running successful campaigns at the local level, making change one policy at a time. They are racking up big wins with innovative campaigns, ensuring that, when national opportunities arise, we have built power and are poised to strike.

A few examples that provide an inspiring contrast to the morass in D.C.: Read more

Seattle’s $15 Wage Plan to Boost Families and Businesses

Alliance for a Just Society Photo by Jason Collette

Alliance for a Just Society Photo by Jason Collette

The day after Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked a modest minimum wage increase to $10.10, Seattle small business owners with the Main Street Alliance proclaimed their support for a city level $15 minimum wage.

“It is smart and responsible to raise the minimum wage, boost our local economy, and support small business success at the same time,” said Joe Fugere, owner of Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, who served on the Mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee.

“Main Street Alliance brought a strong small business voice to the process that sought common ground because we know our economy is built from the bottom up, not the top down,” said Fugere. “We recognize that our local economy is stronger when low- and middle-class families have greater economic security and more money to spend. Read more

After Obamacare Enrollment, Three Critical Steps

Massachussetts Considers Mandatory Health InsuranceThis article by LeeAnn Hall, first appeared in Colorlines.com

More than 7.1 million people have obtained health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, despite the early confusion and glitches with the computer system. In addition, 6.3 million are approved for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and an estimated 3 million more young people gained health insurance by staying on their parent’s plans.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to eliminate health disparities so people of color are no longer living sicker and dying younger. If we do our job, no mother will ever have to choose between paying the rent or taking her sick child to the doctor.
Read more

Progressive Cities Can Offer a Helping Hand to Families Facing Foreclosure

Foreclosures and high numbers of underwater homes aren’t making headlines around the country the way they were a couple of years ago, but that doesn’t mean the housing market is back on solid footing – or that people are no longer suffering.

Thousands of families in Seattle are still dealing with the traumatic repercussions of the housing crash – wrecked credit, lost wealth, and relocation. Housing advocates, like Reset Seattle, are working with cities and public agencies to come up with creative ways to help homeowners.

Reset Seattle is asking the City of Seattle to use their power of eminent domain to buy underwater homes at fair market value, and then sell them to the current owners, at the current market price. It’s an innovative idea that just might help someone like Seattle high school teacher Betsy Andrews, who is hanging on to her home by a thread.

Betsy Andrews of Seattle has tried every avenue to try and save her home.

Betsy Andrews of Seattle has tried every avenue to try and save her home.

After being laid off from her job as an English teacher because of budget cuts, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to make the payments. Terrified of losing her house she called banks, worked with supposed-loan modification services, and spent hours and hours on the phone getting the run around. One “specialist” even told her the way to save her home was to “go get a job.”

“It is humiliating,” she recently told a Seattle City Council Committee that is hearing options for helping families facing foreclosure to save their homes.

Finally, after 18 months without work, Andrews is teaching again and sighing with relief that she would be able to keep her house. But within days, she came home to a “Notice of default. Intent to accelerate” notice from the bank on her front door.

“I consider myself well-educated and pretty savvy,” said Andrews. “This has been an absolute nightmare navigating the system. It has affected my health. The reality is, if I lose my home, I will never be in a position to buy a house again.”

Despite the heart-breaking stories, Seattle homeowners like Andrews are unlikely to get help anytime soon from the City of Seattle.

This week, the Interdepartmental Team (IDT) created by the City to review strategies for helping families, including using eminent domain, made its first report to the council committee.

The results were pretty disappointing.

What they presented during a two-hour meeting Wednesday (that you can watch here) was a half-hearted attempt to perform their assignment. They painted a rosy picture of the Seattle housing market that runs drastically counter to what organizers, advocates – and homeowners – are seeing in the community.

What was their alternative solution? More outreach to put people into the federal government’s HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) and HAMP (Home Affordable Modification Program). In the past two years, those two programs have helped a mere 125 homeowners in Seattle. They have caused many others unbearable misery.

Reset Seattle invited city council members on a bus tour of homes and communities blighted by foreclosure.

Reset Seattle invited city council members on a bus tour of homes and communities blighted by foreclosure.

“More outreach isn’t going to help people,” said Chris Genese with Washington Community Action Network and Reset Seattle. “Throwing more energy at the same programs that aren’t working – isn’t the answer. We need to do something else.

“I am disheartened the Interdepartmental Team didn’t mention, any real options,” said Genese. “Our interest from the beginning has been finding avenues for principle reduction, to keep families in their homes, and to restore wealth – particularly in communities of color.”

Reset Seattle is open to other creative options. Boston Community Capital bought homes at short sales and auction, then reissued the mortgage to the homeowner at 6.3 percent interest. The program has kept 500 families in their homes so far.  Other cities have implemented other efforts to help homeowners, and protect communities.

While the Seattle’s interdepartmental team didn’t expressly say they were eliminating the eminent domain proposal, they emphasized “significant” legal and logistical barriers that they indicated would outweigh the potential benefit.

Seattle has a reputation as a progressive city. It’s a city built on daring and dreams. It’s a city willing to try something different.

So here’s my advice to Seattle’s interdisciplinary team:  Let’s get creative, let’s be bold, and let’s try this again.

Jason Collette is a national organizer for the Alliance for a Just Society. He specializes in banking issues, especially around foreclosure, payday lending and student debt. Jason@allianceforajustsociety