Fear and Housing on the Campaign Trail, 2008

Michael Dudley's picture

James Howard Kunstler has been saying for some time now that when our "ponzi scheme" economy finally crumbles around us, people are going to be very angry, and looking for someone to blame.

Kunstler's words have been haunting me in recent weeks as we watch the avalanche of bankruptcies, foreclosures, layoffs and scandal roaring through the economy, and struggle to comprehend the scale of the federal bailout money being feverishly poured onto the flames. There is a sickening sense that what is happening is beyond anyone's understanding or control. That people have a lot to be angry about is beyond question.

However, this understandable anger is being directed by some right-wing political partisans at the most unlikely of targets: community organizers, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), and most of all, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN -- the latter of which, in addition to voter registration drives, has been a major force for community revitalization efforts and housing projects, notably in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And the McCain campaign has been actively encouraging this displaced blame.
Worse, this effort to discredit community activism and revitalization is meshed with extreme anti-Obama rhetoric, with the result that a palpable mob-mentality is brewing at McCain-Palin rallies. Some observers are warning the McCain campaign that if the Senator doesn't tone down his rhetoric and that of his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, there could easily be violence. In an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, Frank Schaeffer accuses Senator McCain of

"...deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence. Your rallies are beginning to look, sound, feel and smell like lynch mobs...John McCain and Sarah Palin, you are playing with fire, and you know it. You are unleashing the monster of American hatred and prejudice, to the peril of all of us. You are doing this in wartime. You are doing this as our economy collapses. You are doing this in a country with a history of assassinations."

While all Americans should be alarmed about what this sort of discourse is doing to the health of their democracy, readers of this site should be specifically concerned about how this ire is being turned against planning projects with which many of us are professionally involved -- that is to say, housing and revitalization projects in low-income communities.

Despite being quickly and widely debunked in the media (and on Interchange), the counternarrative that the CRA and ACORN are to blame for the economonic meltdown for "forcing" banks to give mortgages to lower-income households to has taken hold on the right. More seriously, ACORN's voter registration drives have been subject to relentless criticism from the McCain campaign, highlighting alleged voter registration irregularities. But defenders of ACORN have been swift to point out not just the impossibility of fraudulent registration forms resulting in actual phony votes, but that the real reason for the GOP's attacks on ACORN is that it has managed to register 1.3 million poor people, almost all of whom are likely to vote Democrat.

While to his credit, McCain has toned down his negative ads, the toxicity of the backlash he has unleashed against community-based activism will surely tarnish the remainder of the campaign, and could easily resonate beyond; and the impacts this backlash could have on planning for low-income communities could be serious and long-lasting. Planners working for or alongside ACORN on housing and community revitalization projects may well find themselves and their colleagues subject to abuse or harrassment. At the very least, they may have to defend their work publicly and in the media in an effort to set the record straight and undo some of this damage. However, should the anti-ACORN agenda carry into a McCain administration, bids to cease federal funding for ACORN will likely bear fruit, putting housing and social justice projects in the 110 cities in which ACORN is active in jeopardy.

Regardless of the outcome of this election, housing for the poor has become a controversial project about which powerful political and economic forces have been violently unleashed. It is incumbent on planners to do what we can to restore reasonableness to this debate, and to ensure that the needs of lower-income communities are not cast aside in the fallout from the economic meltdown -- and more ominously, in the search for someone on which it can be blamed.

Michael Dudley is the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg.



Excuses for ACORN..

While ACORN has certainly done some incredible work for inner cities, the recent problems with the organization are inexcuseable. The same groups they are supposedly helping are at the same time being used to support their agenda. Whether it is signing up the entire Dallas Cowboys, or offering cigarettes and money for a signature, what ACORN is doing is simply wrong. Certainly now even Obama realizes the mess he was involved with has he is now attempting to distance himself from the organization along with his terrorist friend, and spiritual leader. Their are far better ways with dealing with the problems of affordable housing other than lobbying to get Joe Smith who works down the street at Burger King a $200,000 mortgage.

Even Obama

"now even Obama realizes the mess he was involved with has he is now attempting to distance himself from the organization along with his terrorist friend"

If even Obama is distancing himself from corruption and terrorism, who knows what might happen next.

Maybe McCain will distance himself from pitbulls who wear lipstick. Of course, we all know there is no corruption or abuse of power up in Alaska.

Charles Siegel

How about mixing some facts into the discussion?

These are the sort of things that keep getting repeated with little or not factual basis. What is it exactly that ACORN has done that is inexcusable, and how do you know?

What possible benefit for anybody (other than lazy employees or those who seek to discredit the organization) could there be in submitting phony registration cards with the names of the Dallas Cowboys? Do you know anything about ACORN's efforts to cope with the problems that plague any voter registration drive?

Try sitting at one of those tables and registering people some time, and look at what you get. Is it up to you to decide that somebody couldn't possibly have the same name as a well-known footbal player, or would you turn the card into the proper authorities and let them sort it out?

What more should ACORN do in its voter registration efforts beyond the quality control measures that it has put in place? Why is ACORN to blame when it has itself flagged the questionable registration cards that it has been obligated to turn in?

Is there a factual basis behind the allegation that ACORN offers money and cigarrettes in return for a registration? Is that a widespread practice? It certainly has not been characteristic of the efforts that I've witnessed. Even if it were a widespread practice, would it be wrong to offer incentives to people to get them to register to vote? The one problem that I see is that it overloads the capacity of those who have the responsibility of confirming registrations. There is no benefit, that I can see, to encouraging people to submit phony or duplicate registrations. It's not like they could go vote as Mickey Mouse or vote multiple times, given that you have to confirm your identity and address with a picture ID. So what is the problem?

The prosecutors involved in the cases of voter registration problems have emphasized that there is no evidence that there has been actual voter fraud in any of these ACORN related cases. The political motivation behind pursuing these cases is transparent and ugly.

If your "Joe Smith" who works at Burger King can qualify for a mortgage, then why shouldn't he have access to it? What, exactly, does this have to do with ACORN? Are you referring to some specific case? Do you have any actual data with respect to the default or foreclosure rate for mortgages made possible through any of the measures aimed at bringing homeownership into range for working and low income people?

It is a huge problem that a lot of baseless allegations are being used to malign the whole idea of community organizing. Driven by the partisan concerns of the day, people are circulating half-baked misrepresentations and ideologically motivated lies that are likely to have a very long term impact on the politics of the city. Yesterday a Congresswoman denounced Saul Alinsky as anti-American. Saul Alinsky for heavens sake. Planners should be very concerned about this kind of politics, aimed at discrediting grassroots-level organizing.

One importannt lesson

I think I have a good handle on how we got into this mess, but maybe all the details surrounding that are irrelevent here. I don't think our economy is a ponzi scheme, although I think housing was since the late 90s/early 2000s. One important lesson in regards to housing that I hope we have learned as a society is that not everyone should own or aspire to own a house. Both political parties are certainly to blame for this with builders, realtors, mortgage brokers and lenders, MBS and CDS investors along for the ride. Whether its affordable housing or middle class housing or whatever, hopefully we will lose our obsession with this alleged "american dream". You would probably have a better chance to achieve the real American dream if you weren't a slave to the huge mortgage you can't afford.

Sadly, the only thing I hear from the candidates seems to want to try and keep people in their homes without even thinking about the real reasons they in trouble in the first place.

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