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Bobbi Murray | The Nation

Bobbi Murray

Author Bios

Bobbi Murray

Bobbi Murray lives in Los Angeles and writes frequently on economic
justice issues.

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News and Features

Seeing the limits of living-wage laws, activists seek a raise for all workers.

Like mushrooms after a spring rain, signs pop up at this time of year in hardscrabble urban neighborhoods across the country, promising quick and easy money.

Activists say no to corporate giveaways.

The capital unscrupulously pumped from poor neighborhoods by way of
predatory loans whizzes along a high-speed financial pipeline to Wall
Street to be used for investment. "It's about creating debt that can be
turned into bonds that can be sold to customers on Wall Street,"
explains Irv Ackelsberg, an attorney with Community Legal Services in
Philadelphia who has been defending clients against foreclosure and
working to restructure onerous loans for twenty-five years.

Household-name companies like Lehman Brothers, Prudential and First
Union are involved in managing the process of bundling loans--including
subprime and predatory--into mortgage-backed securities. They often
provide the initial cash to make the loans, find banks to act as
trustees, pull together the layers of financial and insurance
institutions, and create the "special vehicles"--shades of Enron--that
shield investors from risk.

Four securities-rating agencies--Moody's, Standard & Poor's, Duff
& Phelps and Fitch--provide bond ratings for all of Wall Street;
before assigning the acceptable rating that will draw investors, they
assess the risk firewalls constructed by the securitizing company. It
becomes a complex matrix of financial operations designed to generate
capital and minimize risk for Wall Street with the unwitting help of
borrowers. "This whole business is about providing triple-A bonds to
funds that you or I would invest in," says Ackelsberg. "The poor are
being used to produce this debt--what you have is a glorified
money-laundering scheme."

Ackelsberg and his colleagues frequently find themselves struggling
through a tangle of companies to find a party legally liable for remedy
when a client is in foreclosure due to a bad loan. Often the company
that originated the loan doesn't actually own it but, rather, is acting
as a servicing agent--assuring the cash flow to a securitization trust.
Frequently shifting ownership also complicates attempts to create
accountability: In one case, United Companies Lending, once hired as a
trust by Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt; EMC Mortgage Corporation, a
wholly owned subsidiary of Bear Stearns, placed the highest bid for the
right to service the outstanding loans and collect the servicing fees.

Sheila Canavan, a Berkeley-based attorney who recently won a settlement
that will pay out some $60 million to the plaintiffs in a fraud lawsuit
against First Alliance Mortgage, says, "The industry and lawyers make it
as complicated and arcane as they can so people don't understand." They
also, she adds, want to distance themselves from the frontline predators
who hawk the loans.

Government-sponsored mortgage lenders Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Ginnie Mae
(GNMA) have long bundled conventional loans--in the 8-percent range--to
create mortgage-backed securities. During the mergers and acquisitions
boom in the mid-1990s, when banks began absorbing subprime lenders, Wall
Street caught on to the potential of bunching subprime mortgages,
including predatory loans. "The banks realized that this was a
moneymaker," says Shirley Peoples, a social research analyst for the
Calvert Group, an investment fund specializing in socially responsible
lending. "They put a legitimacy on it, but it still is what it is."

"Wall Street, since it got into securitization, needs product, needs
mortgage loans to pull together," says Canavan. The securities are then
aggressively marketed, she says. "The Wall Streeters go around the
country, pools of loans are sold to institutional investors, pension
plans, universities."

And while it looks as if the lenders themselves set up the difficult
loan terms, Canavan says that Wall Street encourages the gouging
practices. The big financial institutions fronting cash for predatory
loans have information on the loans' interest rates and know very well
what it takes to trap borrowers into those rates. They also build in
incentives for dubious practices: "The loan originators are compensated
with late fees," Canavan says, by way of example. "They're going to make
sure payments don't get there on time, that they get lost or, as the
industry says, 'drawered.'"

It's tough for a mutual fund investor to know whether investment dollars
are going toward supporting a predatory loan scheme. The investor who
knows the names of the biggest offenders may be able to detect them in a
prospectus, but many times the information is not included or the names
of the companies change. Socially responsible funds such as Calvert and
organizations like the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility
have been meeting face to face with banking interests to probe their
policies and positions on bundling the predatory loans. And many in the
industry argue that a rash of bankruptcies and financial failures has
pressured the industry to reform.

But not all consumer advocates buy that.

"These companies come and go," says Ackelsberg, "but the residue of
their abusive activity remains because the mortgage loans are still out
there."

Outraged at lenders who prey on the poor, activists are striking back.

Los Angeles organizers may have clinched the city's title as a laboratory for cutting-edge economic justice policy with a deal concluded in late May between grassroots groups and downtown developers, including billionaire Philip Anschutz and media titan Rupert Murdoch. The agreement, which concerns a planned expansion of the mammoth Staples Center, stipulates that 70 percent of the 5,400 permanent jobs created will pay a living wage of $7.72 an hour with benefits, $8.97 without, or be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

The Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, an alliance of twenty-nine community organizations and several union locals, was the driving force behind the unusual deal. Ordinarily, living-wage campaigns focus on public expenditures, arguing that a city subsidy or contract should yield jobs that pay enough to sustain a family. But the only potential subsidy for the Staples expansion has been for a hotel planned for the site--and the agreement covers far more than that.

In addition to the broad living wage commitment, the developers pledged $1 million for the creation or upgrading of parks within a mile of the project, encompassing some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles and portions of the most densely populated area west of the Mississippi. The Figueroa coalition will be written into city documents as partners in the project.

After coming together in 1998 in support of food service workers fighting subcontracting at the tony University of Southern California, the coalition began meeting regularly about local development issues, says Sandra McNeill, an organizer for the coalition and for Strategic Action for a Just Economy (SAJE), its convening organization. There were plenty of problems to address--such as the expansion of USC into adjacent neighborhoods and the threat to existing housing posed by plans for a light-rail line.

Just before the National Democratic Convention at Staples Center in August 2000, the community became alarmed by reports that there would be a large police presence during the planned protests. That drew hundreds more into the coalition, which soon turned to longer-term issues related to the Staples expansion. Meanwhile, five unions--Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Local 11; Service Employees International Union 1877, which had organized the landmark Justice for Janitors campaign; the Teamsters; the Operating Engineers; and IATSE, the stage workers' union--had agreed to negotiate collectively with the developers instead of allowing themselves to be split apart by separate deals. The unions and community organizations then banded together, swiftly forging a list of demands around housing, environmental issues, a living wage and union jobs. Says Madeline Janis-Aparicio of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), "Once [the developers] pulled their jaws up from the floor, they started negotiating."

"When things were tough in our negotiations, the union would bring up the issues in theirs; when things were tough for labor, we'd bring it up in our negotiations," says McNeill. "And that was really powerful."

It helped that the coalition had good timing. LA had just elected a new mayor and new council members to six of its fifteen seats, and the developers wanted the deal concluded and approved before July 1, when new top city officials were to take over. Too much community opposition or potential lawsuits could have been a fatal stumbling block.

Negotiations threatened to jump the track numerous times, not only because of differences between the coalition and the developers but intra-alliance tensions as well. Thankfully, the organizations ironed it out. As Janis-Aparicio says, "The choice was to be divided and conquered or have a united front and win."

An increasingly sophisticated movement has put opponents on the defensive.