Too Poor For Pop Culture

Where I live in East Baltimore, everything looks like “The Wire” and nobody cares what a “selfie” is by D. Watkins. Originally posted on Salon.

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

* * *

I arrived, fifth of Black Watch clenched close to me like a newborn with three red cold-cups covering the top. We play spades over at Miss Sheryl’s place in Douglass Housing Projects every few weeks. (Actually, Miss Sheryl’s name isn’t really Miss Sheryl. But I changed some names here, because I’m not into embarrassing my friends.) Her court is semi-boarded up, third world and looks like an ad for “The Wire.” Even though her complex is disgustingly unfit, it’s still overpopulated with tilting dope fiends, barefoot children, pregnant smokers, grandmas with diabetes, tattoo-faced tenants and a diverse collection of Zimmermans made up of street dudes and housing police, looking itchy to shoot anyone young and black and in Nike.

 Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Surprisingly, as tight as Miss Sheryl’s unit may be, it’s still more than enough space for us to receive affordable joy from a box of 50-cent cards and a rail bottle.

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the flip is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

It’s amazing how the news seems so instant to most from my generation with our iPhones, Wi-Fi, tablets and iPads, but actually it isn’t. The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.

* * *

Miss Sheryl doesn’t have a computer and definitely wouldn’t know what a selfie is. Her cell runs on minutes and doesn’t have a camera. Like many of us, she’s too poor to participate in pop culture. She’s on public assistance living in public housing and scrambles for odd jobs to survive.

Sheryl lost her job as a cook moments after she lost her daughter to heroin, her son Meaty to crack and her kidneys to soul food. It took 15 to 20 unanswered applications a week for over a year for her to realize that no company wants to employ a woman on dialysis. Sometimes Bucket-Head and I chip in and buy groceries for her and her grandson Lil Kevin who has severe lead-paint poisoning, but was diagnosed late and is too old to receive a check.

Bucket-Head is a convicted felon but not really. He was charged with a crime that he didn’t commit. I know this because my late cousin did the shooting and our whole neighborhood watched. Bucket was in the wrong place at the wrong time and as many know, we are products of a “No Snitching” culture.

As a result, the only work Bucket can find after 10 years of false imprisonment is that of laborer with the Mexicans who post up in front of 7-Eleven, or as a freelance dishwasher. Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay, who represents the definition of redemption to me.

* * *

I placed our cups at the table and the bottle in the center. “Me and Miss Sheryl are gonna whip ass tonight, hurry up, Dontay!” I yelled.

Dontay cleans nonstop. Roaches sleeping in the fridge, roaches relay racing out of the cabinets carrying cereal boxes, purchasing homes, building families, slipping through cracks for fun and weaving in and out of death — Dontay bleaches them all. Dontay doesn’t take handouts from us and won’t go on government assistance. He couldn’t contribute to the chips and vodka that week so he’s cleaned for Miss Sheryl and would clean for Miss Sheryl even if there were no chips and vodka.

“Boy we ready to play the cards. Stop acting selfie and sit yo ass at the table!” yelled Miss Sheryl from another room. We all laugh. Miss Sheryl’s rooms are separated by white sheets; they look like a soiled ghost at night when the wind blows. Her son Meaty stole and sold her doors years ago and housing never replaced them.

Dontay joined us at the table. “Takin forever, boy, wit dem big ass feet!” yelled a happy Bucket. Dontay was wearing my old shoes. They are 13’s and busting at the seams but Dontay’s a size 8 and his foot is digging through the side. His arms are chunked and wrapped in healed sores from years of drug abuse. He’s eight years clean off of the hard stuff now, but I met him way back when I was 13, in his wild days.

He was huddled over his girlfriend in the alley behind my house. I watched moments before as she performed an abortion on herself with a twisted coat hanger. She screamed like the sirens we hear all day. I couldn’t stop looking at her. He gazed too, in and out of a nod and then signaled me for help. I joined them. Together we dragged her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was under a mile away. Blood scabbed and dried on my hands, Nikes and hooping shorts; she lived until she OD’d months later. I’ve been cool with Dontay ever since.

“Tryin get dem roach eggs, tee-he, tee-he he he, gotta get the bleach on da roach eggs! Den dey won’t come back!” Dontay replied as he sat at the table.

* * *

I dealt the first hand. Miss Sheryl reminded me to deal to the left. “Always deal to the left, boy, the rule don’t change!” she said. She has the widest jaws in the history of wide and jaws, thicker than both of her bloated caramel arms, which are thigh-size. I collected the cards, reshuffled and dealt to the left. And there we were — my job-hungry unemployed old heads and me the overworked college professor.

College professor?

Not the kind of professor that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars for teaching one class a year but a broke-ass adjunct who makes hundreds of dollars for teaching thousands of classes a year. The other day I read an article about an adjunct who died in a homeless shelter and I wasn’t surprised; panhandlers make triple, and trust me, I’ve done the research, I should be looking for a corner to set up shop.

I have a little more than my friends but still feel their pain. My equation for survival is teaching at three colleges, substituting, freelance Web designing, freelance graphic designing, rap video director, wedding photographer and tutor —  the proceeds from all of these are swallowed by my mortgage, cigarettes, rail vodka and Ramen noodles. I used to eat only free-range organic shit, I used to live in Whole Foods, I used to drink top shelf — I used to be able to afford pop culture.

But long gone are the days when I pumped crack into the very neighborhood where we hold our card game. Eons since I had to stay up all night counting money until my fingers cramped. Since I had to lie on my back to kick my safe closed and I wore and treated Gucci like Hanes and drove Mercedes CL’s and gave X5 beamers to my girlfriends — my good ole days.

Eventually the mass death of my close friends caused me to leave the drug game in search of a better life. Ten-plus years and three college degrees later, I’m back where I started, just like my card-playing friends: too poor to participate in pop culture. Too poor to give a fuck about a selfie or what Kanye said or Beyoncé’s new album and the 17 videos it came with.

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

The Obama feeling in 2008 isn’t the same as the Obama feeling in 2014. Obama had us dream chasing in 2008. My friends and I wanted him to be our dad and  best friend and mentor and favorite uncle. Shit, I wanted to take selfies with him. He was a biracial swirl of black and white Jesus sent to deliver us. To bless people stuck under the slums like Sheryl, Bucket, Dontay and I with jobs, access to the definition of words like selfie and hope — REAL HOPE.

But in 2014 it feels the same as Bush, or Clinton, or any other president. The rich are copping new boats and we still are using the oven to heat up our houses in the winter, while eating our cereal with forks to preserve milk. America still feels like America, a place where you have to pay to play, any and everywhere even here at our broke-ass card game.

* * *

1 a.m. rolls around and we’re faded, everyone but Miss Sheryl, that is, because dialysis prohibits her from drinking. My kidney pounds, her 2008 Obama for Pres T-shirt stares back at me all stretched out of shape, making Barack look like Sinbad. No one knows who won because really, we all lost. Dontay is asleep because I saw the roaches creeping back and Bucket staggered out.

I looked at Miss Sheryl, “We could take a late night selfie now but I swapped my iPhone for a boost mobile, $30 payment!”

She laughed and said, “Baby, what’s a selfie again?”

D. Watkins is an author, filmmaker and native Baltimorean who graduated with honors from Johns Hopkins University. He teaches at Coppin State University and runs a writing workshop on Creative Nonfiction at the Baltimore Freedom School. Watkins also conducts artist interviews for StopBeingFamous.com and1729mag.com. Watkins work also be seen on Niche Literary Magazine, Welter, Artichoke Haircut, The Baltimore Fishbowl, Hippocampus Magazine and a host of other literary publications. Connect with him on Instagram and Twitter @dWatkinsWorld and read more at d-Watkins.com

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Give the Developments a Chance

A Stalled Housing Development (Image Source: Washington Post)

The Washington Post’s new expose that purports to reveal to the public the widespread incompetence affecting the Department of Housing and Urban Development has engendered much controversy. The series ostensibly addresses only a single program within HUD, the HOME Investment Partnership Program, which administers funding to local government and private entities to develop affordable housing projects. In stentorian fashion, the opening sentence of an article titled, “A trail of stalled or abandoned HUD projects,” (part of the multi-article investigative series titled, “Million Dollar Wasteland”), declares, “ the federal government’s largest housing construction program for the poor has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars…and routinely failed to crack down on derelict property developers or the local housing agencies that funded them.” The Post goes onto report that some 700 projects, totaling “nearly $400 million” have been stalled for years, some even for decades, causing widespread blight. The article then lists widespread deficiencies in oversight and accountability within HUD, contending that the agency doles out cash without properly vetting recipients, that money was delivered when projects were only in an inchoate phase, and that HUD should have imposed more regulations on funding recipients, whether they be housing agencies, non-profit organizations, or the partnered developers. Needless to say, we were surprised.

Perhaps the main reason the article surprised us, however, was what appeared to be the intentional misrepresentations of the available housing statistics, most of which were pointed out lucidly by Secretary Donovan. In a response published on June 10, Donovan rebutted the Post by indicating out that HUD has received numerous acclaim in recent years as well introducing his own stats:

Although HUD provided data and information to The Post for more than a year, the paper has not shared with us the list of projects it generated. So after the articles ran, we conducted our own project-by-project review using The Post’s parameters. We determined that more than half of 797 projects that could have been flagged as “stalled” based on The Post’s criteria are finished.

Of the remaining projects, 97 have been canceled and their funding moved to viable projects, while 154 are progressing toward completion. The final 85 properties are experiencing delays, but in the vast majority of cases there is a simple reason for this: the recession.

Donovan goes on to state the conclusions of HUD’s internal study: only four percent of the more that 5,000 Home projects are “delayed” or “cancelled” (employing the metrics used by the Post). Moreover, the Post misleadingly gives the impression that funds were squandered, when in fact HUD policy stipulates that “[if] there are delays, money can be moved to other viable projects or must be returned if it is not used within five years.” Donovan then goes on to defend the decentralized nature of the HUD grants, which give large discretion to local communities and their governments, by suggesting that this framework is a preferable to a “one-size-fits-all” federal mandate.

In addition to what could be blatant misrepresentations or mistakes, the article is unfair in a number of other respects. For starters, it assumes more regulations and requirements are a solution, while ignoring the fact that these could quite possibly further stifle such developments. Moreover, it completely neglects to contrast the HUD programs with the ways in which the private sector has aimed to deliver affordable housing in recent years. While this phenomenon also resulted from public-private partnerships, namely government policies encouraging homeownership and many private entities vying to advantage from government guarantees by engaging in the lucrative process of securitizing credit, the private sector likewise failed, resulting in the financial crisis. The HUD developments, which involve the government to a greater extent than most other housing developments, are one of the few bright spots of economic creation in the housing industry, which many commentators have pointed out is crucial to broader economic recovery. Let’s keep this in mind, and give the developments a chance.

We at St. Ambrose were also particularly chagrined about the fact that the article seemingly attempts to paint the entire Department of Housing and Urban Development in a negative light. The Post does this in part by implying that HUD is a single-faceted organization aimed at the development of new properties for low-income citizens. While it is true that this area comprises a major part of HUD’s activity, the organization also provides other, far different services, many of which remain crucial to mitigating the widespread financial pain incurred by the current financial crisis. These services include both mortgage and foreclosure prevention counseling—we believe that the former type of assistance needs to be implemented on a large scale, as mortgage counseling is often key to ensuring that families understand their commitments, the terms of their mortgages, and what it will take to keep above water over the long term. As for the latter, we know that foreclosure prevention assistance is paramount in enabling families to stay in their homes longer. Take for example our unique study on foreclosure prevention conducted earlier this month, which among other things found that 70% of homeowners that underwent counseling in 2007 reported positive outcomes, and that homeowners who utilized counseling services were 79% more likely to experience a positive outcome. (More insight on the study will appear here next week).

More than anything, in light of Donovan’s straightforward statistics, which serve to debunk much of the Post’s shocking data, we wonder how the Post could have come up with numbers that contrast so sharply with HUD’s. As far as we know, the Post is yet to respond to Donovan, and on this point we think it may be fair to take a hint from one of Baltimore’s great social critics, David Simon. In Season 5 of The Wire, the city’s local paper runs into some problems with balancing sensationalism with thorough, honest journalism. And while we certainly don’t equate the Post series with Scott Templeton, it’s reasonable to suspect that the Post may be guilty of a similar, all too common imbalance.

The Importance of Consumer Protection

President Obama with Elizabeth Warren, Prospective Head of the New Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

To many of us, developing greater consumer protection measures is common sense: every day, we see families foreclosed out of their homes or evicted from their rental units because they did not (or in fact could not) understand the financial product they purchased.  On the lending side, which we see much more commonly at St. Ambrose, these products often come in the form of adjustable-rate-mortgages.  In such a loan, the initial interest rate often starts low but rapidly increases over time, leading the mortgage holder to believe that they are getting a deal at first only to find out later that they will be unable to make payments and may end up in foreclosure.

We’ve come across situations in which homeowners were not told that the interest rates would rise over time or where banks have misrepresented the product entirely, suggesting that the interest rate is fixed.  The latter scenario happens frequently when banks market products to buyers whose first language is not English.  Sometimes, we even see direct credit lenders selling products to low-income, under-resourced clients in order to “help” them purchase a home.  Often times, hidden fees are imbedded in the loan product, whereby the buyer is penalized substantially for late payments.

These stories are common among housing counselors. Beyond the housing world, other industries have long played the same game.  Credit cards, for instance, often fail to clearly disclose the interest rate for buyers intending to pay a lower-end monthly installment.  Rent-to-Own schemes are another classis example. Companies that engage in International Money Transfers—or companies that help Americans transfer money to family members and friends over seas (a multi-billion dollar industry)—often fail to disclose remittance fees, or transaction fees they charge customers.  Likewise, these companies frequently do not notify their customers of the exchange rates on transfers, which, for obvious reasons, can be crucial to the amount of money a customer is willing to send and the commensurate fee they will owe.

These situations are the reason for the creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for which the White House has selected Professor Elizabeth Warren to head.  As the CFPB’s excellent website explains, before the financial crisis, the federal government could not adequately monitor the market for unfair (and perhaps illegal) practices because too many different agencies existed with varying roles; inevitably, cracks emerged, and sleazy companies slipped through them.  The CFPB intends to rectify this problem by functioning as a centralized agency that monitors predatory scams across industries.

Beyond its importance to consumers, the Bureau is crucial on a systemic level.  Perhaps the main cause of the financial crisis was the proliferation of securitized loan products, (many of which were backed mainly by home mortgages).  Investors (and the Wall Street banks that facilitated their purchases) demanded these products highly, incentivizing main street banks to continue to hand out credit, even when buyers were less-than-credit-worthy.  Eventually, this chain, coupled with the lack of government oversight, poor public policy, and failed public-private partnerships, collapsed, leading to the recession.

The CFPB would ensure that products like poor loans do not pervade the market like they once did, which would lead to significant economic consequences.  Moreover, Ms. Warren, a Harvard law professor with an unimpeachable record of standing up for Average Joes, is the woman for the job.

However, Congress must confirm her first, and backed by special interests, the confirmation may not materialize.  (For the latest example of crude opposition, see here). Whatever happens, we know that kick starting the CFPB, a project that his been on the drawing board for years now, would make the job of St. Ambrose and similar non-profits around the country much, much easier.

Harvard Study: Housing Slump is Severe, but Outlook May be Optimistic?

Harvard’s Famous Business School

Let me rephrase: the outlook isn’t optimistic, per se, but rather, it may be more optimistic than what we may be thinking or than what our worst nightmares suggest.  That’s about what I can discern from the new study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, “The State of the Nation’s Housing.” Evidently, the study does not aim to be conclusive.  Rather, it compiles a broad array of metrics and empirically gathered data that address America’s housing crisis.

The study is significant on at least two fronts: for starters, it provides much needed in-depth data concerning widely observed phenomena in the housing market, such as a the “rental rebound,” or the rapid rise in demand for rental properties as a result of buyers’ shift towards a preference for renting, which strongly contrasts with consumer behavior from the early part of the decade.  The study also presents detailed figures on the affordability problem for would-be buyers as well as graphs depicting the unfortunate acceleration in vacant properties nationwide.

Beyond these trends, which housing experts had widely discovered before the study’s publication, the study also succeeds in extrapolating upon less examined factors and less obvious residual effects of the housing crisis.  For instance, the authors look at the ways in which demographic trends have exacerbated the housing crisis, a theme that is not often considered in housing discussions.

Here, the authors point out the severe deficit in buying from the generation they deem as “echo boomers,” or those Americans born in the year 1986 and afterward.  (This would put the oldest echo boomer at twenty-five).  Apparently, while this generation is “entering their peak household formation years,” household growth plummeted among this group in the second part of the last decade.  (As an echo boomer myself, I can think of only one peer of mine who owns a mortgage).  The authors, while pointing out that the huge influx of young adults will likely harm the housing market further, also speculate that the effect will be more pronounced when coupled with the retirement of the baby boomers, who will no longer contribute to the market.

The authors also provide a handy graph demonstrating the strong effect that the expiration of the first-time homebuyer tax credit had on the market (see the graph below).  According to the authors, once the timeframe for the tax credit lapsed, many “would-be homeowners were locked out at the top of the market.  And were then scared away as both home prices and employment plummeted.  The question now is whether, without the incentive provided by tax credits, first-timers will have the will to buy.”  Other topics examined include the rising utilities costs for low-income tenants, the decreasing supply of low-income housing, and the financing habits of homeowners from various income groups, to name just a few,

However, the tone of the study’s conclusory “Outlook” section contrasts sharply with virtually all of the previous data presented.  The authors state, “while still under the shadow of the foreclosure crisis, the housing market may be starting—however slowly—to turn the corner.”  They then introduces merely a single statistic to back this bold and frankly bizarre contention: that the amount of loans at least ninety days delinquent but not in foreclosure are falling.  Are you convinced?

While I can’t possibly summarize everything in this detailed analysis, I would encourage readers to the take a look at the study here.

“As Goes Housing, So Goes the Economy?”

Last week, the Paper of Record published an editorial prompting the question “as goes housing, so goes the economy?”  While this maxim may be axiomatic for some, it is important to understand why the interrelationship between housing, the financial system, and the broader economy is not only close but also tremendous.  As the Times points out, the unceasing depression in the housing market “isn’t just bad news for homeowners.  Selling and buying houses are one of the economy’s most powerful engines.  Until the market recovers, the entire recovery is imperiled.  Falling equity dents consumer confidence, making things even worse”

The Times correctly indicates that the touted seven-month drop in foreclosure filings caters to falsely optimistic prognostication.  Optimists see the drop as a sign of greater job stability nationwide, less income fluctuation, and more consumer confidence.  However, the more palatable reason for the decline may be banks’ recent practice of slowing down the foreclosure process, a practice that in part signals a greater incentive for lenders to comply with federal regulation, something painfully lacking over the past few years.  However, the slowdown is also the direct result of banks’ increasing unwillingness to deliver properties back to the market, as the prospects of a sale remain brutally grim.

As for the answer to this apparent problem, the Times editorial staff states, again correctly, that the “Obama administration’s main antiforeclosure effort has fallen fall short of its goal to modify three million to four million troubled loans.”  The piece goes to establish that the reason for this shortfall:

Its basic flaw is that participation by the banks is voluntary. Most have joined the program but face no real pressure to meet its goals. Another big problem is that banks often do not own the troubled loans; rather, they service the loans for investors who own them. As servicers — in charge of collecting payments and managing defaults — banks can make more from fees and charges on defaulted loans than on modifications. Not surprisingly, defaults proceed and modifications lag. Banks win. Homeowners and investors lose. The economy suffers.

True, however, the Times, like most of the media, fails to appreciate the overwhelmingness of the aforementioned regulatory failure.  As Talk to St. Ambrose has repeatedly contended, the mains problems with Obama’s antiforeclosure program—which, for the record, is the Home Affordable Mortgage Program, or HAMP—are much more severe than what the Times identifies as the “basic flaw,” or the fact that bank participation isn’t mandatory.  Rather, banks routinely refuse to comply with regulations, and the government has lost the ability to enforce their own requirements (see Bryan Sheldon’s March 22 Post for guidance).

As for the solution to this problem, the paper suggests “tough national standards” for mortgage servicers, whereby banks could not initiate a foreclosure or a “foreclosure-related fee” while an attempt at modification is taking place. Without explanation, the Times then states that “national servicing programs could succeed where antiforeclosure programs have failed, namely, in compelling banks to clean up the mess they did so much to create.”

Here, the paper expressly advocates for a measure that has been pointed out many times before, by state attorneys general among others (and should be regarded as little more than common sense, not a “solution” to the housing crisis).  Moreover, the paper seemingly glosses over the severity of the problem in failing to call for comprehensive financial reform, which simultaneously regulates investment banks’ securitization of home loans as well as local banks’ lending practices, something, which we have also commented on in the past.

So yes, as goes housing, so goes the economy, indeed. But the problem is huge, and fixing it requires tremendous regulation, bipartisanship, and hard work in this already trying time.  The rhetoric should consider this imposing reality, painting a more accurate picture of the problem.