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by Christine Mann
At the heart of Occupy Wall Street is a deep sense of frustration with a system that continues to reward vice over virtue creating the worst wealth disparity in US history. It’s no surprise that the movement verbalizes that frustration in signs proclaiming “We are the 99%”. There is a strong sense of empathy and compulsion to address the needs of the poor and underprivileged. But is this energy being misdirected in a way that preserves the corrupt behavior fueling this movement and undermines real structural reform that OWS should be pursuing.
I am particularly interested in the call for housing solutions for the poor because of my interest and background in architecture and the politics that determine how our cities are shaped. I’ve seen a lot of signage demanding housing help and recently saw a news story from OWS on veterans coming home from war to eviction notices. The argument seems simple enough: veterans are returning home to foreclosures and evictions and facing homelessness at an alarming rate. We are not taking care of the people that are taking care of us. But what are the solutions protestors are asking for?
There are currently billions of dollars available in federal and state programs to house veterans, the homeless and the poor. HUD is a 69 billion dollar a year federal government program dedicated to this. Additionally, HUD works in concert with the Department of Veterans to provide housing for homeless veterans. (1,2)
This sounds like a good thing but with 69 billion dollars of federal tax money accessible to banks and special interests it is bound to be wrought with problems.
On Nov 1st The Wall Street Journal came out with a story about a federal lawsuit against Allied Home Mortgage Corp for fraud originating in the HUD program. “The federal government sued one of the nation's largest privately held mortgage brokers on Tuesday, saying its decade-long fraudulent lending practices cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars and forced thousands of American homeowners to lose their homes…”
“At a news conference, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Allied had carried out its fraud through its authority to originate mortgage loans insured by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.” (3)
But Allied is not an anomaly in the mismanagement of HUD money. HUD has been wrought with fraud and lack of oversight for decades. Reagan’s Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, his Secretary of the Interior, Assistant HUD Secretaries and other insiders were convicted on various charges stemming from unlawfully allocating HUD money to special interests. Catherine Austin Fitts, Former Assistant Secretary of Housing, Bush I, revealed that in researching large amounts of missing money at the Department of Housing and Urban Development she discovered the agency could not account for $17 billion dollars in FY 1998 and then $59 billion in FY 1999 and that they continued to refuse to publish audited financial statements from that point forward. One can only imagine how much money HUD cannot account for today. (4)
Thus, a call by OWS to continue funding HUD programs to build affordable housing looks like a big boost to the banks and special interests that OWS is trying to squash, particularly in light of the glut of housing sitting empty on the market. (5)
“As of March, foreclosure inventories were running at eight times historical norms, as servicers move to correct paperwork and revise their processes, according to an April performance report by LPS Applied Analytics.”
In fact the glut of housing is so persistent that Senators Charles Schumer (D.NY) and Mike Lee (R.Utah) have introduced a Bill that would allow foreign interests to buy up foreclosed properties. (6) If we have a glut of empty housing why would we spend billions to build new housing? Do protestors really want more tax money to fund these defunct programs or could the money be better spent to solve the same problem? How can we shift the power to solve these problems from the government to the people?
What if instead of giving slush funds to government to dole out to donors to solve this problem we instead gave the money to the people in the form of big tax credits or tax breaks to pay their rents or mortgages? Tax credits would allow the veteran to stay in his current apartment or home or would allow him to choose the place he wants to live rather than forcing him into a subsidized housing project. Many banks still foreclose on people anyway despite all the government money to stop foreclosures. If OWS truly wants change then it is time to carefully examine where the roots of these problems lie. We need to see the roots lie in a system that continues to disempower the individual placing him at the mercy of dysfunctional government programs that further empower an elite group of Wall Street special interests. We need to recognize the power we possess to solve our problems and demand solutions that keep that power in our hands.
:: photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon via Creative Commons license ::
Christine Mann has a Master's degree in Architecture and is an activist in the preservation of historic architecture and protecting the environment through real sustainable strategies.