Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hey ACORN, I Told You So (and Here's More Advice)

Commentary by the Hawthorne Hawkman. Image from the Minnesota NOC Facebook page.

Several months ago, a right-wing activist sneaked into ACORN offices with a hidden camera and a fake prostitute. They shot some footage that made it appear as if the staff of that ACORN office gave tax advice about how the woman might falsely declare her income as well as set up a child prostitution ring. It turns out that the footage was spliced and this was largely a hoax.

However, immediately after the footage aired I wrote a commentary on this blog, advising local ACORN members to cut ties with the organization and start their own independent group. I contended that many individuals locally had a strong track record of doing good work, but the ACORN name was forever tainted and the organization would never recover.

It turns out I was right on both accounts, because...

...ACORN is reportedly near bankruptcy. Many of its local affiliates, such as California and New York, have already split from the ACORN brand and created their own organizations. The ACORN organization may also change its name. And even independent mortgage counseling entity ACORN Housing Corporation has changed its name to the Affordable Housing Centers of America. They still have the same local office in St. Paul.

The obvious question arises: are the activities fundamentally different than those of their predecessor? Can the new entities be trusted? After all, the obstacles ACORN faced weren't limited to just this video. They also faced voter registration accusations (that were frankly so overblown I'm not going to provide a live link) and most damaging, embezzlement by one of its founders. So really, CAN the new entities be trusted?

I hope so. Certainly the local foreclosure prevention counselors have done good work. They were overloaded because of a funding relationship between ACORN and ACORN Housing Corp. where the housing branch would pay the organizers for housing referrals, and organizers therefore sent too many clients to their own organization instead of to places that were less burdened. If a different structure is in place to keep that from happening, then one would hope AHCA can continue good work. Lord knows (so does Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson) we need all the legitimate foreclosure prevention counselors we can get.

I'm more skeptical of the new Minnesota organizing branch, though. That group is called Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. On the one hand, their Board of Directors consists of many of the same people I previously said were credible enough to start their own organization last year. But here's what their website states about their structure:

"NOC is a membership-driven organization - our priorities, our work, and our funding come from Minnesotans just like you. If you live in the Twin Cities and want to join with your neighbors to stand up for social and economic justice, join NOC today." (emphasis mine)

In principle, I've got nothing against membership-driven organizations. Heck, I wish more Hawthorne residents donated to the neighborhood council. But too often ACORN membership drives in my neighborhood have resulted in nothing except a recent college graduate going door-to-door and getting hopeful neighbors to part with their money. Then, after a few months, the employee would realize that they were working 50-60 hours a week for virtually nothing, and take a better job elsewhere.

So here's my advice to NOC especially in north Minneapolis: don't do that. And plan your outreach here and in other neighborhoods slowly. Relationships not only with neighbors but also policy-makers bring about more effective change than standing on a street corner and shouting at people. Those relationships only get built if your employees stick around for two years or more. So your employees need to earn $30-35,000 a year plus benefits and they need to work no more than 40-45 hours a week.

The other shortcoming that ACORN had, at least in NoMi, was they failed to understand how communities are already organized. That means the kind of organizing that NOC will do has to either work with neighborhood groups, churches, ethnic groups, and other institutions or they have to find the issues that we can't or may not be able to address and work on those. Ideally, they'll do both.

A good example of that is the housing inspections sweeps that were hitting NoMi several years ago. ACORN took a much stronger stance than the community councils could have due to our relationship with the city. If there are similar dynamics in NoMi or other neighborhoods, that's where NOC could be most effective.

I'm afraid, however, that NOC is neither realizing how we're already organized in NoMi nor identifying unique issues. Their first big event is a foreclosure prevention outreach session at UROC on Monday night. Despite the fact that many NOC members and fans on facebook are familiar with the work of the Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition, we have not been contacted about this event. NCRC has strategic ways to find the people most at risk of foreclosure AND we're involved in groundbreaking research to measure our effectiveness in doing so.

The number one resource we lack is manpower to get the word out to those in need. NOC could certainly help us with that, and there is great potential for us to work together. But it's not encouraging that they are holding an event like this without including the people and institutions who are already doing the work.

I will be watching NOC like a hawk, and hope to be able to report fruitful partnerships in the near future. But I will hold this organization and their partners accountable as they come into my community.


The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

Here's one other thought about this situation: what ACORN did and what NOC likely now can bring to the table as a resource is the consistent doorknocking presence in a neighborhood. No matter how many good things you say about a neighborhood council, there are few if any that are out on the doors every single day. Because of that, I do see tremendous potential for NOC to be a vital part of improving our neighborhoods. Let's hope it works out that way.

Anonymous said...

While I certainly am not opposed to foreclosure prevention efforts in NoMi, I want to knit-pick (and/or pick your brain) a bit about your reference to ACORN's involvement in the aftermath of the inspections sweeps of 2006.

I question the value of inspections sweeps in NoMi in/around 2006 except for one thing - even prior to 2006, I knew from auditing owner/taxpayer info on several blocks in my neighborhood that there were a lot of unlicensed rental properties in my area.

The marginal benefit from the 2006 inspections sweeps is that it smoked some of these folks out. I do think there were more direct ways of accomplishing this end, but 2006 was before housing issues were hot political fodder.

Also, this was before 311, and believe me when I say it was almost impossible for me, a private citizen, to get movement from within city departments. At least the desire to collect their fees provided some internal motivation to be a little responsive when a local do-gooder called and told them that the property was unlicensed rental and gave them some contact info for the landlord.

I hope that ACORN was able to help some of those who were genuinely residents and who genuinely needed help, but from what I saw in my area, the bad actors far outweighed the hapless victims, and the hapless victims who needed assistance greatly outnumbered those who received it.

I don't see this as a failing by ACORN. If the city didn't even really know what they were dealing with, then a person can't expect more from a non-profit. (And yes, I stick by the assertion that the city didn't know what they were dealing with in these neighborhoods. If they had known what was on the horizon in terms of foreclosures, I don't think the sweeps would have happened.)

I'm just saying that from my perspective, ACORN did no harm, but also did not do great good.

Why am I making an issue of this? Well, I think that the past can provide useful information for the future, which is an underlying theme of your post.


The Hawthorne Hawkman said...


The inspections sweeps issue happened just before my time in Hawthorne. So I appreciate hearing more than one side of the story. I know the sentiment of at least some of the people involved is that ACORN came in and pushed back at the city in ways that the neighborhood councils could not. But if that tactic didn't really change much, that's also good to know.

Anonymous said...

@ Hawthorne Hawkman -

My understanding of ACORN's involvment is that their pressure on city government resulted in NoMi residents being able to get extensions to the time that they had to make cited repairs/improvements. This undoubtely helped some people. However, there were many others who were struggling to make mortgage payments for whom no number of extensions would help, as they were so close to the breaking point anyway.

As I saw it, one of the problems with the NoMi sweeps is that the sweeps were done at a time of the year (mid spring) when most of the low interest/forgivable home improvement money that the various neigborhood associations controlled had already been distributed. Doing the sweeps to correspond with availability of fix-up funds was one way things could have been done better, IMO.

NoMi was the first area of the city where the sweeps occurred, and my understanding is that the inspections were the least forgiving here. The next area up for inpsections was NEMi, and what I understood from comments from a city employee (I know, it's hear-say, so take it for what it's worth) is that the inspectors only cited the worst of the worst in NEMi.

So, ACORN probably had a significant impact on how the sweeps were conducted in other parts of the city as a result of their involvement here.