This Land is My Land

Homeless encampment by the roadside, Portland OR. Photo by Sylvia Allen

This land is my land
It is not your land
If you don’t get off
I’ll blow your head off

I’m sure readers have heard the parody of the Woody Guthrie song, as well as the saying attributed to both Mark Twain and Will Rogers: “Buy land—they’re not making it anymore.” Most of us want just a little piece of it, enough for a house and garden, or even a small farm. Others want as much acreage as they can grab—plus a large crew of peasants, serfs, slaves, or sharecroppers to do the field work or, in the case of urban property, plenty of tenants to pay rent.

I am writing this on Thanksgiving, a holiday commemorating a time when Native Americans helped European settlers learn how to plant and harvest in what was for them a New World. Subsequently the Europeans massacred most of the Natives and stole the land, “from sea to shining sea.”

Land grabs are an old story, older than the pharaohs. In ancient times most of the plunder was accomplished through force of arms. We still invade other countries to extract their resources and reduce their populations to peonage, but within our borders, financial instruments such as mortgages and leases serve the purpose even better than swords. The bankers don’t risk their lives riding into battle. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the papers that evict you from your home are backed by a gun-toting sheriff.

A Recent Land Grab at Home

If you’re old enough to vote, you remember the Great Recession and housing crisis of 2008. The roots of the crash began earlier, with what economists call a housing bubble. The figures below are for the U.S., but it’s important to remember that the same process occurred at the same time in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Poland, Hungary, and South Korea. Why those countries and not others? I haven’t been able to find out.

Here in the U.S., assuming a base point of 100 in January 2000, the home price index rose to 184.6 in July 2006—in other words, an increase of 84.6% in six years. Home buyers, and many officials in government and in financial institutions, were convinced this escalation would continue indefinitely. Only a handful of economists predicted otherwise, and they were ignored.

Predatory lenders encouraged this delusion, suckering people who couldn’t qualify for standard mortgages into subprime ones. Would-be buyers could take out a loan with a variable interest rate, figuring that they’d refinance when rates when down—except that rates continued to climb, well beyond their ability to meet the payments. Wells Fargo in particular targeted Black and Hispanic communities, foisting subprime mortgages on people who would have been offered standard loans if they were white. Families put their life savings into down payments, and when the bubble burst, Wells repossessed their homes. Once again the essentially white establishment drained those communities of what meager wealth they’d managed to accumulate.

The bubble burst in 2008.

When people couldn’t pay their mortgages, many lenders found themselves on shaky financial footings. The government bailed out Wall Street, whereupon the biggest financial firms used the money to award their top bankers and traders bonuses of $1,000,000 apiece. Those who lost their homes got nothing.

By 2010 hundreds of thousands of families had been forced out, and the houses they’d occupied were sitting empty. In early 2012, the government launched a program that made it easy for private equity groups and hedge funds to purchase foreclosed homes from Fannie Mae, the government agency. The idea was that these Wall Street corporations would rent out the properties and stabilize the housing market.  In arguing for the program, these rich investors said they would be better landlords than cash-strapped mom-and-pop owners.

The market was stabilized, all right. Investors bought up over 200,000 homes nationwide, and people who used to own homes became renters. The new landlords did not invest in the safety of the dwellings or in necessary repairs. Often they required tenants to do their own repairs and maintenance.

The Pandemic Moratorium Ends

A new crisis arrived with the Covid-19 pandemic. When businesses such as restaurants had to close, workers lost their jobs, and the government instituted a moratorium on rents. The money these tenants owed wasn’t forgiven—they’d have to pay in full once the moratorium ended. The feds did institute a financial assistance program, but only 1/10th of the money allocated actually made its way to those in need. The Biden administration tried to extend the moratorium, but the so-called conservatives on the Supreme Court said no. Some states have provided extensions, while others have not.

So far I haven’t been able to find figures for how many renters were thrown out when the moratorium ended. But looking at the increase in homeless encampments, I’d say it was pretty substantial. Rents are going through the roof as well. The mean increase nationwide over the last year (August 2020-August 2021) was 11.5%, while in some states like Florida it was over 25%, and in New York City, as much as 70%.

Wall Street’s Land Grab Abroad

Following the global financial crisis of 2008, many families in Spain lost their homes. Just as in the United States, Wall Street financial firms such as Cerberus, Blackstone, and Lone Star snapped up these Spanish properties at bargain prices. Blackstone is now Spain’s biggest landlord. When the pandemic pushed Spain’s unemployment rate up to 15%, these giant private equity companies jacked up rents and are now evicting tenants who can’t afford to pay. Per The New York Times, “In the first quarter of 2021, evictions of renters in Spain rose by 14 percent compared with the same period the previous year…By the second quarter of this year, they surged to eight times as many as in the same period in 2020.”

The Spaniards are fighting back. A group called War Against Cerberus blocked police trying to evict people, squatted in homes where evictions took place, and has occupied homes, and is working with officials in the Spanish government to impose rent controls. They may be more successful than was the Occupy Wall Street movement here.

What Shall We Do?

The housing situation for the average person appears to be getting worse. As I reported in my post of October 30, homeless people now occupy 60,000 campsites in Portland OR, compared to 40,000 sites last year. Many comfortable citizens—I read their comments to articles in The New York Times—reassure themselves with the notion that homeless people are all mentally ill or drug addicted, or bums who’d rather live on the streets than work regular jobs and pay rent. I’m sure the comfortable will continue to pat themselves on the back until they, too, find themselves on the street.

So what shall we do?

We can allow the financial pythons to swallow the globe. We can submit out of fear, or because we have been propagandized to believe that the system we live under is the only possible one. We can go along with it because we’re still too comfortable in our own homes and are willing to blind ourselves to the cruelty visited on others. We can worship the wealthy as though they were gods, and many of us already do just that.

Or we can take up the struggle for social and economic justice. In the immortal words of Frederick Douglass:

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

I don’t know what form that struggle will take. I do know it will not be conducted by tapping out complaints on your computer, or by voting every four years for one of two corporate-owned politicians.

4 Responses to This Land is My Land

  1. Connie O Byrne November 27, 2021 at 8:04 am #

    Oh Shelley, have you ever spoken a truer truth. I remember all too well the lead up to the 2008 crash. When I first moved here to North Carolina much of the area around Charlotte was still fairly rural. However, the building boom of business parks was in full swing. My job working for an interior landscaping company (someone had to take are of all of those tropical plants in their lobbies and office areas), I drove out to many of the outlying business developments. I commented to a co-worker that the corporate world seemed to think the economy wasn’t ever going to tank and a lot of those commercial properties would sit empty when it all crashed. That was in 2001.

    The accompanying housing boom that came with all of the commercial building was astounding. And there has been a new start of that same development thanks to the extremely low interest rates. Going along with the pandemic feast or famine, once again there is an uptick in the number of families who are losing their homes, rented or owned. And it’s become more and more a corporate ownership of all of those empty houses, especially in all of those housing developments that sprang up in the wake of the “Great Recession”. One of the fall outs have been the larger and larger number of houses being rented in well-to-do developments and the conflict with HOA regulations pre-pandemic. Development HOAs had restrictions put in place that limited the percentage of rentals compared to privately owned properties when they were built. Several of the area high-end developments suddenly faced a large number of families that were going to be kicked out, some who had been renting those houses for 8-10 years and paying a pretty penny to do so. Because people changed jobs so frequently, corporate employees would rent instead of buying, figuring they’d probably be relocating within a few years as people moved up the corporate ladders. Only the ladders got jerked out from under them, leaving people making six figure salaries high and dry, leaving jobless and with no way to pay the escalating rents.

    As usual the gap between the folks who have comfy lives and those who struggle to get by keeps increasing. The effects of the built in racism has led to more and more unrest and economic disparity. The unrest of the last few years with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is increasing the gap between the have’s and have-not’s. As usual, the people who lost much, but are regaining what they lost and plus some, are once again forgetting what it felt like to not have enough.

    I keep waiting for Tracey Chapman’s song “Waiting on the Revolution” to be made manifest. But people have short memories. Once they’re comfortable again they want to put their blinders back on, letting the poverty and injustice once again be someone else’s problem.

    Solutions? I have none. I am still holding onto hope. The small town I live in has seen major redevelopment of it’s downtown area with the new minor league ballpark being downtown central. Lots of new businesses to go along with the ballpark and the accompanying three or four story luxury apartment buildings. Our mayor has led the way to the resurgence, bringing new life into a town dying after the textile mills went extinct. Things are starting to gel, with an increasing wealth and tax base. With that a very visible disparity in housing affordability. To his credit, our mayor has listened to concerned voices that are asking how the traditional blue collar families will be able to enjoy the nice pretty brick sidewalks, the ball games, the pubs and taverns, and the fancy apartments. During our very recent municipal elections he urged people with backgrounds in education, financial services, development and planning zoning to run for office. He specifically called for people to elect candidates concerned with issues of affordable housing and job development. Two of the three people he endorsed got elected. And that’s why I am holding onto hope.

    One of my knitting friends and I have decided we will be attending the city council meetings. We decided that if we had taken the time to research and vote for these new voices, we need to follow up, pay attention and when appropriate, speak up. We showed up at our fancy new city hall for the first meeting only to find that the meetings were still being held virtually. We were pretty disappointed. After retreating to her house for tea and chocolate chip cookies, I went home and emailed the mayor. I explained why we wanted to become regular faces at the meetings and asked when City Council meetings would be open to the public again. He responded the next morning, welcoming our attention and saying the first meeting in December will once again be live and open to all. So we will be there, knitting in hand, front row center. And even if Virginia isn’t always able to go, (she’s 83 with health issues, but I’m only 75…lol) I will be there, making our presence known and getting to know our council men and women.

    Change does happen, just not as rapidly as we want it to happen.

    Keep on stirring the pot, writing and speaking truth, and hopefully inspiring more than just me. And thank you.

  2. Connie O Byrne November 27, 2021 at 8:24 am #

    And please please Martha, forgive me for calling you Shelley. I don’t know how you feel about your first name, but I’ve not ever felt like Connie was truly me. I knew a woman working and serving as one of the doctors at the People’s Free Medical Center in Baltimore in the mid-70’s who had claimed her own name. I so wanted to follow her path and find/create my own name. Sadly, I’ve not ever figured that out. Her name was Shelly Maggieschild. I asked her about that once, thinking that she might be part of the very large, influential Baltimore Jewish community. Yes to the community, but no to the name. She had chosen to honor her mother and claim her place as her mother’s daughter.

    Sooo,, Martha Shelley, by Martha or Shelley, forge on and keep being a source of inspiration.

  3. Martha Shelley November 27, 2021 at 10:05 am #

    Thank you, Connie, for your good words and all you are doing. And with regard to my name–my father used to say, “Call me anything you like. Just don’t call me late for lunch!”

  4. Esther Newton November 27, 2021 at 1:59 pm #

    Debt is power. And, the white people who feel so dispossessed are in fact struggling, witness Jan 6, and they are the only civilians with the fire power, the blows. And then there are the Repuglicans in state governments who are disenfranchising people of color and the young. I like our flawed democracy a lot more than I like Trump and his loyalists.

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