Down but Never Done

After “The Incident”, I have had to fend off a cacophonous load of crap from folks about where I’m from and my love for blue-collar towns that are often known more for job loss and decline then for art, creativity, entreprenuerism, and great architecture. But I took a vaulable lesson a way from these conversation held most often with folks who have never stepped foot in the towns they lambasted–Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, the D (Detroit, duh).

Simply put–we have a PR problem.

P-Burgh PR is probably in the best shape of all of them. Championship rings make it easy to avoid tons of stories in the paper about the fact that it has the same job loss, decaying and declining property values, and a deafening decline in population within the city limits (212,000 according to the 2008 ACS survey) just like its neighboring rust belt towns. Outside of Football,  Pittsburgh has probably also done one of the best jobs of bringing live, work, play, to downtown that has seen little vibrancy until the last 10 years.

Then there is Baltimore. Most famous for crabcakes and the Inner Harbor and just as infamous for its 35,000 vacant homes, 5,000 vacant lots, and summed up with all its problems on HBO’s the Wire.  But Bmore may be the Mid-Atlantic bastion of creativity. Baltimore is attracting artists in droves. The Maryland Institute College of Art has grown from a local art school to a regional powerhouse. Every summer there is Art Scape–the biggest outdoor art festival on the East Coast. There are creative non-profits that are taking neighborhoods block by block and offering low-cost financing to attract potential homeowners to neighborhood that are showing signs of positive growth. And every city that is trying to attract new residents is trying to replicate Live Baltimore.

Detroit, though these days more famous for the pheasants returning to reclaim nature and its many neighborhoods that have looked like war zones since the riots in 1968, has developed a small but well publicized creative movement.  Amongst the rubble that is unavoidable is a movement called The Soup–it is essentially a group of creative types who come together to hear about potential projects and then vote on which project gets the collection of funds that were collected at the door to give the project a jump start. Additionally, there are things like the underground restaurant tours–people who have made restaurants in home and other spaces around town. And let’s not forget something Detroit is most famous for–love and pride for the hometown and that goes along way.

And let’s talk a bit about Cleveland (Yeah, yeah before you tell me how the damn Cuyahoga river burned 40 years ago (it seems NYC gets away with all kinds of river related foolishness–but that’s neither here nor there–sorta.), lets just move on. )

The late 20th century marked Cleveland as the “comeback city”. Smart planning, business attraction, and an expansion of public transportation, led by a no-nonsense mayor (the jury is still out on the honorable Mr. White, though) and a dedicated group of planners, non-profit developers, and community folks who were committed to the city. It was first the economic slowdown after 9-11 and then the foreclosure crisis that turned progress on its head.  Yet, it slogs on and continues to receive accolades for its response to the on-slaught of bad economic news that comes its way. In the last 12 months, Cleveland has recieved design and planning awards for its “Re-imagining Cleveland” charrettes to help shrink the footprint of the city. Its rapid bus lane running down the busy corridor of Euclid has recieved transportation awards, and Anthony Bourdain loved it so much he blogged about it and said he even dreams about life there. (Too bad Clevelanders seem to have lost their sense of pride and prefer “whoa is us”–not so great for helping the image.)

I guess my question is, how can these city’s pick up there image, dust it off, and give it a new shine, in the day and age of attention spans the length of a tweet or status update? Leave your comments below and I will surely respond.

Sharing the Health

Awhile back, before my massively long hiatus, I wrote about the lack of fresh food availability in inner-city neighborhoods across the country–specifically in my old hood in Bmore. Since then, it seems the fresh food movement has become even larger in my life than there. Living in NYC, the creative ways people get their “fresh produce” fix is amazing, from high end grocery, to “put your hours in” cooperatives, the groups you are attached to to get your fresh food is almost like some sort of VIP card into an exclusive club. And I have to say, I have gotten on the bandwagon. Soon to be a member of the Park Slope Cooperative and a stealth stalker of farmers’ markets around town.

Sampling of Goodies from a CSA

But therein lies the rub. There are millions of NY’ers regardless of these creative ways of getting the fresh stuff, who just like my neighbors in “Bmore Careful”, lack the access to fresh produce and healthy food.

Leave it to my favorite social entreprenur and former professor, Dennis Derryck, to take the Community Supported Agriculture idea , turn it on its head, and figure out how to make it accessible and desirable to low income communities who have largely been unable to access them. And for all that work, a little reward of an article and video in a small paper called the New York Times.

Below are the links to the video:

http://video.nytimes.com/video/2010/06/22/dining/1247468103416/getting-fresh-in-the-south-bronx.html

And the article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/dining/23bronx.html?8dpc

From Bmore to Brooklyn to Brick City…I’m back

Someone somewhere has been trying to tell me something. For the last 6 months, I have gotten more than a dozen “what happened to Cribnotes?” inquiries.  Let’s just say life has been a whirlwind tour.

I no longer live in Baltimore, aka Broke Man’s Brooklyn as my buddy Mya so eloquently summed it up. I have traded simple city living in for the real, expensive version, giving up the rowdy summer madness on the front stoop of my ubiqitous Baltimore rowhouse for a three floor walk-up over a sometimes raucous hipster bar. Which means I also had to divorce the company I loved to move in with the dude I love, because long distance,  no matter what anyone says, sucks (for lack of a better way to express how hard it was).

Love for a Jersey boy is how I ended up working in Brick City–Newark, NJ.  And that, my friends is where I will leave you…for now.

Hungry, Man?

Unlike many inner city communities where the lack of grocery stores is often abysmal, I have ready access to multiple full service stores (2, lol.) and a weekly farmers market, largely because I am gentrification’s next door neighbor. It is a veritable food oasis (rather than a desert like many other neighborhoods in beloved B’more, I suppose.). Albeit, a fabulous convenience which when lacking is often cited for the food access troubles of the inner-city, it had not stop me from regular take out.

Consequently, ever since I started, what I like to affectionately call “AA for Fat Folk” (working on changing a ‘smedium big girl’ to a smaller girl, lol), take out has gone by the way side and my new found mild obsession with food and fitness has made the trip to the grocery a frequent occurrence and has caused me to think way too deeply about both access to food and what we do with it. And it came upon me in a dream (or while I was reading this) that while both financial and physical access is crucial it is not the only issue related to bringing affordable healthy food to the inner city, the carryouts and chicken shacks will continue to thrive if how people view food is not also addressed.

For instance, two weeks ago while standing in line at the grocer, I noticed very few carts had anything fresh. As it was the 1st of the month in the urban core (WIC, TANF, Food Stamps all arrive then), many carts were full of a months worth of groceries. Several of the carts near me belonged to mothers with children. With the exception of one person other than me, not one cart had an identifiable fresh vegetable in it. Hungry man dinners, Chicken nuggets, high fructose corn syrupy juice like drink things? Yes. But vegetables, frozen or fresh? Few and far between.  Hence the “pressure”, “sugar”, and “little bit of weight” problems pressing down floating about the core in alarming numbers.

Could age have something to do with it? Probably. Many heads of households inner-city are young and many of their parents were young when they had them. But more so its changing the cultural paradigm around what food means Eating habits are passed on. My neighbors seem to constantly be bringing home “Chicken Boxes”, “Mickie Dees”, and the “Carry Out”. Since my weight loss seems to have become a “concern” for some of my neighbors, these discussions have also identified the thought that food that’s good for you does not taste good—ever and that buying healthy is breaking the bank.  And I have even had several say that giving up Soul Food , which is often full of cholesterol, and high in fat, is the “mans” way of trying to control folks of color—many times.” (Now, before some you Soul Food loving folk chop off my head, I am not saying, folks should give it up all together. It is an important part of African-american culture. I am saying that it cannot be the largest part. )

Since, as I have already demonstrated, I am nosey, I have been talking up eating healthy every time someone tells me not to get “too skinny”. Lately, I have been giving away lots of samples. Two of my neighbors often tell me that they did not know that fresh vegetables could taste so good without lots of fatty additions. Or that baked meats do not have to be bland or seasoned with salt. And this leads me to the question I have been toying with for weeks, how do we change cultural paradigms to get folks to adopt healthy eating habits. How do we demonstrate that buying healthy food–while a bit more costly–can still be done and last.  If we really want to impact the health of inner city residents,  seems it’s a matter of showing and proving.

A Ghostly Future

Today on Daily Kos, there was very haunting and sad post about Dayton, Ohio. Dayton, the home of the first flight and the first cash register is the empitome of what has happened to many small and mid-sized cities whose middle class was created through the promise of hard, but good paying work at factories.

Here is the link to the pictoral tour of modern Dayton.   Speechless.

Got Rent? Build Credit (at a Credit Union)

                                     by Michael Nathans, Guest Blogger

 There are no ‘silver bullets’ or ‘quick-fixes’ to building or rebuilding a good credit history. And for the underbanked-particularly those without a “traditional” credit file at Equifax, Experian or TransUnion-establishing creditworthiness without running out and getting a high cost credit card, auto loan, or mortgage, this is especially true.  

 However, meeting the challenge of helping the underbanked build a good credit history just might start with a verifiable rent receipt. And the way it works, is perfectly designed for credit unions (CU’s)-particularly community development credit unions that often offer services in underbanked communities. The service is designed to pay significant dividends to CUs and their members because of the cash savings it makes possible on auto loans and mortgages, utility hook-ups and phone service.  Helping consumers achieve these cost savings translate into new members and increased loyalty for CUs and savings accounts and assets, as well as a credit history and FICO Expansion Score that could even qualify members for insurance discounts and new employment.

 The service is called Payment Reporting Builds Credit (PRBC).  The service can enable CU members to supplement (not replace) their so-called traditional credit reports and scores by building a credit file with FICO Expansion Score using the regular traditional monthly bills they pay– rent payments, private loans and mortgages, utilities, phone, cable, insurance, self-storage, rent-to-own, day care, and even regular deposits to a savings account (which have long been recognized by the FHA and GSEs as ways to determine credit worthiness) through a CU’s bill payment service and/or manually through the CU’s own web site. And it is specifically designed to be offered by financial institutions under their own brand identities on a private label basis to their customers.  

Sounds great, right? Well it is and it can be especially beneficial to CU’s as they work to grow deposits and membership. After all, many community development finance experts have advocated for such a system for years and the concept has garnered considerable traction. And it not only sounds great but is sanctioned under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Section 202.6. The Act states that users of credit reports and scores MUST consider a credit applicant’s ‘shoebox full of paper receipts’ or a report like the PBRC Report with FICO Expansion Score evidencing payments on accounts that they are responsible for (spouses can get credit for accounts listed only in the other spouse’s name too) in addition to those reflected in their Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion report, upon the applicant’s request. 

Reviewing these additional documents does not only benefit the un- or underbanked, but it can greatly assist lenders, service providers, insurance companies and employers to gain a more complete and accurate picture of their applicants’ true creditworthiness by using this supplemental information, particularly with a FICO Expansion Score.

PRBC was founded as a for-profit with a social mission and was launched with a grant from the Ford Foundation and matching financial support from its private sector founders, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citimortgage and IBM.  ACCION, Omidyar Network, Total Technology Ventures, Maryland Technology Venture Fund, Bristol Investments, and the Center for Financial Services Innovation have also invested in the venture and provide technical assistance to the organization.

The opportunity for CUs to capitalize on the PRBC service which has been designated as an “innovative and responsive community development service” under the Community Reinvestment Act, may be particularly ‘ripe’ in the current economic and regulatory environment. The service enables CUs to offer a legitimate and equal opportunity for both “thin file” and no-score, as well as “thick file” and low-score consumers to establish or re-build a good credit history and FICO score WITHOUT the need to go deeper into debt (or acquire new, high cost debt) in order to prove their willingness and ability to pay their financial obligations on time.  Furthermore, CUs could beat banks that are subject to CRA regulation to the ‘starting line’ by offering this service to their members,

Additional information and articles about PBRC can be found here.

  

Michael Nathans is an Executive VP for MicroBilt Corporation and the founder and Chief Development Officer for  Pay Rent, Build Credit, Inc., dba PRBC® and Payment Reporting Builds Credit®, a national credit bureau. PRBC was launched to supplement automated underwriting and risk based pricing decisions using bill payment data such as rent, utilities, phone, and other commonly recurring monthly payments which are not measured via traditional credit reports and scores. During the five years prior to forming PRBC, Michael was a Senior Manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the Asset Securitization, Mortgage Banking, and Financial Risk Management Practice Groups based in Washington, DC.  Michael has over 25 years of finance and risk management experience.

CRA for Community Development Credit Unions? WTH?

 As you can imagine from the title, I am not a fan. And though it is merely a bill at this point, I am still not a fan of it. CRA definetely needs to be fixed (it is most definetely broken), but I don’t think CDCU’s should even be on the target list.  I mean, Community Development Credit unions by the nature of what they do, already provide access to capital in underserved communities–both rural and urban in way that CRA in its current structure does not (don’t get me started on the fact that financial institutions with CRA needs seem hell bent on anything in Cali or New York–which I don’t think was the intent.)

Read the Federation’s (formerly the Federation of Community Development Credit Unions) response to the act here.  And the NCRC’s favorable view of it here. What say you, you CRA experts?

Hooverville, Next Stop

Over the past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely middle aged woman named Jane*, while helping some friends of mine fix-up the steal of a deal fixer upper they just purchased. Over the 24 hours of moving things, sanding cabinets, and scrapping off 40-year old contact paper and various and a sundry shelves, Jane shared her a good portion of her life story with me. The story was both heart-breaking and infuriating.

In short, 14 months ago, Jane lost her job at 55 years old. As the job market has continued to unravel, she has given up or lost her home, her car, many of her prized possessions, and to some extent her pride. She has been diligently searching for a job with each interview ending the same way, they either thought she was too old or too qualified and would leave if something better came along (I wish as an interviewee, one could ask the interviewer “how do I know if I say I’ll be here for 2 years, you will keep me for at least 2 years?”, but I digress.).  She is praying that what little she has left in a storage unit will not be auctioned off at the end of the month, and she has literally begged her cell phone company to give her one more month.

In the last few months, Jane has become almost entirely reliant on friends to keep a roof over her head. She is homeless–though not in the sense we almost always imagine in hearing the word. She is apart of the growing number of folk that have lost a job and a home. They are not sleeping on the street, or at a shelter or even in their car, but are shifting from couch to guest room as they try to stay economically afloat. No job. No home. She is dependent on the kindness (and/or tolerance) of friends and relatives.

Jane’s particular situation demonstrates the disconnect that exists between the haves and have nots as the economy continues to unravel around us. See Jane has some well-off friends, but none of them are willing to help her. One rich Beverly Hills friend who lives alone told her, that she is unemployed because of “bad choices”, and therefore she couldn’t let Jane stay with her. Another said she needed to be able to have “alone time” in her 4-floor house with a rarely used finished basement. (It is only because of a friend who is living much closer to paycheck to paycheck and is supporting someone else who also lost a job that Jane currently has a roof over head.)

Jane’s friends are just a localized version of the “disconnect” shown in all of its glory on the Hill and in the media as they gravitate between ‘let them eat cake’ in the form of tax cuts, and patting financial institutions with bailout funds on the back while they do nothing but hold on to the funds. I know at least 10 people who are currently out of work. They are trying to decide how much longer they can afford their rent, their mortgage, or their car. Folks need jobs. Not tax cuts. Nobody is going out to buy a big screen TV with it.

Some ideas that could help put people back to work, train the long-time unemployable, and increase the size of the middle class are largely absent from the stimulus. How about some RFP’s to address our crumbling infrastructure? That would connect private industry to job creation. How about some access to the training programs that are afforded to some TANF recipients in some states for those who have been unemployed for more than six months? How about encouraging cities to take back abandoned houses and create opportunities for entrepreneurial non-profit and for profit organizations with a way to reposition the properties like NYC has done with the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Program? How about supporting some funds for small business—the nation’s largest employer? All of these things are key to maintaining viable communities to live and work.

The same old tax cut, entitlement spending, and cuts to programs that encourage future growth (uh, education any one?) ain’t gonna do it. But as Kevin Costner once said, “In America, they’d rather give you a handout then give you a job.” I guess the latter is too much like right.

* Jane is not her real name, duh.

Loco for Local

Every weekend I’m home in Baltimore, I find out something new I love–and all of it has to do with the reverence to local commerce so many in Baltimore seem to embrace.

I live 5 blocks from a year-round outdoor farmers market and a 20 minute walk from a fancy indoor one.

I can get free books from a local guy who decided to start a free store after collecting so many books from patrons at the pub where he bartends.

I can drink cheap and dance till I can’t stand at a very local and very lively Melba’s.

And I can have what is supposedly the best Thai in town just 8 blocks away.

I can eat a great meal at a gazillion local restuarants that do not have that “this restaurant in Albequerque looks just like one in Cleveland” feel.

I can buy every single one of my friends and family a gift for any holiday without ever stepping foot in a big box if I wanted.

I recently realized, even before deserting that great city of NY I have always had penchant for local stuff–sure you will have to go to a big box at some point to buy paper towels and other things, but local is lovely.  And local is paramount to helping communities remain stable and pushing transistioning neighborhoods toward continued good growth.

Research has shown that for every $100 spent in a chain only $13 on average stays in the local community.  That number goes up to $45 when you buy local.  That’s jobs, thats good bought and sold to other businesses. Thats community development.

And with the continued growth of social media and the maturing of the “Internets”, there is no excuse to not be able to buy some things local.  Some might argue that buying local costs more–and that might be true if you live in a community who’s only close by shopping options are the big boxes–but thing about all the charges that are added on to flying your apple from Washington when there is an apple orchard a county away.

Start with some of your groceries. Sites like Edible Communities have links to several cities and regions where listing of local grocers, producers, and even restaurants that only serve local food can be found.  At Sustainable Table you can find additional “buy local” resources and lots of great data on the benefits of doing even just a little bit.

Looks like I will be home in Baltimore this weekend. Lets see what else I can find!

Questioning Your Motivation

So, a couple weeks ago, Ms. Deborah Gore Dean, a former HUD official under the infamous Samuel Pierce reign was kind enough to pay the Crib a vist.  She left a hefty behind a hefty comment that I decided to give its own post.

And of course, that comment led to another comment. A comment that has been sitting in the “approve” que for more than a week because I was going to write a post about it–since ACORN seems to not be able to get off the hot seat.

Instead, I’d like to know what you think, and  hope that all of you knowledgeable folks who read this blog will take some time to leave a comment in the comment section (BTW–YOU CAN LEAVE AN ANONYMOUS COMMENT IF YOU PREFER) Here it is:

I, for one, would encourage people in any party, to revisit the late 1990’s reasons for abolishing HUD. They are all still good reasons. And if that is not an option, then how about radically reducing its budget? If that is not an option, then regulate it and the abusive housing agencies it sponsors with our taxpayer money?… Why do I, and others feel that way? Because HUD is perceived by many to be “Federally Sponsored” thugs.

Why is it that year after year, the American public is floored by what happens in leadership there? The corruption, the waste and misuse of taxpayer dollars.

·         http://theeprovocateur.blogspot.com/2009/01/inside-story-of-acorn.html

“Whenever ACORN receives any money, be it from the federal government or other resources, it first goes to CCI. Then, CCI filters that money to anyone of ACORN’s affiliates. Of course, this creates all sorts of room for malfeasance.”

 I have actually personally heard from from leadership at ACORN that wants change, that ACORN “pimps its own people” to line their own pockets – with OUR taxpayer money. HUD and these same sponsored agencies are out shaking down realtors, lenders, mortgage brokers, and banks. Not to help actual hosuing victims, but to line their own pockets.

There is a prevailing attitude by HUD and these so called “Housing Advocates” that actually scream “victim” and then they victimize by bending the law, bullying, and coercing “donations”. And where does the money go? Well, not to the alleged “housing victim”, if there even was a victim…but back into the coffers of organizations like ACORN.

Hmm…what say you?