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HOUSTON HOUSING ACTIVISTS CELEBRATE LEGISLATIVE VICTORY

By Alexander Massey-Tompkins

HOUSTON - Chinese food and lively music helped Houston members of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, beat the Texas heat Saturday, June 25. They gathered at the Julia C. Hester House in the historic 5th Ward neighborhood (a predominantly African-American neighborhood) to celebrate the passage of Texas House Bill 1823. The bill allows home buyers to convert their contract-for-deed loans into traditional mortgages. A spokesperson from Sheila Jackson Lee's office (D-Houston) presented the enthusiastic crowd with a "Certificate of Congressional Recognition" for their efforts to protect working class neighborhoods from ruthless exploitation. The Houston Chronicle quoted Houston City Councilwoman Ada Edwards as saying about ACORN "Y'all are holding the light. This is the only movement in the country right now where you're not only dealing with activism, but dealing with policy. And when you can merge the two, that's when you get some changes in our society."

Under the contract-for-deed system, buyers do not own their homes until they have completely paid off their loans. Unlike traditional mortgages, buyers do not accumulate equity or possess titles, rendering them unable to sell their homes, or use them as collateral for home improvement loans, or in case of an emergency. Also, legal protections afforded home owners against foreclosure are not extended to contract-for-deed buyers.

Predatory lenders unfairly target low-income workers and immigrants, many of whom say they were not aware that they did not own their homes until they lost them. Since the buyers are not the technical owners, insurance and property taxes are included in the monthly loan payment, subjecting them to the whims of big real estate. Many people have had their monthly payments rise substantially with only vague, if any, explanations. Heartbreaking stories of families losing their homes just months before the contract is paid up make this a bittersweet victory, coming none too soon.

ACORN members mounted an aggressive, grass roots campaign against the lenders including marching into their offices demanding meetings, making loan payments in pennies, and frequent trips to the state legislature in Austin. While the success is a testament to the people's power to make their voices heard and affect government, members know there is much left to accomplish.

Staff organizer John Everett says the local members of ACORN are committed to continuing their work as a "watchdog, community action group." Their goal is to force the city of Houston to be accountable for "abandoned lots, affordable housing and chemical spills" from the nearby railroad yards, that plague his community. ACORN operates nationwide, representing 175,000 families in 51 different cities. Bill 1823 is scheduled to take effect September 1.

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