If the firing of DHCD chief Michael Braverman indicates that Baltimore City is going to move away from the traditional neo-liberal (and structural racist) model of housing and community development, I applaud.  If not, I’m scratching my head. 

Braverman’s time at HCD, from tackling vacant properties to heading a new agency that was once combined with the federal Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC), was shaped by neoliberal dogma on development—that concentration of poverty is an evil, not an opportunity; that private investment and banks should carry the financing load of City redevelopment and government’s role was to identify and incentivize neighborhoods that might be attractive to them rather than prioritize long neglected neighborhoods; and that development’s ultimate goal was to produce a post-racial, white liberal vision of neighborhood utopia with rainbow colors and mixed-income portfolios, rather than allowing neighborhood’s to determine their own preferences and vision.   While Braverman (and Catherine Pugh) claimed to usher in a New Era of Neighborhood Investment, only the rhetoric was new.  Market forces operating in the footprint of structural racism already had determined which neighborhoods were “winners” and deserving of creative city investment, and which were losers, deserving of demolition.  

But with Baltimore’s long embrace of this neoliberal development model and its likely continuation with a new Mayor, it’s hard to see Braverman’s exit as any progressive shift in ideology or approach.  

Most likely, Braverman’s exit is the result of petty politics, and personal affronts that have never been forgotten.  In short, payback for something that will look silly if and when it comes to public light.  

I do know that Braverman was respected by many across the spectrum of competing city visions of development, and he worked with all to incorporate those visions within today’s dominant development framework.  He will be missed by those of us, like me, who believed he truly listened and respected us, and by those who appreciated his pragmatism and willingness to accommodate the many groups that contest the development terrain.  Given the current state of politics in Baltimore, perhaps that’s the most we can ask for in a public servant.  

But let’s work to change the current political-economic paradigm.  

Dr. Ben, HUD, and Speaker Ryan

Posted: December 27, 2016 in Uncategorized

Surgeon Ben Carson, who during his presidential campaign struggled to understand even the most basic details of public policy, will now administer the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees federal housing and development assistance in communities while furthering homebuilding and mortgage lending. Among HUD’s six core functions are the ownership of public housing (administered by local Public Housing Authorities), the provision of housing subsidies for low- and moderate-income families, and the allocation of community development grants to States and localities.23carson-hp-master768

It is unclear whether Carson’s own impressive journey out of childhood poverty included a stint in subsidized housing or not. But his expressed values about housing and public assistance leave little doubt that his approach will see poverty as a product of individual failings and misguided government programs, rather than the offspring of a failed economic system. Read the rest of this entry »

Memes & Homeless Encampments

Posted: February 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

The encampment for economic refugees that has been created under the JFX soon will be destroyed by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake not because of health, public safety or homeless concerns.  In a City camp83that was dealt a bad economic hand in the 1970s (like most in the North) and decided to play the Tourism card (using federal money deigned for neighborhood development), image and narrative are everything.  To Blake and other city leaders, Baltimore’s narrative is simple–“we lost jobs, but it’s our people, not business, who are now to blame.  Addicted to either substances or an underground economy or public handouts, they need to be replaced by others–tourists, empty-nesters, new urban pioneers, all who know what success requires and how to enjoy its rewards.”  innerharbor 

This story is assisted by visions of Baltimore like the Inner Harbor, an image that portrays order, prosperity, and hope–one created with  public subsidies and give aways that have robbed the City of the resources needed to aid the economic refugees under the JFX, in homeless shelters, and in Rent and Foreclosure courts of Baltimore.  

Strangely enough, the tent city is more offensive than a common Baltimore image that many of us see as prima facie evidence of the City’s failed public policies:  Vacant Housing.  Whether it’s 20,000 houses, as the City says, or 40,000 as most activists think, is of little consequence.  They exist, to us, as evidence of a failed private housing market and vacanthousingcity policies that do nothing but attempt to placate the profit-driven market.  But to the Mayor and others, the meme of vacant housing works in their favor.   It evokes ideas of failed responsibility, dysfunction, and class exodus.  It’s bothersome, in a sense, but vacants are just buildings, and ones that eventually will be torn down (if the City has their way and the money).  

But a tent city is different.  It’s too human.  The blankets, personal belongings, people–well it’s just too much of the wrong message.   For the City (and the housing market) to win the battle of the story, it needs to de-personalize and objectify economic refugees, not recognize their humanity.  This is why the tent city itself is important.  It shows what images of homeless shelters or rent court cannot–humans struggling to find respect and dignity in the worst of economic circumstances.  It shows us, in some respects, at our innovative and courageous best, with the few resources left to us.  With the City and the marketplace unwilling to respect, protect or fulfill our human right to housing , self-help will do–for now.   That’s a dangerous meme for the powers that be–but an important one for the powers to come.  

peter sabonis

The Myth of 75 Journeys Home

Posted: February 4, 2013 in Uncategorized

The following is a letter from Jeff Singer, retired CEO of Health Care for the Homeless-Baltimore, on the occasion of a very public announcement that 75 Homeless folks in Baltimore would soon benefit from coordinated services and secure housing.

homelessFebruary 3, 2013

An Open Letter to the Leadership Advisory Group Overseeing Baltimore’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness:

Having attended Friday’s community meeting regarding the Homelessness Point-In-Time count and the 75 Journeys Home project, I wish to explain why some individuals stood  outside and in the rear of the hall, silently holding signs with messages such as “75 Journeys Home  Is Not Enough”.  Given that our mutual goal is to make homelessness in Baltimore rare and brief, such an explication may be instructive.

The compassion and hard work of everyone involved in 75 Journeys Home was quite evident during the event.  Surely the effort to house some of our most vulnerable neighbors is laudable.  Speaker after speaker described various roles: securing resources including housing and services; organizing an event requiring the collaboration of many agencies – public and private; facilitating the participation of more than one hundred volunteers; and reaching out to some of our most vulnerable neighbors.  All who engaged in these activities are to be congratulated, and the role of the LAG is commendable.

Yet… Read the rest of this entry »

[The following was delivered as a speech to the Baltimore County Communities for the Homeless on March 19, 2012.)

I first visited a soup kitchen in the 1970s.  I volunteered at a homeless shelter when I was in law school in the early 1980s.  At my first job, I wrote a report on Homelessness for the Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee—that was in 1983.   In 1986, at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, I began visiting homeless shelters and making my attorney skills available.  In 1987, that led to the creation of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which supported other attorneys doing the same.  And for about 20 years at the Project I sued, and lobbied, and mobilized, and organized, and educated, and wrote, and argued, and fought against homelessness.

It’s getting close to forty years since I first visited a soup kitchen; since homelessness was described as “new” and “different” from the skid row alcoholics who been affectionately described in lore and literature as “bums;” since soup kitchens and shelters began to crowd the landscape; and since McKinney and other funds starting supporting lawyers, social workers, and advocates to “help” take care of this problem.

Almost forty years—so why is it still here today?  Read the rest of this entry »

The announcement last week that 49 state attorneys general had come to a $25 billion  settlement with five major banks relative to foreclosure fraud came with notice that the settlement contained money for legal aid for foreclosed upon homeowners.   While the amount is hard to determine, one attorney general claimed,  “This will get a lawyer for everyone facing foreclosure in the state.  This will stop every wrongful foreclosure.”

Wishful thinking or reality?  It depends on the lawyers who get the money.  For the last three years, Lawyers from Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and law students from Harvard Legal Aid have teamed with community organizers from City Life/Vida Urbana to wage an effective “shield and sword” combination that has kept hundreds of already foreclosed upon owners housed and led to favorable state and local policy changes.  In Jacksonville, April Charney of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid has pioneered creative and aggressive legal challenges that have been recognized and copied nationally.  Some Legal Aid programs, like Pine Tree Legal Assistance, were quick to recognize the magnitude of the problem and shifted resources program-wide, which led to the robo-signing discovery and lawsuits that prompted the $25 billion settlement.

But others were slow off the mark, and even when they turned their attention to the problem, they found their program cultures and staffs ill-equipped to handle one of the major legal challenges the poor have faced since the start of federally funded legal services.   From my own experience, Maryland Legal Aid was one of those programs from 2008 to 2011.  Despite landing a grant to forge a “train the trainer” model which enabled the Bureau to allocate roughly 2 attorneys (in a 300 employee $22 million statewide agency) exclusively to foreclosure work, the seed sprouted very little.   Attorneys and advocates who were accustomed to triaging a host of legal issues and handling only the familiar, struggled with the complexity of foreclosure work and, not surprisingly, found few foreclosure cases of “merit”  to tackle.  Those that did found themselves in a culture with few tools for litigation support.   For a program that litigated less than 1% of its overall caseload, this was not surprising.

Despite this, I am sure that when the settlement money for attorney aid becomes available, Maryland Legal Aid will get the lion’s share in Maryland.   Other states, however, should examine program applicants carefully and prioritize those that can handle not only litigation, but the creative partnerships with community organizations that expand leverage and led to policy changes statewide.  This will not only “multiply” the impact of the money (as demonstrated by GBLS and City Life), but will facilitate the movement toward  the greater objective:  the human right to housing.

Occupy Baltimore: It’s Working

Posted: November 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

It’s business as usual for those who occupy Baltimore and for Occupy Baltimore.  Mayor Stephanie Rawlings’ growing impatience with the protestors who insist on camping out in McKeldin Square may be truly founded upon legal interpretations of the First Amendment right to speech, but it’s hard not to suspect that Occupy Baltimore is simply bad for business.

In a city hitched to the tourism, image is everything.  And except for some unfortunate incidents last summer, the Inner Harbor of Baltimore has always projected an image of order, safety, and relative cleanliness.

But no one can deny that McKedlin Sqaure, which operates as the Inner Harbor foyer, looks a bit untidy with the multi-colored tents, tarps, cardboard, and placards of Occupy Baltimore.  And while Rawlings spoke of allowing free speech “during the day” in McKeldin, her Parks and Recreation Department advanced a proposal that belied the city’s concern about tidiness.

The Parks Department offered its own, uniform colored tents for the protesters to use during the day, replacing the sagging collection of tarps that have sheltered Occupy’s media, food, and medical areas.  Parks also was willing to allow one occupier to stay overnight in a single tent—presumably provided by the city.  Other instructions by the city related to vacating the square for other scheduled events, and limited Occupy’s sprawl to a designated section of the public square.
If camping is not free speech, why is the City even offering a single occupier the opportunity to continue camping in McKeldin?  Presumably, the city’s offer to allow one nightly tent recognizes that the Occupy movement involves occupation, and that the occupation is speech.  The fact that Rawlings is willing to allow a little speech, but not a lot, again points to her concern about Baltimore’s image and its businesses.

There is no denying that the Occupy movement is antithetical to business—particularly the domination of government by an upper class of citizens and entities that appear capable of making even democracy a commodity to be purchased.

Cash strapped local governments like Baltimore sacrifice to the business gods daily, hoping that commerce will boast tax coffers, wages, and property value.  Worse, cities that rely on tourism need to vigilantly monitor and keep up with other tourist cities that compete for conventioneers and visitors.

The fact that Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston have their own Occupy sites is irrelevant for convention analysis.  Those are “first tier” convention cities.  Baltimore is second tier—at least according to the Greater Baltimore Committee which is currently pushing a a convention center expansion that would elevate the City’s ranking.

Even more relevant is that a rag tag tent rant against greed and inequality hardly encourages visitors to open up their wallets when they pass through McKeldin to get to the restaurants and stores that ring the Inner Harbor promenade.

Distractions from the real business of the Inner Harbor is, perhaps, is a prime reason the City historically has limited protests and leafleting in the area, which is a public park.  As a veteran of marches and protests to bring visibility to persons who were homeless or employees exploited by Inner Harbor restaurants, I’ve had many opportunities to witness these limitations first hand.  As an attorney, I was hard pressed to explain to protestors why the 1st Amendment right to speech was “different” in the Inner Harbor compared to other City public places. All of us who have labored under these restrictions look forward to the still-undisclosed changes promised by the City as a result of a 2003 lawsuit brought the anti-war protesting “Women in Black.”

But Under Armour didn’t need a lawsuit when it wanted to emblaze its logo on the slopes of the City’s Federal Hill park last year.  The same City Parks department that is now seeking to limit Occupy Baltimore, appeared then to welcome the message that the city houses professional football’s primary supplier of athletic merchandise.  The corporate logo was communication that was consistent with commerce; this political protest is not.

In the 1990s, a group of persons without housing constructed shanties in Henrietta Szold Park on East Baltimore St. near the McKim Center.  They lived for weeks without complaint from the city, and police officers often stopped at the park to drop off blankets and coffee.  Then suddenly, with no warning, the police chased the homeless out of the park in an early morning raid, and city public works employees carted away the shanties and the personal property therein.  As homeless advocates like me attempted to recover the property, we learned why the city’s attitude had changed: a nearby bank had finally lost patience and complained to the city about the shanty town and its impact on customers.  With one business complaint, a social issue became a criminal one.

Last week,  The Economist, become the latest mainstream publication questioning the purpose of the Occupy  movement, opining that the New York City protestors have had little effect on Wall St. financiers and the corporate business interests they represent.

Ironically, the tent flap in Baltimore means Occupy Baltimore already has outdone Occupy Wall St.   If city officials are concerned about a camp-out that looks no worse than its 16,000 abandoned houses or the roughly 4,000 homeless wanderers that mark its landscape, you can be sure it’s getting under the skin of Baltimore businesses.

-peter sabonis 11/1/11

The Poor As Teachers of Economics

Posted: September 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

What can the poor teach us?  Yes, I know and truly believe that the poor teach us about God, ourselves, and our relationships with others, resources, and the environment.  But would you pay to take a course taught by “the poor?” 

A lot of us who chose “human services” as a profession would have said “yes” when we first read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed Father of critical pedagogy (which means teaching),  Freire challenged educators to learn from the oppressed—to the point of relearning that which was thought already learned.  He also challenged all of us to recognize that underlying the traditional “value-free” education process were a set of values that were de-humanizing.  The quest of the educator, according to Freire, was “to fight alongside the people for the recovery of the people’s stolen humanity.”

When human service work is done with a similar awareness and attitude, it is truly transforming.  When it’s combined with the lessons and experiences documented in Pedagogy of the Poor, a  short but insightful book by Willie Baptist and Jan Rehman (and recently featured in Organizing Upgrade), societal transformation can be hastened.

Baptist has played the role of an intellectual among the poor for years.  Raised in Watts during the racial uprisings of the 1960s, he threw himself into grassroots activism on race and class issues and has emerged with an economic and social critique that could be shared for the price of tuition.   Instead, he shares it with others who are poor, old and new, in the fight to recover his and their stolen humanity through the Poverty Scholars Program http://bit.ly/ov7BQB.

He now shares it with us.   Along with Jan Rehman and a creative literary structure, he uses his direct experience and the tools of social science to critique, act, reflect, and share–and invites us to enter the same process wherever we work or live.    While the market price of admission is $28.95 (Amazon), the true price is to see the poor or persons who are poor– clients, customers, patients– first as agents of the societal change we seek.   It’s also the heart of human rights—and a small cost for the learning and re-learning that all of us desperately need.

peter sabonis

The Rev. Jim Wallis, noted Christian liberal, recently faced off against the Rev. and Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention about the morality of the U.S. Budget Deficit and its solutions.  http://nyti.ms/n34L83.   What’s notable is Land’s claim that $700 billion of our tax dollars goes for “means tested programs” that support single parent families—an immorality that apparently should be addressed by any thoughtful policy maker.

Land’s argument demonstrates that even if you end “welfare as we know it” in the U.S.—we did that 14 years ago—it will never die as a political target.  His budget numbers were dubious, as Wallis suggested.  The primary cash aid paid to “single parents” comes through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, once known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).  State and individual entitlement to TANF was ended on the federal level in 1996, and assistance was conditioned on participation in work searches, work activities, and what is known in the trade as “rapid labor force attachment” (i.e., take the first job, regardless).    Federal payments to AFDC-TANF since welfare reform have hovered in the $20-25 billion range. See http://bit.ly/qKgiOq.  While Land is surely referring to other “related spending” on single parent families, it is difficult to reach the $700 billion mark no matter how you count it.   Total Medicaid spending, the most expensive portion of which is for those in long-term care, costs us roughly $250 billion per year, while the total bill for Food Stamps is $73 billion annually.   See http://1.usa.gov/n9DAPI .  While Land is without a doubt a “fisher of men,” (Matthew 4:19), his net on this issue is cast so wide it must include a portion of the Afghan war attributed to single parents.

It’s possible Land simply made a mistake and got his numbers wrong.  It’s not difficult when it comes to  welfare–$700 billion was the amount Congress authorized the Treasury Department to use under the Troubled Asset Relief Program(TARP) to bail out the banks in September, 2008.   See http://nyti.ms/ohQAPN.

But TARP is more than a punch line in moral debates about the budget.  It demonstrates our worship of the private market and the government’s role in ensuring its needs are met.  Let’s put aside the rhetoric about the bills we’re leaving our children.   Why, in a time of depressed consumer spending is Congress obsessed with decreasing government spending, which augments spending power, and thinks a sovereign, destined, and exceptional country like the U.S is going to follow Greece to bankruptcy?  It’s because “less government” has become an ethic onto itself, one that embraces an even more suspect ethic—the private market.

Philosopher Jan Rehman summarizes this perspective in Pedagogy of the Poor, written with Willie Baptist (a scholar-in-residence at Union Theological Seminary).  See http://amzn.to/n3rFdC.  Rehman notes that economist Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian Economist who became the father of neoliberal (market worship) theory, argued that social justice is illusory and misleading.  Why?

“Justice can only exist among individuals, [Hayek] assumes, and therefore cannot be applied to the anonymous and spontaneous mechanisms of the market.  [Hayek] frankly admits that this market gives to  those who already have.  But this is its merit than its deficit.  One cannot apply a standard of social justice if there is no one  in charge who can be blamed and to who one could appeal if the standard is not met.”  Pedagogy of the Poor, at 54.

Rehman observes that this establishes the market as a “kind of deity” which operates like a hidden God.  Attempting to understand its workings and influence its outcomes leads, according to Hayek, straight to socialism and totalitarianism.  Rehman concludes that Hayek’s hidden God is “definitely not the biblical God of the Exodus and the Jubilee Year, of liberation and social justice, but the reified rule of  money, capital, and shareholder values, namely the very  fetishism the Bible so forcefully condemns as idolatry, epitomized  in the ‘golden calf.’ “ Pedagogy, at 55.

This is the moral issue at stake in our budget deliberations.

J.Peter Sabonis Esq.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person is embodied in Human Rights.  While rarely enforced legally, Human Rights have inspired groups to organize and mobilize to achieve social change.  Grassroots groups such as the United Workers, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Vermont Workers Center have used Human Rights language to organize workers, mobilize communities, and achieve systemic change.

"Law is not power. Power comes from organized money or organized people."

The Maryland  Human Rights Authority is the legal advocacy arm and “in-house” counsel of such a group, the United Workers (UW).  Patterned after the legal unit created by Cesar Chavez in the early days of the United Farm Workers, the Maryland Human Rights Authority puts the achievement of organizing goals above the achievement of legal victories.  In representing workers or the organization, or while strategizing with organizers or members, the Authority asks simply, “What can law and legal strategies do to build power for this movement at this moment?”

Legitimate legal claims for unpaid wages, overtime, waiting time, sexual harassment, discrimination, worker safety are analyzed by the Authority not only for their legal merit, but their “discovery,” publicity, and solidarity value in advancing the goals of the United Workers.  All of these claims are treated within the United Workers as violations of human rights—the rights to worker dignity, just and favorable conditions of employment, living wages, and health—despite being litigated as state or federal statutory violations.  Legal help is provided free of charge for United Workers members.

Led by attorney, J. Peter Sabonis, who provided legal support and advocacy to the United Workers successful campaign to achieve living wages and worker dignity for laborers at Camden Yards, the Maryland Human Rights Authority has direct experience making human rights real.

The Maryland Human Rights Authority uses all advocacy tools to advance human rights in Maryland (litigation, lobbying, mobilizing), but its mission is to support organizing and the movement  to end poverty.  While it believes access to justice and legal representation is a human right, such access is not  its primary concern.  The Maryland Human Rights Authority is  not  a traditional  legal  services  organization.   It sees it clients as agents of social change and active participants in  their cases.   Litigation and advocacy are used to achieve movement  goals and to assist  in developing leadership among UW members.

for more information contact:   jpetersabonis@gmail.com   301-639-2561