Bill Boyarsky
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ACORN and Mama Hill vs. predatory lenders

The dream of home ownership has long been part of life on 92nd Street and similar South Los Angeles working class neighborhoods. But making the dream come true has never been easy-- not more than a half century ago when the area was mostly white and not today when it is African American and Latino.

The dream was the topic Saturday May 30 when ACORN, the community activist organization, held a press conference-demonstration in front of a small house at 755 East 92nd Street, a home headed for foreclosure, its owner one of the many casualties of the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

The street is broad with bungalows on either side. It was quiet at midday, with most of the activity occurring at the bungalow owned by Millicent (Mama) Hill, who was an English teacher at Crenshaw High School before she retired in 2000 and set up a program in her home to help young women and men avoid the gang life and crime. ACORN volunteers, most of them older men and women, gathered in Mama Hill’s front yard, all of them wearing the organization’s bright red t-shirts.

Mama Hill has been operating the program on her pension, small donations and with the help of friends and supporters who assist her with tutoring, mentoring, anger management and other services needed in a neighborhood that is pretty thick with gang action despite its peaceful appearance on a Saturday.

With expenses exceeding income, and house prices rising fast, Hill refinanced her house. “I needed a loan quickly,” she said. She was promised one at 7.5 percent interest but before she signed the final papers, she was told the interest would be 10 percent “but they promised it could be renegotiated.” When she obtained the loan, the house was appraised at $405,000 but has since dropped far below that. She fell behind in her payments, and the mortgage holder is now foreclosing.

One of her supporters, Cedric R. Brown, president of Youth Incentive Programs Inc said Hill got the loan at a time when housing prices were exploding, even in this modest neighborhood, and mortgage brokers flooded the area with tempting refinance offers. “The predatory lenders took advantage,” he said. Some of borrowers were hard-pressed, like Hill. Others were tempted by the chance to pay off debts and improve their living conditions. Houses once valued at $450,000 recently dropped to $385,000 to $360,000.

Hill spoke to supporters and the two or three journalists who showed up. Then the ACORN volunteers walked the neighborhood, going door to door to urge support for Isadore Hill, a Compton city councilman running for Assembly in the area and for others who support bills pending in Sacramento designed to crack down on predatory lenders. Given the power of the financial business in the Capitol, I’d say those bills face a rough future.

Afterward, I drove a few blocks east to 1233 East 92nd Street, a brown stucco home with a tile roof and an excellently tended front yard. It is an unmarked monument to working class L.A.’s dream of home ownership.

In 1942, an African American family, the Laws, bought this very house. The neighborhood was then predominantly white. But the house deed included a restrictive covenant banning a sale to a racial minority. Such covenants were common in those days. Henry Laws and his family were African Americans, The Laws family fought the covenant. Charlotta Bass, the fiery editor of the California Eagle, espoused their cause. A judge ordered Mr. and Mrs. Laws and daughter jailed. Their sons returned from service to find their parents and sister in jail. The Laws eventually prevailed and courts began overturning the covenants.

The saga of the Laws family is a great inspiration to ACORN and its volunteers as they fight predatory lenders who, in their own way, are as vicious as the segregationists of 60 years ago

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