Culture

The Happiest City in the U.S. Has a Secret

How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?… I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.

One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.

– Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Earlier this year, National Geographic published an article claiming to have discovered the 25 happiest cities in the United States. The measurements were based on a scale developed by Gallup, with input from Dan Buettner, who has spent decades traveling the globe in pursuit of the roots of happiness. Even with all that experience, Buettner’s findings (reported in the article by George Stone) seem to overlook one glaring problem: American happiness appears to be rich and white.

The city that tops Nat Geo’s list this year is Boulder, Colorado. Boulder is a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains, known for its biking paths, clean air, and youthful population; the latter of which can be attributed to the fact that it is home to the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) and Naropa University, in addition to several specialty and trade schools. Naropa University includes the writing school that was founded by beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. It’s also where I attended grad school.

Before I moved to the city, I had farewell drinks with a friend and a schoolmate he brought along, an Asian woman who spent one short academic year at CU before bolting.

“It’s the most racist place I’ve ever been,” she told me upon learning where I would soon be moving. “Everyone there is white, and if you’re not,” she swiped her hand through the air as though swatting away a bug. “It was like being Asian made me an alien,” she added.

‘It’s the most racist place I’ve ever been’

There was a moment of silence as I thought about my Cuban heritage, and whether I’d fit into the city that Nat Geo this year described as “bolstered by a sense of community, access to nature, sustainable urban development and preservation policies.”

Then my friend (a white gay man, if you’re wondering), said, “Oh, don’t worry, you pass.” Ultimately, he’s right. I do “pass.” My skin is olive-toned but not brown, my eyes are hazel, and my hair is a shade that in Latino communities is considered rubio, which roughly translates in English to blonde. I did not personally experience the racial alienation my drinking partner described that evening, but I saw and experienced other events that made the generous smiles, the lavish, clear-aired sunsets, and the folded yogis in the parks all seem like part of a deeply exclusionary facade.

     *                            *                            *

In the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” author Ursula Le Guin describes a city of immense but ambiguous happiness, where “the air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky.” There, in Omelas, the people “were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched.” But buried somewhere out of sight, in a small windowless room, an emaciated child sits alone. Le Guin describes its fear and decrepitude; the terrible squalor of its existence, and the feeble, hopeless waste of its mind and body. The child is always referred to as “it,” because to imagine an actual human being treated this way is beyond comprehension.

But, Le Guin explains, the people of Omelas have had to make a choice. “If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done … that would be to let guilt within the walls.”

And so the Omelans reason that it is simply a matter of math. Every life in the city stays joyful and beautiful—and the one that is not is hidden.

     *                            *                            *

National Geographic writes that in the happiest places, “locals smile and laugh more often, socialize several hours a day, have access to green spaces, and feel that they are making purposeful progress toward achieving life goals.”

This type of happiness, the article admits, relies upon wealth. What it doesn’t mention outright, however, is that for an entire city to be dubbed “the happiest,” poverty cannot play a significant factor. In Boulder’s case, this is not because the social problems that cause poverty have been fixed, but because the poor have been pushed out.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 88 percent of Boulder is single-racial white. The median single-household income is just under $60,000, and the mean a whopping $90,000. Median monthly housing costs are reported at $1,320, with the number of renters and homeowners roughly the same (in 2015, there were only about 2,000 more renters than homeowners). This should be surprising, considering the fact that Boulder houses two universities, and the average student does not own the home she lives in. While I was there, I watched a slow, quiet change take place; one that I doubt many of my mostly white and affluent grad school cohorts noticed. It was something I saw not from my vantage point as a grad student at the Jack Kerouac School, but as someone addicted to heroin, who would, while in Boulder, eventually become homeless, pregnant, and on methadone.

First, the natural food markets—which were more available than average grocery stores—began stocking security guards alongside their expensive, organic products. Then the city discretely installed security cameras near the Boulder Public Library, which were able to spy on Central Park—once a favorite hangout spot for the city’s small homeless population. Wayne, a local methadone patient who asked me to change his name for privacy purposes, tells me there is no longer a homeless presence at that location—or, he says, much of anywhere in Boulder. That’s not surprising, since the city passed several ordinances that essentially prohibit homelessness: They outlaw sleeping in vehicles,aggressive begging,” and public camping.

My methadone clinic used to be located just off Pearl Street, the beflowered street pictured in Nat Geo’s article.  A short while after I left the clinic in late 2012, it moved from Boulder to Longmont—Boulder’s poorer, browner neighbor to the north. It remains there, in a large, unattached building that stands near several bus lines but away from any downtown area. Wayne has been a client there since August of this year, previously attending the sister location in Denver. He was never a patient at the Boulder location, but works as an Uber driver and tells me over Facebook that the attitude toward addiction and poverty has shifted dramatically in Boulder over the past several years.

“The influx of new wealthy people from all over the country … has made people more judgmental and ignorant,” he says.

Perhaps we have known, all along, that money does in fact buy happiness.

And what of the other cities that top National Geographic’s list? Number two is Watsonville, California. Although Santa Cruz County, where Watsonville is located, hosts a heavily Hispanic and Latino population, Watsonville itself is, again, mostly white—a shift that has climbed steadily since 2010. Rent averages around the same as in Boulder. Charlottesville, Virginia, earned third-place on the measure of happiness, even after making national headlines for hosting a violent white nationalist rally. It is around 70 percent white, with a mean household income just under $90,000.

Perhaps these facts are not surprising. Perhaps we have known, all along, that money does in fact buy happiness.

When I look at the photos and blog posts from my classmates who are still in Boulder, it appears relatively unchanged. Ravishing sunsets frame wine glasses adorned by a backdrop of lush mountains. Pearl Street’s clean red bricks look as pretty as I remember against the quaint boutiques that line the street. In these photos, everyone is smiling. It’s envy-inducing, for sure.

But then I remember how, when I was in Boulder just a few years back, the photo of Pearl Street that heads the Nat Geo article could not have been taken without a street performer or beggar in sight. How the methadone clinic was pushed north, and along with it, I’m sure, all of those clients seeking refuge from addiction. The measure of Boulder’s happiness is not only healthy eating and learning new skills, but also a practiced ignorance of those who are suffering or in need.

One thing I know there is none of in Boulder is guilt.

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Culture

My Family Fled to the U.S. to Survive. We Deserve to Stay.

I grew up in Los Angeles and Seattle, but my siblings used to warn me not to reveal that we were from Mexico. They were afraid that we would be persecuted, deported, and separated from one another, so they made sure I knew about the possible repercussions of being undocumented. But that doesn’t mean I fully understood it—I couldn’t really comprehend the extent to which it would impact our lives practically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I learned what it meant, piece by piece. It meant that my uncle couldn’t volunteer as a chaperone for an elementary school field trip, because a routine background check might give Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) information it could use to deport him. It meant that when my fifth-grade teacher taught us about Social Security, I learned that our family didn’t have it. It meant introducing myself as “Caesar” rather than “Cesar,” and telling people I was born in Los Angeles. It meant working for a construction company that used my immigration status as leverage to pay me less, and demand that I work more.

One experience after another reminded me that our family could not expect safety or support in this country. We were not citizens, so we had no rights.

Nevertheless, my mother took it upon herself to ensure that we had what we needed. She’d work long hours cleaning houses, and sought out any resources she could find to provide us with school supplies, health services, and food. She could not always show physical love, because she was often absent, living out her love through the sacrifices that she made for us.

*          *          *

Like hundreds of thousands of other undocumented mothers, my mother came to the United States from Mexico in search of a better life for herself and her children. She didn’t come to this country to engage in sabotage, terrorism, or criminal activities. She was running from domestic violence, finally fed up with false promises of change. To survive, she left behind everything that she had ever known.

To survive, she left behind everything that she had ever known.

My mother had hope and resilience, stemming from a faith in God that the way things were could not possibly be the way things were meant to be. It’s what led her to make the dangerous trek into the United States. It’s what kept her going even when she and my brother got separated from me and my sister in a sudden sprint past the alambrado. It’s how she found the strength to swim out of sinking mud near the California border. It’s how she stayed calm when my brother pleaded for her to carry him, when she knew it would make them both drown. It’s how she urged him on, yelling “Tu puedes!” until they both reached the shore.

She walked for seven hours that night, without knowing the dangerous terrain or where they were heading. Eventually they came to a street with a few houses, and my mother picked one to knock on. A tall man answered, and—seeing how muddy and weary they were—he took them inside and gave them refuge for the night. The next morning, he fed them and let my mother use the phone to call my uncle and the coyote. Later that day, they reunited with me and my sister.

Before we could reach Santa Ana to meet up with my uncle, ICE detained our family and sent us back to Tijuana. But my mother tried again, and we finally made it to Santa Ana in 1994.

*          *          *

My mother has expected that I show the same effort and make the same sacrifices that come with seeking a better life. She was not going to let me take a year off between high school and college. I went to Texas Wesleyan University to study criminal justice, despite not knowing how we would pay for it—most scholarships require citizenship, so I was instantly disqualified.

I graduated in 2013, but even with DACA—which helped me work while I was an undergrad—I could not follow my desired career path. I wanted to serve as a police officer for my community—I wanted to be a homicide detective, and perhaps work for the FBI. I was denied all those possibilities. Instead, I worked for a few months in Loss Prevention for a Trader Joe’s warehouse through a temp agency.

At the same time, I was volunteering at the church I attended. Through that work, I realized that there were other ways of serving my community that many institutions in the United States were denying me. I applied to the Boston University School of Theology. I was accepted and received a full-tuition scholarship for the three-year Master of Divinity program. I graduated in May 2017, and now I serve my community in Washington state with the United Methodist Church—the same church that helped me apply for DACA half a decade ago.

*          *          *

The actions and rhetoric of the Trump administration have demonstrated that programs like DACA are not enough. There is no assurance against persecution; only the temporary illusion of safety with minimal benefits for our families and our communities.

We are more than currency. We are human beings.

In the wake of Trump’s decision to end DACA, some legislators have reintroduced the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for people like me who came to this country as children. Legislation like this must be passed if the United States wishes to fight for freedom, liberty, and justice for all. There are already plentiful economic benefits for the United States—we pay taxes and boost profits, and private businesses still find ways to exploit undocumented workers for their benefit.

But we are more than currency. We are human beings. Even the DREAM Act promises too little for too small a group. It excludes people like my mother and uncle because arbitrary and racist laws have made immigration an illegal act. We must do more.

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Media and Politics

Net Neutrality Is the Free Speech Fight of Our Generation

Last week, the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a plan to effectively end net neutrality. To help unpack what this means for regular people who use the internet, I spoke with Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation.

Rebecca Vallas: So just to kick us off, net neutrality is one of those wonky terms that doesn’t even sound like English. Help us understand—what is net neutrality?

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: I think this fight around net neutrality is the free speech fight of our generation. Net neutrality is essentially the principal that all internet traffic should be treated equally. It prevents internet service providers from charging a premium for access to internet “fast lanes” or slamming the breaks on content that poses a threat to their financial or political interests.

I like the expression “the open internet,” the internet democracy. Net neutrality keeps the internet open, free, and fair; it preserves a level playing field where good ideas can prosper no matter who or where they come from. The free, democratic internet plays an essential role in our civic dialogue. And that’s why the FCC in 2015 passed rules to protect net neutrality, reclassify the internet as a public utility, and enforce the rules of a level playing field. The Trump FCC is trying to eliminate even the most basic net neutrality protections that were put in place. These would include the ban on blocking, replacing them with a “transparency” regime enforced by the FCC. Transparency is a euphemism for doing nothing. A broadband carrier like AT&T, if it wanted, might even practice internet censorship akin to that of the Chinese state, blocking its critics and promoting its own agenda. Allowing such censorship is anathema to the internet’s and America’s founding spirit.

A free internet can amplify those who don’t have the money or power in our unequal society

There are some legal scholars who believe that by going this far in trying to overturn rules put in place under the Obama administration, the FCC may have overplayed its legal hand, and that this will go to the courts because government agencies aren’t free to abruptly reverse long-standing rules on which many have relied without a good reason. A mere change in FCC ideology isn’t enough. And I think we can talk a little bit about the activism that we’re going to see because the future of the internet is at stake on December 14, when former Verizon attorney Ajit Pai, chosen by Trump to chair the FCC, is going to force a vote on ending net neutrality.

RV: The main focus in the media since the announcement from the FCC last week has largely been on the battle between the so-called telecom titans, Comcast and AT&T, Verizon, and the internet giants, Google, Amazon, Facebook. But as you’re describing, there’s a lot more at play than who is going to win a big corporate tug of war—this is going to have real consequences for regular people who use the internet.

KVH: There is a corporatism at work here—the media monopolists in the telecom industry hate net neutrality. They’ve worked for years to overturn guarantees of an open internet because it gets in the way of profits. Now, if net neutrality is eliminated, these media monopolists will restructure how the internet works, creating information super-highways for corporate and political elites and digital dirt roads for those who can’t afford the corporate tolls. It’s fair to say that you’re witnessing a regime change where if Pai at the FCC is successful, he’s going to hand the keys to our open internet to major corporations to charge more for this tiered system. So it will, along with the tax bill—which will make our lives more unequal, more dirty, more unhealthy—you may well see a tiered system where powerful websites can pay to have their content delivered faster to consumers.

There’s another argument that’s been thrown out there, which is that the FCC chair says that he’s trying to make sure that new investment goes into the internet. He’s claiming that industry investments have gone down since 2015, the year the Obama administration last strengthened the net neutrality rules. Wrong, it’s just not the case. But let me step back and just ask, why should industry investments be the dominant measure of success in internet policy? Why is that the measure? What about improved access for students, or the emergence of innovations like streaming TV? So I think there’s a lot of skewing, a lot of false information being thrown around as the FCC tries to steamroll through changes that will impact and harm consumers, people with less access to capital, students, independent media, alternative voices, so there’s a real First Amendment free speech issue here, too.

RV: Some, including W. Kamau Bell, have pointed out that the end of net neutrality could be particularly devastating for artists and activists by effectively silencing the voices of people who aren’t already established or backed by those with power. He points out in an op-ed in The New York Times, “This fair internet, where everyone from an amateur comedian to a celebrity to a huge media company plays by the same rules, means you don’t need a lot of money or the backing of someone with power to share your content with the world.” And he names the example of Issa Rae, who started the web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” which started as a YouTube series in 2011 but has now actually become a show, “Insecure,” that’s got its third season happening on HBO. It’s hard to imagine that happening in a world that doesn’t have net neutrality.

KVH: What we’re witnessing is more than a regulatory shift. It’s more than a story that should be consigned to the business pages. This is about a societal change. And if the FCC allows this digital profiteering to define the internet, it will affect all of what you spoke of, it will affect personal communications, education, commerce, economic arrangement, our politics and democracy itself. And it is a civil rights issue in a fundamental way because it’s about whose voice is heard. The most vulnerable are usually those who have a harder time making their voices heard, and a free internet lifts up and can amplify those who don’t have the money or power in our unequal society.

What we’re witnessing is more than a regulatory shift

So this is a real fight for the kind of society we want to be, and I think that needs to be understood as we move to oppose not just the net neutrality decision. The FCC is beginning to overturn efforts to close the digital divide between wealthy and poor Americans, they’re declaring war on consumers, and in what I think is one of the most callous steps, the FCC abandoned an effort to limit the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls that sometimes force inmates’ families to pay upward of a dollar a minute to speak to their loved ones. So there is a real rollback of humanism as corporatism ascends.

This is a fire sale for humongous corporate interests, for the monopolists of the telecom world.  There are going to be protests December 7 in advance of the December 14 FCC vote targeting the offices of corporations that have opposed net neutrality such as Verizon. There are going to be protests against offices of members of Congress who have opposed net neutrality. There will be marches on the FCC both digitally and on the streets, and there are legal and legislative strategies to defend the internet and the future.

RV: The politics on this as well are somewhat baffling, because obviously this is part of a larger deregulation agenda. But it also just seems a little bit odd frankly, coming from an administration that has taken the exact opposite position on other issues related to competition. I’m thinking here specifically about the Time Warner-AT&T merger. It was literally just one day before the FCC announcement on net neutrality that the Trump justice department announced its opposition to the proposed merger.

KVH: It’s incoherent. The reality is if you’re a strong supporter of free markets, net neutrality is what allows for competition and free market in the broadband space. If you’re someone who strongly supports free speech and freedom of expression, net neutrality is what prevents companies like Comcast that own NBC from prioritizing or censoring content online. I think there is a split in the progressive community about the Trump administration’s move on the merger.

What is chilling, however, is a personal vendetta against CNN. It looks like what we’ve seen too often from this administration, a politicization of the tools of justice, privatization of justice for the sake of an administration. So there is an incoherence that is puzzling, but what is not puzzling is that the dismantling of the administrative state, the march through the institutions, the deregulatory crusade is in full throttle. And what we’re witnessing with the FCC is in sync with that. In that sense there is a coherence to this deregulation of all kinds of reforms that have brought us clean air, clean water, and a free and democratic internet.

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on December 1. It was edited for length and clarity.

 

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Safety Net

Why Have Banks Stopped Lending to Low-Income Americans?

At the end of September, the Federal Reserve released its annual collection of data gathered under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. Among other findings, the report details that the country’s three largest banks—Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase—have sharply cut back on lending to low-income people over the past few years. The three banks’ mortgages to low-income borrowers declined from 32 percent in 2010 to 15 percent in 2016.

The report also shows that in 2016, black and Hispanic borrowers had more difficulty acquiring home loans than whites. And it revealed that last year, for the first time since the 1990s, most mortgages didn’t come from banks; they came from other institutions—often less-regulated online entitites like Loan Depot or Quicken Loans. These companies, technically known as nonbank financial institutions, can be more flexible than traditional banks, but may also charge higher rates and fees.

Martin Eakes and other employees of Self-Help, the innovative North Carolina-based credit union, must be wondering if they’ve stepped back in time.

Eakes, who founded Self-Help, has spent the past few decades working to expand credit, particularly conventional mortgages, to low-income borrowers, and to publicize and eliminate hazards that could wipe out a poor family’s wealth. He and his staff recognized early on the key role that homeownership could play in allowing low-income families to move into the middle class. Those efforts are chronicled in Lending Power, a new book by Howard Covington that illustrates the organization’s rise and longtime efforts to help low-income people buy homes and establish small businesses.

In the 1980s, when Self-Help was finding its footing, the financial world had several major blind spots when it came to lending to low-income people. Above all, most banks considered low-income families, especially families of color, to be credit risks, rarely providing them with mortgages at conventional rates.

In less than a decade, Self-Help helped turned that truism on its head.

“There’d been a real struggle to figure out how to expand homeownership into that segment at the margin of sustainable credit in a way that works,” explains Jim Parrott, a fellow at the Urban Institute.

Self-Help enlisted the help of foundations and big banks to build capital, and provided individualized lending that looked beyond borrowers’ credit reports—examining instead their ability to consistently pay their rent, for example. The organization also created a reserve fund to help borrowers struggling to meet payments.

Thanks in part to Self-Help’s efforts, lending to low- and moderate-income people (LMI, in industry-speak) began to gain traction in the late 1990s. But during the housing boom of the early 2000s, low-income borrowers faced increasing threats from predatory lenders. These lenders often saddled responsible borrowers who could have qualified for conventional loans with expensive fees and add-ons—things like increased points, balloon mortgages with payments that swelled over time, and pre-payment penalties. In many cases, the loans were particularly targeted to black families. Black Americans earning annual salaries of $100,000 were more likely to receive subprime loans than whites making $30,000. Many of those folks wound up in foreclosure during the recession due to the untenable terms of their loans.

Self-Help had uncovered some of these predatory lending practices a decade earlier, eventually helping to pass groundbreaking anti-predatory legislation in North Carolina. And the organization’s spinoff group, the Center for Responsible Lending, had a major hand in arming the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which protects consumers from predatory mortgages and debt traps. [Editor’s note: Read more about the latest threats to the CFPB here].

Now that this type of predatory lending has been mostly snuffed out, advocates are dealing with another problem: Credit to low-income communities has dried up since the foreclosure epidemic. Lending standards have become significantly more stringent, with many lenders unwilling to take a risk on low-income families. “We’ve seen no significant recovery of lending to LMI neighborhoods,” explains Jason Richardson, director of research and evaluation at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, citing the recently-released Federal Reserve data.

African American homeownership is at its lowest level in more than 40 years

Banks that receive deposits from low-income neighborhoods have an obligation to make loans to those same communities. But now, it’s unclear whether the Trump administration’s regulators are adequately enforcing this. Over 98 percent of banks are currently given passing grades by regulators, and in October, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency revised its regulations to further limit the number of downgrades banks receive.

“We absolutely feel there should be more examination of what the banks are doing,” says Richardson.

Until then, however, low-income and minority families are practically back where they started. African American homeownership is at its lowest level in more than 40 years, and the gap between black and white homeowners is the largest since World War II.

Meanwhile, although much lending to low-income people has disappeared, Self-Help is continuing to issue mortgages to poor families in its network. And Parrott, at the Urban Institute, thinks the organization might still have something to teach other lenders.

“To me, the question is whether or not the lessons that Self-Help is learning are scalable and transferable into the market”—in a sustainable way, Parrott says. “Because if they are, Self-Help is a wonderful resource because it’ll help us figure out how to better serve a segment of the population that could be homeowners.”

Translation: Despite a decade of setbacks, the game is definitely not over for low-income borrowers.

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Media and Politics

A New Bill in Congress Would Make Mobile Home Loans Even More Predatory

Tomorrow, the House of Representatives will vote on a bill that would allow employees at manufactured home retailers—who sell houses often called “mobile homes” or “trailers”—to steer customers towards specific loan choices. The Senate Banking Committee will vote on a similar proposal on December 5.

It’s a wonky bill, and it’s flown under the radar so far. But—particularly given the political war being waged at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—it shouldn’t get buried. More than 1 in 10 homes in rural or small-town America were built in a factory, and they are usually owned by older, poorer Americans. Even though the average sale price for a new manufactured home is $68,000, consumers who take out a loan to buy one typically pay high interest rates and fees that can add hundreds of dollars to their monthly housing payment.

Proponents of the new legislation argue that this change will allow salespeople to help consumers find financing more quickly. However, it also creates a powerful incentive for retailers to drive consumers toward the loans that are most profitable for the business—even when there are less expensive options available for the consumer.

Carla Burr, who owns her home in Chantilly, Virginia, was surprised by the interest rate she was offered after she sold her condominium to purchase a manufactured home in 2004. She had good credit and could make a sizeable down payment—she had just netted more than $100,000 from the sale of her condo. But lenders were asking her to pay an interest rate greater than 10 percent for a 20-year mortgage, more than double what she paid on the mortgage for her previous home. “It’s as if they are treating manufactured homeowners as if we were substandard, or uneducated,” Burr said. Today, even though mortgage interest rates are generally lower than they were 13 years ago, manufactured housing consumers like Burr are still being charged high rates.

About 70 percent of mortgages for manufactured homes are already higher-priced mortgage loans Higher-priced mortgage loans have interest rates and fees (APR) above the standard rate (APOR) by 1.5 or more percentage points. , compared with only 3 percent of mortgages for site-built homes. That’s due, at least in part, to the lack of competition within the manufactured housing industry. Companies affiliated with a single large corporation, Clayton Homes, were responsible for 38 percent of manufactured housing loans in 2016 and for more than 70 percent of loans made to African American buyers in 2014. That leaves companies with little need to lower their rates to attract consumers—and that would be especially true if there was a steady stream of referrals from affiliated retail shops.

Lenders were asking her to pay more than double the interest rate she paid on her previous home

Clayton Homes is also the largest producer of manufactured homes and sells these homes through 1,600 retailers. That gives the company thousands of opportunities to solicit customers for loans offered by its mortgage lending affiliates, 21st Mortgage and Vanderbilt Mortgage, which make far more loans each year than any other lenders. They also charge consumers higher interest rates than much of their competition.

In Virginia, for instance, this company’s interest rates for higher-priced loans averaged 6.1 percentage points above a typical mortgage loan, whereas interest rates charged for similar loans by the rest of the industry in the commonwealth averaged 3.9 percentage points above a typical loan. For a Virginian taking out an average-size loan from a lender affiliated with Clayton Homes, this means they could pay about $75 more each month and about $18,000 more over the life of a 20-year loan than if they had gotten a mortgage elsewhere. Since owners of manufactured homes in Virginia earn about $40,000 each year—about half the annual income of other homeowners in the commonwealth—these additional payments can be a significant financial strain.

Interest rates aren’t the only thing on the line. The House bill under consideration would also allow lenders to include higher up-front fees, prepayment penalties, balloon payments, and hefty late fees on higher-interest loans, leaving many manufactured housing buyers with expensive loans that are difficult to pay off. Manufactured housing industry lobbyists claim that regulations preventing these practices have made it more expensive to do business and, as a result, consumers can’t get loans to buy manufactured homes. However, Center for American Progress analysis shows that 2015 loan volumes were fairly similar to the volumes before the regulation went into effect; the biggest difference is that fewer consumers received loans with exorbitant rates and risky terms. Last year, there was a modest 5 percent decrease in the number of loans originated, but lending quality remained stronger.

If Congress is serious about giving consumers more borrowing choices, more high-quality lenders need to offer mortgage loans for manufactured housing. However, by giving further advantage to today’s largest providers, these bills could derail efforts to expand financing options available for consumers. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and state housing finance agencies are taking steps to make it easier for lenders to offer mortgages for manufactured homes. For instance, both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have committed to buying more manufactured housing loans from banks, which should encourage more lending. They are also launching pilots to buy manufactured housing loans titled as chattel, which represent the majority of manufactured housing lending. Allowing the largest manufactured housing companies today to tighten their grip on consumers could put newer lenders, who do not have salespeople at retailers promoting their offerings, at a disadvantage.

Consumers of manufactured housing deserve the same rights and protections available to those buying site-built homes. And since families that live in manufactured housing are more likely to be teetering on the edge of financial stability, they are the least well-positioned to shoulder additional burdens. Congress should take further steps to expand options for these consumers, not pave the way for more abuses.

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