Pluralistic: The tax sharks are back and they're coming for your home (27 Apr 2024)

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A 19th century photo of bailiffs using a battering ram to evict debtors from a thatched cottage in Ireland. The photo has been hand-tinted and the logo for Alden Capital has been added to the tip of the battering ram. A vulture in a top hat overlooks the scene.

The tax sharks are back and they're coming for your home (permalink)

One of my weirder and more rewarding hobbies is collecting definitions of "conservativism," and one of the jewels of that collection comes from Corey Robin's must-read book The Reactionary Mind:

Robin's definition of conservativism has enormous explanatory power and I'm always finding fresh ways in which it clarifies my understand of events in the world: a conservative is someone who believes that a minority of people were born to rule, and that everyone else was born to follow their rules, and that the world is in harmony when the born rulers are in charge.

This definition unifies the otherwise very odd grab-bag of ideologies that we identify with conservativism: a Christian Dominionist believes in the rule of Christians over others; a "men's rights advocate" thinks men should rule over women; a US imperialist thinks America should rule over the world; a white nationalist thinks white people should rule over racialized people; a libertarian believes in bosses dominating workers and a Hindu nationalist believes in Hindu domination over Muslims.

These people all disagree about who should be in charge, but they all agree that some people are ordained to rule, and that any "artificial" attempt to overturn the "natural" order throws society into chaos. This is the entire basis of the panic over DEI, and the brainless reflex to blame the Francis Scott Key bridge disaster on the possibility that someone had been unjustly promoted to ship's captain due to their membership in a disfavored racial group or gender.

This definition is also useful because it cleanly cleaves progressives from conservatives. If conservatives think there's a natural order in which the few dominate the many, progressivism is a belief in pluralism and inclusion, the idea that disparate perspectives and experiences all have something to contribute to society. Progressives see a world in which only a small number of people rise to public life, rarified professions, and cultural prominence and assume that this is terrible waste of the talents and contributions of people whose accidents of birth keep them from participating in the same way.

This is why progressives are committed to class mobility, broad access to education, and active programs to bring traditionally underrepresented groups into arenas that once excluded them. The "some are born to rule, and most to be ruled over" conservative credo rejects this as not just wrong, but dangerous, the kind of thing that leads to bridges being demolished by cargo ships.

The progressive reforms from the New Deal until the Reagan revolution were a series of efforts to broaden participation in every part of society by successively broader groups of people. A movement that started with inclusive housing and education for white men and votes for white women grew to encompass universal suffrage, racial struggles for equality, workplace protections for a widening group of people, rights for people with disabilities, truth and reconciliation with indigenous people and so on.

The conservative project of the past 40 years has been to reverse this: to return the great majority of us to the status of desperate, forelock-tugging plebs who know our places. Hence the return of child labor, the tradwife movement, and of course the attacks on labor unions and voting rights:

Arguably the most potent symbol of this struggle is the fight over homes. The New Deal offered (some) working people a twofold path to prosperity: subsidized home-ownership and strong labor protections. This insulated (mostly white) workers from the two most potent threats to working peoples' lives and wellbeing: the cruel boss and the greedy landlord.

But the neoliberal era dispensed with labor rights, leaving the descendants of those lucky workers with just one tool for securing their American dream: home-ownership. As wages stagnated, your home – so essential to your ability to simply live – became your most important asset first, and a home second. So long as property values rose – and property taxes didn't – your home could be the backstop for debt-fueled consumption that filled the gap left by stagnating wages. Liquidating your family home might someday provide for your retirement, your kids' college loans and your emergency medical bills.

For conservatives who want to restore Gilded Age class rule, this was a very canny move. It pitted lucky workers with homes against their unlucky brethren – the more housing supply there was, the less your house was worth. The more protections tenants had, the less your house was worth. The more equitably municipal services (like schools) were distributed, the less your house was worth:

And now that the long game is over, they're coming for your house. It started with the foreclosure epidemic after the 2008 financial crisis, first under GW Bush, but then in earnest under Obama, who accepted the advice of his Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who insisted that homeowners should be liquidated to "foam the runways" for the crashing banks:

Then there are scams like "We Buy Ugly Houses," a nationwide mass-fraud outfit that steals houses out from under elderly, vulnerable and desperate people:

The more we lose our houses, the more single-family homes Wall Street gets to snap up and convert into slum properties, aslosh with a toxic stew of black mold, junk fees and eviction threats:

Now there's a new way for finance barons the steal our houses out from under us – or rather, a very old way that had lain dormant since the last time child labor was legal – "tax lien investing."

Across the country, counties and cities have programs that allow investment funds to buy up overdue tax-bills from homeowners in financial hardship. These "investors" are entitled to be paid the missing property taxes, and if the homeowner can't afford to make that payment, the "investor" gets to kick them out of their homes and take possession of them, for a tiny fraction of their value.

As Andrew Kahrl writes for The American Prospect, tax lien investing was common in the 19th century, until the fundamental ugliness of the business made it unattractive even to the robber barons of the day:

The "tax sharks" of Chicago and New York were deemed "too merciless" by their peers. One exec who got out of the business compared it to "picking pennies off a dead man’s eyes." The very idea of outsourcing municipal tax collection to merciless debt-hounds aroused public ire.

Today – as the conservative project to restore the "natural" order of the ruled and the ruled-over builds momentum – tax lien investing is attracting some of America's most rapacious investors – and they're making a killing. In Chicago, Alden Capital just spent a measly $1.75m to acquire the tax liens on 600 family homes in Cook County. They now get to charge escalating fees and penalties and usurious interest to those unlucky homeowners. Any homeowner that can't pay loses their home.

The first targets for tax-lien investing are the people who were the last people to benefit from the New Deal and its successors: Black and Latino families, elderly and disabled people and others who got the smallest share of America's experiment in shared prosperity are the first to lose the small slice of the American dream that they were grudgingly given.

This is the very definition of "structural racism." Redlining meant that families of color were shut out of the federal loan guarantees that benefited white workers. Rather than building intergenerational wealth, these families were forced to rent (building some other family's intergenerational wealth), and had a harder time saving for downpayments. That meant that they went into homeownership with "nontraditional" or "nonconforming" mortgages with higher interest rates and penalties, which made them more vulnerable to economic volatility, and thus more likely to fall behind on their taxes. Now that they're delinquent on their property taxes, they're in hock to a private equity fund that's charging them even more to live in their family home, and the second they fail to pay, they'll be evicted, rendered homeless and dispossessed of all the equity they built in their (former) home.

It's very on-brand for Alden Capital to be destroying the lives of Chicagoans. Alden is most notorious for buying up and destroying America's most beloved newspapers. It was Alden who bought up the Chicago Tribune, gutted its workforce, sold off its iconic downtown tower, and moved its few remaining reporters to an outer suburban, windowless, brick building "the size of a Chipotle":

Before the ghastly hotel baroness Leona Helmsley went to prison for tax evasion, she famously said, "We don't pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes." Helmsley wasn't wrong – she was just a little ahead of schedule. As Propublica's IRS Files taught us, America's 400 richest people pay less tax than you do:

When billionaires don't pay their taxes, they get to buy sports franchises. When poor people don't pay their taxes, billionaires get to steal their houses after paying the local government an insultingly small amount of money.

It's all going according to plan. We weren't meant to have houses, or job security, or retirement funds. We weren't meant to go to university, or even high school, and our kids were always supposed to be in harness at a local meat-packer or fast food kitchen, not wasting time with their high school chess club or sports team. They don't need high school: that's for the people who were born to rule. They – we – were meant to be ruled over.

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