A New Use for the “Old Harmless” Provision?

Carol A. Hand

This morning as I was reading blogs, I grew increasingly alarmed about the magnitude of the refugee crisis in Croatia and Europe. (Thank you, Ina Vukic, for your crucial and thought-provoking updates.) It made me wonder what we could do as a little city in Minnesota to reach out and offer sanctuary for at least some of the refugees. And then, other questions came to mind. What can we do for those who are homeless here now? What about all of the families here that are facing foreclosure and evictions from their homes? How can we, as a city, help them and refugees as well?

What would happen if the city decided to exercise the right of eminent domain to stop those foreclosures, claiming ownership of all of those properties and allowing families to remain where they are? Condemning those properties that are vacant to house the homeless, and using the remainder to house refugees? Is it possible? How could this be fair for banks?

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Image: Scale of (In)Justice 

I’m not an economist and I’m not sure how eminent domain rights really work, but I have helped resolve tricky problems in the past. This morning, I remembered one of those times. It’s a story I need to tell to illustrate my thinking here.

***

It was 1983. I was the recently-hired Title III Coordinator for a state department of health and social services. My job was to develop and oversee programs and policies for elders throughout the state. Funding for services, of course, was dependent on state and federal revenues and appropriations. Some years, funding increased, and some years it was reduced. Monies were distributed among the counties and tribes based on formulas that relied on the most recent US Census information. In 1983, demographic information was thirteen years out-of-date.

When the new population figures for 1980 arrived at the end of 1983, it was clear that huge shifts had occurred. Elders who retired from 1970 to 1980 had flocked to northern counties, leaving many suburban and urban areas in the southern part of the state with a significantly reduced percentage of the older population.

It would have been an easy situation to address had it also been a time of significant budget increases. New monies could simply be applied to address population growth in some counties without cutting funding for those where the percentage of the state’s elder population had declined. Unfortunately, those were the Reagan years, a mean-spirited time (from my perspective) of tax cuts for the wealthy and draconian downsizing of the social safety net for those who were poor, retired, or had disabilities.

When the northern counties heard the news, they naturally wanted all of the money they felt they deserved. Honoring that demand would mean that funding for some of the larger southern counties would need to be slashed, resulting in jobs lost and services gutted. Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, it was important for me to acknowledge that the total amount of funding for aging programs in the state had never been adequate to meet the magnitude of needs.

In my travels throughout the state, I had visited Latino and Black urban neighborhoods, farm communities, and tribal reservations. The congregate nutrition programs, senior centers, home-delivered meals and other programs and services were a lifeline for many and improved the quality of individual and community life. Some of these would be lost for the sake of mechanistic formulas that were convenient for administrators but would certainly cause suffering for those elders who would no longer be able to access necessary services.

As a staff, we discussed options. We needed to let elders in the state help us decide. We were, after all, being threatened by lawsuits from the northern counties. I proposed that we offer three options and develop a position paper that was carefully argued to encourage people to choose the option that would do the least harm. Staff agreed. It was then my job to come up with the options and draft a position paper.

There were three obvious options:

  • Continue to use the old demographic information and award any funding increases, or decreases, equitably across all counties and tribes
  • Distribute funding based solely on the new demographic information, cutting some budgets significantly and enhancing others
  • Create a new wrinkle for funding formulas in order to address current and future population shifts – a “Hold Harmless Provision”

It was fairly simple to describe the first two options. It was the third option that was the most challenging – the one we all hoped would be the public opinion winner from elders all over the state.

  • Contingent upon allocations from the state and federal governments that were at least equal to those in the current budget, all counties would continue to receive their current funding level as a base. No counties would lose funding.
  • Contingent upon significant increases in state and federal funding that exceeded the resources needed to fully fund the “under-funded” counties without taking money away from “over-funded” counties, awards for “under-funded” counties would bring them up to their new “fair share” before any remaining funds were then distributed using the existing funding formula to maintain equity.
  • Contingent upon budgets like the current one, with only moderate funding increases, a hold-harmless provision would go into effect. Budgets for technically “over-funded” counties would not be reduced, but they wouldn’t receive any additional funding until inequities were resolved. All new monies would be awarded to “under-funded” counties until they received their “fair share,” at which point, new money would be awarded based on the existing formula.
  • In the event of future funding decreases, the state would need to meet with citizens throughout the state to decide how to proceed.

We discussed and tweaked draft after draft of the position paper. Finally, we agreed it was ready for the department secretary’s signature. Then, thousands of copies were printed for scheduled public hearings around the state. I was ecstatic that we had something we could all be proud of – it just might work!

I was on my way to the first public hearing in the state capitol city, only a few blocks away from my office. I was dressed in a tailored suit and high-heeled shoes (professional, you know), with a huge stack of position papers blocking my view as I hurried along. As I stepped off the curb to cross the street to the building where the hearing was being held, one of my heels caught in a crack. The papers and I went flying. Luckily, no cars were speeding by at the time. I looked down and saw my torn stockings and bloody knee, but I had a few moments to clean up. Then, I started collecting the papers. It was then that I noticed the typo!

How could I have missed this after editing this paper so many times? How could everyone have missed this! There it was, in bold capital letters at the top of option three – instead of the “Hold Harmless Provision” it said “OLD HARMLESS POSITION.” I forgot my bleeding knee and my embarrassment over falling. I was oblivious to the pain beginning in my sprained and tendon-damaged ankle.

My face flushed red, my heart started fluttering. But I picked up the papers and hurried across the street. I stopped in the restroom to discard my torn stockings and wash off my bloody knee, glad I wore long skits in those days, and walked into the room where the hearing would be held.

In a split second, as I piled the papers on the front table, I realized it would be ok. I really never could have planned this. Comic humor. That was really what sold the provision to elders throughout the state and prevented lawsuits. Everyone could laugh at the state (me), and really, the ‘old harmless provision was a funny typo for the state bureau on aging to miss.

***

What does this memory have to do with providing shelter for refugees? This morning, I asked myself what banks deserve in terms of recompense for foreclosed houses. I know from paying off my own mortgages, even with lower interest rates, that banks had earned far more in interest than the fair market value of my homes by the time I sold them.

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Image: Scales of Justice 

It occurred to me that cities could create a “hold harmless provision” for foreclosed homes they seized from banks by exercising their power of eminent domain. Banks would be able to keep the excess interest of the mortgagees who had paid more than the market values of their homes already. But the city would agree to pay banks only the difference between the interest already paid and the fair market value for those mortgagees who hadn’t yet reached that threshold.

I have no idea if this would work economically or politically. But I really think it could. I think it’s fair and socially just. I’d love to hear from those who know more about how to make this happen on a local level throughout the nation.

Information about Cities Using Eminent Domain:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/business/more-cities-consider-eminent-domain-to-halt-foreclosures.html

http://www.innovations.harvard.edu/more-cities-consider-using-eminent-domain-halt-foreclosures

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/business/more-cities-consider-eminent-domain-to-halt-foreclosures.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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15 thoughts on “A New Use for the “Old Harmless” Provision?”

    1. That is the pivotal question, Allan. I was hoping that sharing it today would be a start. I don’t have the political connections or expertise to be taken seriously. I’m hoping that someone who does have the power thinks that the idea has merit and will take the next steps.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Very insightful, Carol! 🙂 Was along similar lines re:housing, thinking on economic terms. There is need to avoid the current situation of countries pouring taxpayers’ billions into shelters or transit zones, while keeping refugees segregated and unemployed for years. To reduce the anguish of lost years and the depletion of treasuries. For a virtuous self funding cycle, the key is meaningful employment pronto. With employment and direction, what follows is self sustenance, giving back to the community and hope for a better future. My two cents, open for critique. 🙂

    Employment, self sustenance and giving back . In absence of direct hire/uptake through the private sector, refugees and homeless can contribute to projects of self sustenance, help other homeless or be involved in projects of public character, where appropriate. E.g. building and maintaining new efficient low cost but good quality housing (for sale or use), new public infrastructure and industries (e.g. roads, railways, even installing greentech etc), tending to public grounds / gardens, serving in communal cookhouses/ kitchens, as in-house educators/facilitators, production of goods etc.

    With income, a portion of wages can be set aside for the gradual recovery of initial seed funding, leaving the rest for savings or discretionary consumption. Finally, if expropriation of private property to provide initial housing requires too much upfront cash, or prove inequitable, direct rental at certain given rates can be considered instead; since both means (income) and excess capacity (vacancies) are now present.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Crucial insights about the need for more permanent solutions to the situation of refugee camps, Cicorm. Segregation and isolation are not humane long-range responses and do little to rebuild and extend a sense of belonging and community.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So proud to be a part of this article, Carol – thank you. Regarding your idea I am no economist, either, but I do know the society needs as many ideas as possible to get people out of the rut and slavery to banks and relative poverty in many cases. The more ideas there are the more chances there are for a workable solution. So keep on keeping on – innovative positive ideas are always on the bright side of humanity

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eminent domain, I fear, could tie municipalities up in court and banks have deep pockets. But I think cities can claim a property that has become a public nuisance (vacant building that’s deteriorating, site of drug sales and use, etc). I believe they’ve done that in Detroit and Baltimore. Owners had to rehab the building or forfeit it. I think after the 2008 crash, banks were so evil, foreclosing on properties they had no expectation of being able to sell. Since then, the homes in the more “desirable” neighborhoods have sold or been torn down so the lots could be rebuilt on and it’s mostly in blighted neighborhoods that vacant houses remain. But just imagine if a municipality claimed whole blighted blocks and refugees and families could move in. It would revitalize whole neighborhoods. Refugees would start small businesses — just as they’ve shown they can under the extreme conditions of the refugee camps. Service centers could be located right in the neighborhood. But I’m afraid your readers (like me) lack the platform and connections to make this happen, but if anyone knows of and can identify blighted properties, we can pressure local officials to take possession of such houses. One at a time. One block at a time. Whenever it’s done and there’s media attention, the idea spreads, at least a little. It is sickening that in this country we have such excess and such waste. Vacant homes while people sleep under bridges. Don’t get me started.

    And really, Carol, what I learned most from your post? I could just see myself with a pen frantically trying to add an H to each page. Instead, you turned an error to an advantage through humor. Something I will always remember. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great ideas, Diane. My neighbor suggested that I call the Mayor and request a meeting to discuss possibilities. I’ll add your ideas to the brief letter I plan to write to the Mayor in any case. It’s best to begin local and small 🙂

      Yes, the case of the missing “H.” It was only missing in the header for the description of the “hold harmless” option (but in bold caps), making it all the more obvious in some respects. I’m grateful for the flash of inspiration before the first public hearing – in a region of the state that stood to benefit from this option. We were able to get our comedy routine better developed for the hearing we held in regions that were more likely to be opposed…

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  4. Carol, I have no connections but I will say, your course is showing in the quality of your blogs. This is a powerful, interesting, and entertaining piece. And I always believe that big ideas should go to big people. You find the number for Elizabeth Warren and ask for the name of her staff assistant for ideas from citizens not in her district. Do the same for any progressive Minnesota politicians, and then send it to someone in Bernie Sanders campaign – and others if you like. Know you’re super busy and this will take time – but I think it’s a genius idea and should be put before those who say they work to serve the public. Just send a short intro letter and the blog as it is. You could probably find ways to send on-line, you just need to get to someone who has a direct connection to the “big” person.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent ideas, Skywalker. Thank you!

      One of my neighbors reads my blog. She came over today when I was working outside to suggest that I set up a meeting with the city Mayor. As I mentioned to Diane and Stuart, I will be working on a brief outline that I can send beforehand.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It probably makes more sense for cities to intervene and stop the foreclosures than allowing banks to keep the homes vacant. Once they’re vacant, they’re subject to vandalism and quickly lose their value, as do all the homes around them.

    San Diego sued Bank of America for destroying its neighborhoods through mass foreclosures: http://dealbook.nytimes.com//2008/07/24/san-diego-sues-bank-of-america-over-foreclosures/

    And for awhile Detroit was paying people to take over abandoned homes: http://www.businessinsider.com.au/abandoned-houses-detroit-2011-2#-1

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for sharing important examples of approaches used by other cities, Stuart. As I mentioned to Diane, I’ll be writing a letter to the City Mayor to outline suggestions for ways the city could help struggling families, those already homeless, and possibly refugees.

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