Monday, August 20, 2007

Local Politics Meets Global Finance

Standing on the podium in the hall at First Church in Roxbury, Maria Myers introduced herself as a “proud foster mother” and said her home in Dorchester was going into foreclosure.

“I take care of teenage boys,” she explained. “If I lose my home, I will be unable to do this work any more.”

When John Patterson took the podium, he said he was afraid of losing his apartment in Roxbury, due to foreclosure on the property owner by Deutsche Bank. Other speakers at last Wednesday's meeting talked about wages below Boston’s high cost of living, street violence, and how hard it was for people with criminal records to get or keep a job. Like traders watching turmoil in financial markets, the people in Roxbury had anxieties. In the middle of economic anxiety around the world, they were looking for a better deal from Boston’s largest property owners, including one reporting “fantastic” earnings growth for the 2nd quarter of this year, The Blackstone Group.

Local advocacy groups organized the meeting so that a Blackstone Group representative would appear and answer demands, or at least make a non-appearance. Either way, the organizers would make a point. After decades of losses in manufacturing jobs (many of them unionized), more of Boston’s wealth is being generated—directly or indirectly—by corporate administrations and other service sector jobs based in commercial property. One of the largest owners of that property is The Blackstone Group. With more wealth concentrated at the top income levels, while people at the bottom lose ground, organizers argue, Blackstone should narrow the gap.

A few hours before Wednesday’s town meeting, The Blackstone Group took a step in that direction by endorsing goals of the union representing Boston janitors, SEIU, Local 615. There was support for giving janitors more full-time jobs that would include access to health insurance. There was also a condition—for the new union contracts with cleaning companies to give managers more flexibility. The current contracts expire at the end of this month.

But a number of groups working together through Community Labor United have even more demands for the Blackstone Group to help, with either money or corporate leadership. The demands cover everything from help for job-seekers with criminal records to a fund for homeowners facing foreclosure. The tenant organizing coordinator with the housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, Steve Meacham, called for a new form of “linkage” payments, a contribution of $1.00 per square foot, what he described as a “drop in the bucket compared to what they make.”

“We’re not stealing from the rich,” Meacham reasoned. “We’re getting back what was stolen from us.”

Between that statement and the income gap in Boston’s “hourglass economy” were some unconnected dots. At least during the meeting, there was no explicit connection made between the Blackstone Group’s profits and the chain of predatory lending that begins with homebuyers and mortgage brokers. And that would be one reason for the Blackstone Group to avoid discussing demands presented by groups at the meeting in Roxbury. The day after the meeting, Blackstone’s senior vice president for Global Corporate Communication, John Ford, said, “I think they’ve got the wrong idea of what we do for a living here.”

But the chain of global finance makes it more difficult to distinguish victims from exploiters, who are sometimes one and the same. Some of the difficulty lies in the virtual outsourcing of home mortgage lending from more tightly regulated banks to the more elusive—or slippery—transactions of mortgage companies. And the original loans are reconfigured in the world of asset management as securities, which provide money for more loans, good or bad. Even if none of the bad loans were enabled by Blackstone’s asset management, they could have been recycled by other companies making a living in some of the same ways. And nervous financial markets have more trouble distinguishing between bad debt and good debt that no one wants to buy.

“You got to wonder why things got so messed up,” said State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, “and they are pretty messed up right now.”

That comment in the church hall was about the not-so-effective attempt to curb predatory lending at the state level. Wilkerson argued that attempt might have been more successful had there been more attention to the heavy concentration (or, as some call it, the targeting) of sub-prime loans among people of color. In other words, the best way to close the racial gap was to put it in the spotlight and mobilize a push for change.

“If you lift the boats for black and brown people,” said Wilkerson, “the boats get lifted for everybody.”

City Councilor Sam Yoon drew on his experience of trying to get the most community benefit from development in Chinatown. And he recalled the challenge from Wilkerson to get as much of the community unified as possible.

“We have to talk about race,” Yoon said, “and how all of us unite.”

In his advice to groups in the hall, US Rep. Michael Capuano concentrated on numbers—as in voters and money.

“The people you’re talking about tonight—they’re not looking for a fight,” said Capuano. His advice: build pressure through voter turnout, and elected officials will be more likely to lean on commercial property owners at pressure points such as zoning appeals. And Capuano said what a corporate player lacked in political goodwill might be offset by concern for money.

“If you want to do business,” he said, “and if the only way to make a buck is to share a dime, you’ll do it.”

But, if politics is local, the business of asset management is global. The business can mean investing in commercial property in downtown Boston, or acquiring a company with an eye on growing demand for hotels in India. The gains from those investments can be mapped for Boston or India, but the trickle-down can be spread more widely to pension funds or individual investors. From that perspective, it becomes more difficult for even a politician to distinguish between one dot representing the global investor and another representing the woman from Dorchester who invests in the well-being of foster children.

From a global perspective, the whole meeting hall in Roxbury was just another dot on a map. Outside the hall, the grounds of First Church looked very much the way they might have appeared more than 200 years earlier. On a warm, early evening in August, the glow of sunset deepened behind the outlines of church spires and a minaret. Surrounding the dot, as far as the ear could follow, were the sounds of crickets. Instead of a perch for viewing Boston’s downtown skyline (which it is), Eliot Square seemed more like the center of a small village, and the white clapboard of Boston’s oldest frame church looked as carefully preserved as a photograph from another time.