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UPDATE: Mary Smith’s Battle to Keep Her Home Shows Labels are Not Simple

Rochester, NY (February 22, 2013) -- Are corporations uncaring and immune to public concern? Are activists ideologically rigid and unable to compromise? Are Republicans uncaring when it comes to the little guy and Democrats always on their side? Typical answers to all these questions would be “yes” -- but in the case of Mary Smith and her battle to keep her house, that answer would be wrong every time. Read this update to learn the latest twists and turns in one woman’s saga to stay in the home and neighborhood she loves. 

First, and most important, things are looking better for Mary Smith. The Rochester resident of Cutler Street, the Vice Chair of her block club, has been promised by American Tax Funding (ATF) that her home will not be auctioned on February 26th. Readers may recall that ATF is the corporation that owns the tax liens on Mrs. Smith’s home and that had previously committed to auctioning off her home in order to settle her tax bill. However, that auction has been called off in order to provide a 30 day period for Mrs. Smith and her attorneys to negotiate a repayment agreement with ATF. If such a deal can be struck, ATF will receive the funds to which they are entitled and Mrs. Smith will continue to live in -- and own -- her home of over 30 years.

[BACKGROUND on Mary Smith and ATF: Is This Good Housing Policy?]

When a final agreement has been reached, perhaps it will be appropriate to more thoroughly document the many ways that several people have helped Mary stay in her home. Such a history is better written by people much closer to the story than this author. 

What is intriguing at this point of the narrative, is that traditional assumptions and typical labels or stereotypes would profoundly mislead observers as to how a positive outcome may ultimately emerge. It has not followed the traditional narrative.

Typical incentives, predictable behaviors
Some of this story has followed a traditional arc: the City of Rochester has been contracting with American Tax Funding over the objections of progressive activists who feared that a for-profit corporation would betray the interests of residents in favor of profit. In agreeing to the contractual relationship, members of City Council raised this objection, but they were ultimately persuaded that residents would benefit for two reasons: one, the city would save money by collecting a portion of back taxes relatively quickly (at a discount, with ATF assuming the risk of collecting the balance); two, ATF would actually have some greater latitude to negotiate with residents because the city’s abilities to do so are constrained by law.

This is the typical storyline: Council tries to balance multiple interests -- city finances, housing stock, neighborhood stability and residents’ rights -- while advocates concentrated on a more focused set of interests: residents and their neighborhoods. In this disagreement, Council’s position won out and tax liens began to be sold to ATF on a periodic basis.

Not surprisingly, what followed was also part of the expected narrative. Mary Smith fell behind on her tax bill, the city charged interest on the outstanding balance and those balances grew. The lien was ultimately sold to ATF and, according to Mrs. Smith, there has been an extended period of time where her efforts to negotiate with ATF were met with silence.

This is what the opponents of the tax lien sales predicted would occur. The narrative came true just as they said it would.

But that is when the typical narrative changed -- and those changes may give residents some hope that corporations, politicians and regular folks actually can work together to produce just outcomes.

[Wikipedia on American Tax Funding]

No labels?
A national organization called “no labels” has been trying to gain traction in the political world arguing that only by dropping traditional labels can policymakers make room for compromise. Whether this is a practical or desirable idea at the national level, it appears to have emerged organically, in some small measure, in this particular case.

Consider ATF. The Jupiter, FL-based company is a for-profit corporation that, according to some, would put profits over people. And yet, when Mary Smith and some of her supporters from Take Back the Land delivered a letter to ATF requesting an opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement to her situation, ATF reconsidered its position. Perhaps motivated by a concern about mounting negative publicity, perhaps moved to reconsider by the requests of community leaders or perhaps due to a genuine change of heart regarding the particulars of this case, ATF has engaged in a genuine, constructive dialogue. For that, the company should be applauded for doing the right thing. Indeed, Mary Smith and her supporters acknowledge that ATF has taken concrete, sincere actions that give them optimism about a positive outcome.

And consider those advocates, the progressive activists that warned that things like this would happen. Rather than paint ATF as the enemy, Take Back the Land and others have instead attempted to exert public pressure to positively support Mrs. Smith. Those passionate for justice are often criticized for being too ideological, too focused on abstract, high ideals rather than the real-world plight of the individuals they purport to defend. To be sure, Take Back the Land has made clear its opposition to tax lien sales and to the policies of ATF and other corporations that have negatively affected residents. But Take Back the Land has focused its energies on keeping Mary Smith in her home. In doing so, they show that you can fight for justice, win real battles for real people and continue to maintain your principles.

Finally, consider how typical political labels fell away in this story. In addition to several residents, present at a meeting to support Mary Smith were Republican County Legislator Tony Micciche, Democratic School Board Commissioner Mary Adams, Green Party Mayoral candidate Alex White and former Green Party Assembly candidate Drew Langdon. It is safe to assume that there are a number of issues on which these four political actors disagree. But they came together at this meeting because they all shared a belief that in this case, justice demanded that people speak out for Mary Smith. In fact, County Legislator Micciche (whose district includes part of the city but does not extend to the area in which Mrs. Smith lives), personally talked to an ATF executive about Mrs. Smith’s case and reported to the group that ATF was prepared to work with her to keep her in her home and to resolve the outstanding debt.

One could look at all of these actions through a cynical lens: perhaps ATF is making a simple business decision -- more money will be lost through bad press than by simply settling this one case; perhaps the pragmatic approach of Mary Smith’s supporters is merely a temporary tactic; perhaps the presence of politicians was guided in part by an eye on upcoming elections.

Alternatively, one could grant all of these actors the benefit of the doubt. Have we become too jaded to believe that sometimes people can come together and find ways to overcome their differences in order to do what is right?

This story is not yet over, but all indications are that it is headed to a happy resolution. Only the people involved know what is in their hearts, what motivated the actions that brought about this encouraging state. But outside observers should take note: there may yet be some benefit in withholding assumptions about others, in toning down the rhetoric and in believing that common ground can be found.

Perhaps the next round of negotiations regarding the federal budget should be held here in Rochester, in Mary Smith’s house. Word on the street is she serves up a pretty mean hot dog.


Is This Good Housing Policy?

Will there be a happy ending?
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