Anita Hill is a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. Hill is also the author of Speaking Truth to Power, in which she detailed her experience as a witness in Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. She writes and lectures widely on issues of race and gender equality.
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris's role in last week's $26 billion settlement with five of the nation's leading banks shows how critical it is for states and local governments take a stand on behalf of homeowners. Last September, according to a story that ran Monday in the New York Times, she walked away from negotiations in the multi-state process. Some of her peers accused her of grandstanding. She stood her ground and negotiated the largest share of the settlement that may rise above the amount announced last week. The money Harris negotiated is more than a mere chance to compensate people duped by the banks, it begins to restore a critical part of our national identity lost to individual and corporate greed that trumped moral and even sound economic judgment.
In Reimagining Equality, I outlined how the foreclosure epidemic threatened America's identity as a place where one comes to finds a home and builds from there a sense of belonging to a community and a nation.
Recently, in a speech to a crowd gathered at a neighborhood community center, President Obama explained why the threat to home ownership wreaks more than economic havoc.
"This housing crisis struck right at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America: our homes, the place where we invest our nest egg, place where we raise our family, the place where we plant roots in a community, the place where we build memories," Obama said.
Since October, I've visited a over a dozen cities and spoken to countless individuals who hold on cautiously to their belief in homeownership as a tenet of the American Dream. In New Orleans, people who are still recovering from the ravages of Katrina sat beside people who struggle to pay mortgages that have escalated out of control. In Detroit, I visited neighborhoods smattered with boarded up houses that stand along side occupied residences. Yet a neighborhood school, lead by one exceptionally courageous and committed principal and her dedicated teachers, flourishes. The schools and the children that pour out of those homes remind me that a new generation of children will live surrounded by a "new normal" of devastation. Will the best and brightest of them have a reason to stay to raise their children in their old neighborhoods?
Not everyone I met has a home that is underwater; some don't own homes at all. But they all have an investment in the idea that home is critical to them in finding a place in a thriving democracy.
The multi-state settlement will go far in showing that their trust in a government that will protect their chance to "plant roots in a community" is not misplaced. Yet, the agreement reached by the Attorneys General should not preclude state and local governments from pursuing banks who fleeced consumers. Those entities know all too well the devastating impact of the housing crisis. They also know that it will take more than even the billions on the table today to restore communities so that they are once again places where people can raise their families.