SAN FRANCISCO – The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Popular Democracy today filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to compel the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to provide details about the agency's relationship with the financial industry and its efforts to block municipalities from using eminent domain to prevent foreclosures.
Banks have foreclosed on millions of homes, and vast numbers of homeowners remain at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure because their mortgages are “underwater,” meaning homeowners owe more than their properties are now worth. Communities with large African-American and Latino populations such as Richmond, Calif., and Irvington, N.J., have been particularly hard hit.
“For years, communities of color across the nation were targeted by banks peddling subprime toxic mortgages, greatly contributing to the current foreclosure crisis,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “Now communities are responding by considering novel approaches to help save their neighborhoods. Municipalities should be able to consider all of their options.”
Some municipalities are exploring eminent domain as a tool that could help homeowners remain in their homes, bolster neighborhoods and maintain property values for all homeowners.
"If eminent domain can be used in blighted neighborhoods to seize property that will be turned over to private developers, then eminent domain should also be available to help homeowners stay in their homes and to stabilize neighborhoods," said Rachel Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.
Richmond, for example, has offered to purchase securitized underwater mortgages so it can re-issue new mortgages for the homeowners on terms that reflect the current value of their homes. If the owners of the securities refuse to sell at fair market prices, the city proposes to use eminent domain to buy them.
The FHFA has responded by threatening legal action against Richmond or any other city that uses eminent domain to reduce mortgage principals and by threatening to deny credit to people seeking mortgages in those communities. In October, community groups filed a FOIA request seeking information about the nature and substance of the FHFA's exchanges with the financial industry on this issue. The agency never responded, leading the groups to file suit.
"The FHFA has taken an aggressive stance on this issue in a way that has harmed minority communities. The public deserves to know why," said Linda Lye, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. The complaint, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, et al. v. Federal Housing Finance Agency, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. It was brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of New Jersey, and the Center for Popular Democracy on behalf of a number of community groups across the country.
“Communities are trying to get back on their feet after one of the country's most devastating economic recessions," said Ady Barkan, staff attorney with the Center for Popular Democracy. "Struggling families need options, not threats. As cities explore solutions that can work for them, the FHFA should be encouraging programs to end the foreclosure crisis, reduce debt, and rebuild our economy, not clamping down on them. And it should be transparent with the American people about its relationship with the financial industry."
Photo courtesy of Mario C. Russell.
Newark, NJ – The Newark Council voted to move forward with with establishing a plan for local principal reduction that could include the use of eminent domain to purchase a targeted set of toxic mortgages from banks that are unwilling to work with homeowners to avoid foreclosures. So far Richmond, CA has approved such a plan and dozens of other cities across the country, including Irvington, NJ, are either considering similar actions or moving forward with concrete plans.
Newark’s unanimous vote signals the city’s commitment to relief for homeowners who have, so far, seen little recompense from the banks or the federal government. Newark joins Irvington, NJ; Yonkers, NY; Seattle, WA; Richmond, CA and other cities around the nation in exploring local principal reduction and potentially eminent domain to help families in foreclosure.
“Today’s vote paves the way for the City of Newark to begin the work of establishing a program to fight foreclosures and hold banks accountable,” said Trina Scordo, executive director of NJ Communities United. “The fact that it was a unanimous vote sends a clear signal to banks and to homeowners that the City Council is taking this issue very seriously.”
The foreclosure crisis has hit Newark particularly hard. According to a report released last April by NJ Communities United, foreclosures have cost the city an estimated $56 million to cover the costs associated with homes that have been abandoned and sit vacant as a result of foreclosures. There have been nearly 7,000 foreclosures in Newark since the housing bubble burst in 2008.
"For years, communities of color across the nation and in New Jersey were targeted by banks peddling subprime toxic mortgages, greatly contributing to the current foreclosure crisis," said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "Now communities are responding by considering novel approaches to help save their neighborhoods. Newark has the right to consider all of its option, including eminent domain, to help homeowners stay in their homes and to stabilize neighborhoods."
“The fact that we, as a City Council, now have to consider this approach speaks volumes about the uncaring tone-deafness of the banks,” said Councilman Darrin Sharif. “It’s our job to protect the residents of Newark, but it’s a sad day that we have to do so because Wall Street and the ‘too big to fail’ banks are acting out of concern for their bottom line rather than the interests of homeowners and the larger economy.”
“I hear from homeowners almost every day of the week about this issue,” said Councilman Ras Baraka. “They feel bullied by the banks. They feel threatened by the banks. They are worried sick that their lenders are going to take away their homes and everything they’ve worked so hard in their lives to achieve. I’m giving my word to the residents of Newark that I will do everything in my power to fight to keep families in their homes.”
An eminent domain program to fight foreclosures will need to be developed by the city, but the unanimous vote from the Newark City Council paves the way for the legal research and policy analysis required to formulate an ordinance.
Photo courtesy of Mario C. Russell.
NEWARK – A Superior Court Judge in Essex County issued an order temporarily quashing subpoenas issued by the Montclair Board of Education regarding an anonymous online poster represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ). In addition, the judge ordered that the board of education may not issue any additional subpoenas seeking the poster’s identity until the judge makes a decision on whether to permanently quash the subpoenas.Another hearing on the issue is scheduled for January 9.
The ACLU-NJ filed a complaint on Dec. 3 and requested a court order to quash a subpoena the Montclair Board of Education issued to Google to learn the identity of an online poster who has criticized the district. The ACLU-NJ learned through a public records request that the district has also issued a subpoena to the popular community news site, BaristaKids, seeking the identity of its client and other anonymous critics.
The subpoenas were issued after a copies of assessment exams were discovered to be posted to a public website days before they were to be given to students. The tests have been the subject of intense debate in Montclair.
The ACLU-NJ is representing one of the anonymous posters, who uses the user name, “Assessmentgate,” who has denied having any involvement with the security breach. The Montclair Board of Education issued a subpoena to Google on Nov. 7 seeking identity of “Assessmentgate,” who uses a Gmail address.
“They have no justification for believing our client is responsible for the security breach, other than the fact that our client has been vocally critical of assessment exams,” said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director for the ACLU-NJ. “Speculation and unsubstantiated beliefs can’t outweigh a person’s right to speak anonymously. Regardless of where you stand on the assessment exams, we should all respect the constitutional right to free speech.”
The ACLU-NJ is asking the Essex County Superior Court to block the Google subpoena and to stop the district from issuing subpoenas that seek to uncover “Assessmentgate’s” identity. The ACLU-NJ argues the subpoenas are unconstitutional because the board of education does not have the legal authority to issue subpoenas unless it is conducting a hearing regarding a school law dispute. It further argues that the subpoenas violate the well-established right to anonymous speech and to privacy.
On Thursday, Dec. 5, the ACLU-NJ will appear before the Honorable Thomas R. Vena of the Essex County Superior Court to argue that while its request to quash the subpoena is pending, that all subpoenas issued by the school board seeking identifying information about its client be temporarily quashed and that the school board be ordered not to issue additional subpoenas about its client’s identity.
On Nov. 1, the Montclair Board of Education adopted a resolution authorizing an investigation and hearings into the security breach. The resolution called for an investigation into leaked exams and into other “incidents of conduct contrary to the board’s best interest.” One week later, it sent the subpoena to Google for information about “Assessmentgate,” who has posted critical comments about the district on the community website Montclair Patch and created Facebook and Twitter accounts using a Gmail address. These accounts were created before the ACLU-NJ’s client knew about leaked exams.
“The Board of Education and Superintendent have shown they will stop at nothing to silence dissent by any means necessary, including ignoring citizens’ rights to free speech,” said “Assessmentgate,” the ACLU-NJ client. “If we can’t trust them to operate honestly and to abide by the law, how can we trust them to do what’s best for our district and our children’s education?”
The Montclair Board of Education also issued a subpoena to the editor-in-chief of BaristaKids, seeking the identities, phone numbers and email addresses of “Assessmentgate” and three other posters who have been critical of the district.
“The Board of Education has clearly overstepped its boundaries,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. “The board cannot legally issue subpoenas as part of a fishing expedition and target people who have simply been critical of its policies. The use of a pseudonym to engage in political debate is part of a rich historical tradition, and the Constitution protects the rights of our client in this case.”
The hearing seeking a temporary order is scheduled to be held on Thursday, Dec. 5, at 9:00 a.m. in courtroom 404 of the Essex County Historic Courthouse. The case is captioned Assessmentgate v. Montclair Board of Education, Docket No. L-9391-13.
ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer issues the following statement in light of Gov. Chris Christie’s announcement earlier today regarding tuition equality in New Jersey:
"The Governor’s statements today make clear that it’s past time for Governor Christie to come to the table and meet with Dreamers and advocates to ensure the strongest possible tuition equality bill is passed and signed this session. There remain many fundamental principles of agreement, and a few key differences to work through. It is important that New Jersey not make public policy decisions based on exceptions to the rule. We urge the Governor to focus on the immediate needs of New Jersey communities and to resist rejecting a critical policy reform that would help thousands of New Jerseyans based on the remote chance that the New Jersey Dream Act could potentially be misapplied."
For Thanksgiving, we want to share with you our gratitude for a few New Jersey public servants who have proved to be champions of civil liberties this year.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson and the NJ Supreme Court
In September, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson made history with a decision declaring civil unions unconstitutional. Just a few weeks later, the NJ Supreme Court unanimously rejected Gov. Chris Christie's request to delay marriage equality. A few hours after the first marriages began at midnight on Oct. 21, Gov. Christie dropped his appeal. Judge Jacobson and the NJ Supreme Court – and, above all, the tireless advocates, especially Lambda Legal, Garden State Equality, and all of our partners in NJ United for Marriage – cleared the way for NJ to become the 14th state to recognize marriage equality.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and State Senators Teresa Ruiz, Nellie Pou and Sandra Cunningham, primary sponsors of the NJ Senate's Tuition Equality Act
After years of community and student activism, tremendous credit goes to these legislators for leading the charge for tuition equality in the NJ Senate. If enacted, the Tuition Equality Act (S2479) will allow undocumented NJ high school students who meet certain requirements to qualify for in-state tuition and financial aid opportunities. Gov. Christie announced support for tuition equality on the campaign trail, but then backtracked, saying the Senate's version of the bill "goes too far." We will keep pushing to end discrimination in access to higher education in NJ this year.
Senator Cory Booker and Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio
Just before Cory Booker left Newark to become the state's newest U.S. Senator, he and Police Director Samuel DeMaio instituted two measures to increase safety and protect civil liberties. First, the Newark Police Department (NPD) now publishes data about its use of "stop-and-frisk" tactics each month. Second, the NPD stopped honoring "ICE holds" – warrantless requests from federal immigration authorities to hold people in custody. These new policies increase accountability, transparency, and public safety.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop
Mayor Fulop signed a city ordinance requiring certain Jersey City businesses to give paid sick leave to employees, the first such policy in NJ. The ACLU-NJ believes that a person can only fully exercise their rights when basic needs are met. This policy helps make Jersey City a place where civil liberties can thrive.
These are only a few of the NJ officials who have stood out this year for their commitment to civil liberties. Do you know a public official who has shown outstanding commitment to civil liberties in 2013? Share them on the ACLU-NJ's Facebook page.
Above all, we're grateful for you this Thanksgiving and every day. Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the ACLU of New Jersey!
IRVINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey joined Irvington Township officials on Nov. 16 to support the municipality’s right to use eminent domain to save blighted communities that have been distressed by the foreclosure crisis.
The township is proposing to use its power of eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages – not homes – and renegotiate a new mortgage that reflects the depressed values of homes. Homeowners will not lose their homes under this plan.
Irvington will be the second municipality in the country to adopt this strategy. The City of Richmond, Calif. adopted it earlier this year.
“For years New Jerseyans living in low income communities of color were targeted by banks peddling sub-prime mortgages, resulting in a foreclosure crisis in our state,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. “Irvington, and every municipality in New Jersey, has a legal right to do everything in its power to dig its residents out of this crisis, including using the power of eminent domain to protect the public good and to seize toxic mortgages that brought our state and nation into this crisis in the first place.”
Photo courtesy of Mario C. Russell.
LAWRENCEVILLE – Rider University’s Law and Justice Program honored ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer on Oct. 29 for his contributions to expanding and defending civil liberties. The award is given annually to a person or organization who Rider believes exemplifies the values and qualities the school would like students to emulate as they pursue careers in law-related fields.
Previous honorees include the Honorable Deborah T. Poritz, former chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, Amnesty International USA and Patrick Budd, executive director of New Jersey Legal Services.
“I am honored to receive this distinguished award,” said Ofer. “New Jersey is a fertile battleground for a number of pressing civil rights issues and I am thrilled to play a role in moving freedom forward for all residents in the Garden State.”
Ofer delivered the 18th annual Distinguished Contributions to Law & Justice Award Lecture today at Rider University. The title of the lecture was, “50 Years After the Dream: The Struggle for Equality Continues.”
Ofer joined the ACLU of New Jersey in February. Under his leadership, the ACLU-NJ was one of the founding organizations of the coalition, New Jersey United for Marriage, which fought to bring marriage equality to New Jersey. The ACLU-NJ has also successfully advocated for increased transparency in stop-and-frisk practices by the Newark Police Department, and for greater protections of immigrants’ rights in Newark.
Before joining the ACLU-NJ, he was the director of advocacy for the New York Civil Liberties Union, where he led successful campaigns in areas such as police accountability, racial justice and students’ rights. In 2004, the New York City Council honored Ofer for his outstanding service to the city.
Ofer graduated from Fordham University School of Law and the State University of New York at Buffalo. He began his legal career as a Skadden Fellow and staff attorney representing domestic violence victims. From 2010-2012, he was an adjunct professor at New York Law School. In 2007, he received the “Distinguished Graduate Award” from Fordham Law School.
Harriet Bernstein’s and Luisa Paster’s short walk down the aisle on Friday, Oct. 25, 2013, took six years to happen.
The couple was in Paris when they heard the news that New Jersey would start recognizing same-sex marriages. They had planned to have a wedding ceremony in New York when they returned home from their trip, but they quickly changed their venue to Ocean Grove, the place they have made their home.
“This isn’t just us getting married,” said Luisa. “It’s a community joy.”
Jeanne LoCicero, the deputy legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey and one of the lawyers who represented them in a civil rights case, is an ordained certified celebrant and officiated the ceremony before a room full of longtime friends at the Starving Artist Café in Ocean Grove.
Both cried as they exchanged vows.
“I fell in love with you the weekend we met in the Poconos, when you made snow angels in the snow and during our cross country ski adventure,” Harriet said. “I love you still, my dearest friend.”
“All along this road, my admiration and respect for you has grown and my love for you has flourished,” Luisa said.
Harriet and Luisa met at a retreat in the Poconos. Their love was the easy part. Joining together legally would prove much harder, they discovered.
In 2007, shortly after the state passed the civil unions law, Harriet and Luisa booked the Ocean Grove Pavilion for their ceremony. They put down their deposit in-person without incident, but days later, they learned that the facility would not have them. Even though the pavilion’s owners advertised the facility as available to members of the public, it would not allow a same-sex couple to have a civil union there.
The ACLU of New Jersey took on their case. As a result, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights issued a finding that the owners of the pavilion, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, had discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation. The wave of support for Harriet and Luisa and for Ocean Grove’s vibrant LGBT community in Ocean Grove turned into Ocean Grove United, a group dedicated to building respect among all of the diverse members of the beach-front town.
During the summer of 2013, Ocean Grove United brought the community together even closer. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association needed funding to rebuild the pavilion after Hurricane Sandy, and Ocean Grove United – headed by Harriet and Luisa – stepped up to help. The groups held a fundraiser together, and Ocean Grove United invited members of the Camp Meeting Association to hear gay teenagers discuss bullying to build mutual understanding and good will.
On Oct. 25, friends of Harriet and Luisa cheered as the couple sliced through a two-tier chocolate cake baked by Confections of a Rock$tar in Asbury Park.
“You’ve gone through a civil union and now you have marriage in New Jersey!” said Nancy Larson in her toast to the couple.
In response to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Oct. 21 announcement that his administration will drop its legal challenge in the state Supreme Court against same-sex marriages, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer makes the following statement:
"Governor Christie's decision to drop his appeal in the marriage equality case is an unexpected but joyous development for the gay and lesbian couples who tied the knot at the stroke of midnight today and to the many more who will follow this week.
"The governor made the right call to step aside and allow loving and committed couples to marry after Friday's unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court decision and as it became clear that the legislature had the votes to override his veto of the marriage equality bill. After so many years of hard work, today begins a new era for equality in the state of New Jersey.
"We congratulate our partners Lambda Legal and Garden State Equality for their victory in this tremendous legal battle."
NEWARK – The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to proceed with same-sex marriages on Oct. 21. The state of New Jersey asked to delay the weddings until the marriage equality case Garden State Equality v. Dow proceeded through the appeals process.
The state is appealing a decision by Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson, who ruled on Sept. 27 that civil unions are unconstitutional and that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry starting Oct. 21. The New Jersey Supreme Court will hear the case in January.
The following is a statement from ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
Next Monday will be a historic day for New Jersey. The Supreme Court has recognized what we all know – that marriage equality is the only path forward for New Jersey. Civil unions prevent loving and committed same-sex couples from being treated equally. They never have been and never will be equal to marriage.
While today’s ruling brings us another step closer in the legal battle to win marriage equality, the fight is far from over. Yes, couples can get married starting on Monday, but this legal battle will take months to be resolved, with no clear certainty until some point next year. Gay and lesbian couples should not have to ring in another year with their futures hanging in limbo. The legislature can end this legal limbo by acting immediately to bring marriage equality to all loving and committed couples in New Jersey. In the past few weeks alone, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have voiced their support for marriage equality. Momentum is on our side, and today’s court ruling should only bolster the confidence of pro-marriage lawmakers that they are on the right side of history.
It is time for New Jersey to join its neighbors in the northeast and be a leader in this movement for basic rights and freedoms.